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Vol. V No. 8   ·   
05 October 2001  
 

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Through a lens darkly
Film study shows roles favor older men, stereotype women

By Hope Green

Quick: name five male film stars over age 50 still making box-office hits. Easy, right? Think Pacino, Nicholson, Hopkins, Connery, and Redford. Now name five current female stars over 50. Stumped? You're not alone. Two BU researchers have been studying this discrepancy for several years.

 
  Marie Dressler (right) with Greta Garbo in Anna Christie(1930). Dressler had a supporting role in the film as Marthy, a waterfront tramp. That same year, audiences saw her Oscar-winning performance in Min and Bill, and she soon rivaled Garbo in popularity.
 

Elizabeth Markson, acting director of BU's Gerontology Center, and research associate Carol Taylor are working on their third in a series of studies on older Hollywood actors and actresses. The most recent study, published in the March 2000 issue of the British journal Ageing and Society and entitled "The Mirror Has Two Faces," examines typical screen roles for older men and women. They identify 3,038 films produced between 1929 and 1995 in which actors and actresses, nominated at least once during their lifetimes for an Oscar, appeared at the age of 60 or older. While roles for women offscreen changed enormously during those decades, their cinematic portrayals stayed the same: wives, mothers, widows, lonely spinsters, and rich, domineering dowagers.

"I think what was interesting in particular about films of the 1930s is you have older women in relatively powerful roles," says Markson, a MED research professor and professor of sociomedical sciences and community medicine, and adjunct professor in the CAS sociology department. "This disappears through the decades. One would anticipate, given the women's movement and the strides women have made, that there would be more serious roles for older women and that they would be shown in more diverse circumstances, but unfortunately that's not the case."

One standout among older actresses during the Great Depression was Marie Dressler, who in her early 60s won an Oscar for her leading role as a tough waterfront hotel owner in Min and Bill (1930). At the time she was a bigger box-office attraction than all the svelte and smooth-complected bombshells of her day, including Greta Garbo and Jean Harlow.
Another actress who had significant film roles later in life was Dame May Whitty. American audiences loved her in Alfred Hitchcock's British-made mystery The Lady Vanishes (1938), in which she plays a dowdy governess who doubles as a spy for the British Foreign Service.

Markson suspects that the decline of strong-female portrayals is part of a backlash against women as they have made a place for themselves in formerly male-dominated professions. Movies came to reflect this resentment, she says, with storylines where powerful women are punished.
By contrast, older men continue to be cast as powerful figures, Markson says, with active roles such as generals, spies, pool sharks, and great lovers -- for example Jack Nicholson, the successful aging writer who manages to court a 34-year-old waitress in As Good As It Gets.

In an earlier project, Markson and Taylor looked at best-actor and best-actress Academy Awards won between 1927 and 1990. They were struck by the paucity of older women as compared with older men in the sample. Women over the age of 39 have accounted for only 27 percent of all Oscar winners for best actress since 1927, while men over 39 accounted for 67 percent of the best-actor winners. Another statistic puts it more dramatically: men under the age of 35 accounted for 9 percent of all best-actor awards in the period studied, but women under 35 won 64 percent of the best actress awards.

"It wasn't that all the older women were retired," Markson says. "They were still dues-paying members of the Screen Actors Guild."

The dynamics of the film industry have changed women's prospects, Taylor adds. In the 1930s and 1940s, actors and film crews were assured steady work through long-term contracts.

"In many respects the studio era was very kind to older women," she says. "There were far fewer actresses, but they had a large percentage of roles. It's almost the reverse of today, where you have large numbers of older actresses but not that many jobs."

A new study is now in progress and tentatively entitled "There's Nothing Like a Dame." In this one, Markson and Taylor will compare how British and American older actresses have fared in the film industry. Markson and Taylor say Hollywood seems to have an ongoing love affair with older British women, while it considers American actresses over the hill after 40. Maybe it's the accent, they say, or perhaps there is the perception of a British mystique.

"Hollywood picks more frequently from a smaller pool of British actresses even though to Americans they are not household words," says Markson.
"British actresses seem to come out of the woodwork," adds Taylor. "I mean, whoever heard of Judi Dench before the 1990s?" In 1998, at age 63, Dench received an Oscar for best supporting actress in Shakespeare in Love, in which she played Queen Elizabeth I.

Regardless of whether an actress is British or American, older women tend to be portrayed in a negative light, says Markson, and this is reflected in film characters' physical appearance.

"For older women in film, the body is really very often the repository of our own fears about aging," she says. "They are often frumped up, dressed in clothes of a bygone era, overly made up, wearing jangly beads, and so on. Most women in their 60s and 70s who are middle class don't look like that in the 21st century."

Markson and Taylor are not out to blame Hollywood, however. "Films reflect as well as shape cultural attitudes," Markson says. "As a culture, we all want to live as long as possible, but none of us want to grow old. And for some reason, our fears of aging are projected onto older women more than they are onto older men."

       

05 October 2001
Boston University
Office of University Relations