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