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Do We Live in the Age of the Forty-Something Leading Lady?

Jennifer Aniston’s romantic comedy The Bounty Hunter may not have quite set the US box office alight last weekend (coming third behind Alice in Wonderland and some film even I’ve never heard of), but she’s still one of Hollywood’s biggest name leading ladies currently on film – and I don’t see that changing. And she’s 41 years old. Sandra Bullock, that darling of the nineties romantic comedy, spent last year reaffirming her golden touch, with the surprising-even-by-the-standards-of-the-genre romantic comedy The Proposal and an Oscar-winning role in The Blind Side. There was also a Razzie-winning role in All About Steve, but she even managed to use that to demonstrate that she is still one of the queens of Hollywood. And she’s 45 years old. Are the attitudes towards women – particularly leading women – changing in Hollywood?

Is Aniston on a winning Streep?

I posted last year that I believed Hollywood isn’t necessarily comfortable with its stars once they pass a certain age. Not withstanding the exceptions like Up and Gran Torino, film making is a young person’s game. I’m not being so radical as to suggest that a woman in her forties could be described as old – she isn’t even middle aged – but by Hollywood’s standards the expectation is that her shelf-life is well gone.

Seriously, think about it. Think of any of the leading ladies of the eighties. Where is Kelly Preston? Where is Molly Ringwald? Most of those who have endured – Kim Bassinger, Sharon Stone and Demi Moore – have endured hell to do so. Tell me that anything Bassinger did between Batman and L.A. Confidential. You know you’re in trouble when Wayne’s World 2 is the best film on your filmography – not that it isn’t a good film, but she plays a character named Honey Hornee. Demi Moore launched her new, artificially-enhanced self like she was selling a product, with a role as a villain in Charlie’s Angels 2 being the closest she got to the mainstream. We’re holding out for The Joneses, though. Even the generally dignified Nicole Kidman has clearly had a lot of work done, to the point where it seems she can do nothing but pout – at least she has a stiff upper lip as she waits for that yet-to-arrive Oscar.

So you can see where I’m coming from. Hollywood churns out young leading ladies like the bucket fall. Three or four years ago it was Angelina Jolie, now trying so hard to be a legitimate actress. Now it’s Katherine Heigl, fighting so desperately for recognition. Megan Fox is trying to be the lady of the moment, and good luck to here – Jennifer’s Body may be an insurmountable setback. There are so many young women that it’s easy to have your pick of them. Make them the starlet of the moment and then replace them when they get worn out. Whatever happened to Reese Witherspoon?

And yet, here we have evidence of two leading ladies who have endured well past what one would imagine to be their glory days. Aniston spent her youth as Rachel Green on Friends, only entering a movie career after that show ended. Bullock dominated romantic comedies in the nineties with films like While You Were Sleeping and managed to be a solid action movie romantic lead with Demolition Man and Speed. And then she sorta went away. Don’t get us wrong. There were still movies, but they were much smaller fare – like The Lake House and Premonition. They weren’t movies that showed up on the pop culture radar.

However, both actresses would seem to be on close to top form. Jennifer Aniston is the go-to-girl who for movies that either can’t or won’t cast Katherine Heigl. Yes, most are like Love Happens and absolutely terrible (soul-crushing, even), but she never wants for work. And some are ambitious but never really established her as a credible dramatic actress – The Good Girl was solid, but not amazing, and the less said about Derailed the better. Sandra Bullock has had a good year, winning her first Oscar. I’ve yet to be convinced she earned it – I haven’t seen the film yet, so I’m willing to be convinced, but the suggestion she earned it for a career of romantic comedies is balony.

Are the pair of them opening the doors for women past a certain age in Hollywood? Hell, has the resurgence of Meryl Streep done the same? She very proudly states that she now has the influence to get the films she wants to watch made. It’s Complicated and Mamma Mia aren’t landmark pieces of cinema and won’t be remembered in a few years, but they do establish Streep as a comedic lead actress who is in her sixties. And – as she is fond to point out – audiences seem to be responding to that notion. She likes to cite Mamma Mia as beating Hellboy 2 financially. I’m not convinced that that is proof of anything, given how oversaturated the summer of 2008 was with superheroes – Hellboy seems like the easiest to beat. Still, she does have a point – the audience for these films are there.

Don’t get me wrong. It’s not as though overnight Hollywood has been transformed. For every triumph like those actresses named above, there are the less fortunate. Compare Sandra Bullock’s rise to the fall of Meg Ryan, that other romantic comedy queen (and arguably the bigger one) of the nineties. Ryan has fallen on hard times, resorting to full-frontal nudity, trashy films like In the Cut and direct-to-video features like The Deal. You try telling Meg Ryan that times are changing – but I insist you attempt to sit through The Women first. Then you’ll know what pain is.

Maybe times are changing. Maybe these days, the dark days of cinema – with studios trying anything to draw an audience – has allowed those making movies to realise that there is an audience over the age of thirteen that can no longer be ignored. Perhaps we see a widening of the type of leads in the type of movies we see made, and through more roles actors can see their careers survive and allow them to keep making films. I’ve always thought it odd that, as a rule, the men aged well – like Harrison Ford or even Michael Douglas – but the women disappeared to television specials or the roles of mothers rather than leads.

I don’t know. I just think it’s interesting to watch. Variety is the spice of life, after all.

6 Responses

  1. I reckon if you’re a good actress/actor, it shouldn’t matter if you’re 13 or 90. It’s insane how Hollywood often ignores women over 40…hopefully Bullock & Co. will continue to buck the trend.

    • Amen on that. Maybe – just maybe – we’ll see that gradually widening. Or maybe Bullock and Aniston are the exceptions to the rule, depressingly enough.

  2. I think 40 is the new 30. Jennifer Aniston is a different case from Sandra Bullock though. While Bullock still has some talent and charm to get by (and is beloved by just about everyone, that always help), Aniston is still in the spotlight because she is, let’s just say it, well preserved. The day she doesn’t look as good, she will fade very quickly. Her abilities are basically limited to playing that Rachel character (herself) over and over again.

    • You’re probably right. But Aniston has seemed ridiculously tanned (as in, like leather at this stage) for the past few years – I also imagine that her tabloid-friendly personal life helps keep her name in lights. I don’t think she’ll be landing an Oscar any time soon. Still, she is quite a bit old than what we imagine a typical Hollywood romantic leading lady to be.

  3. I just don’t get Jennifer Aniston, I can’t think of a decent film with her in.

    As for the real question, there is a certain disparity. Take Sherlock Holmes last year. Robert Downey Jr. was 44 and his female opposite Rachel McAdams 30 (both at time of filming). Similar with Up in the air George Clooney is 48 and his co star Vera Farmiga twelve years younger. This is totally natural within the movie world yet you won’t get a similar age gap the other way around unless the younger man is integral to the plot that. It is also nothing new in North by Northwest Cary Grant was 55 and Eva Marie Saint 35 although they were both playing younger characters.

    Castor makes a good point “The day she doesn’t look as good, she will fade very quickly”.

    Another thing to consider, we aren’t getting a new crop of 40 something stars, a select few who were stars to begin with are retaining their popularity.

    A few actresses that are doing okay (and looking good) beyond 40
    Sigourney Weaver 60
    Julianne Moore 49
    Nicole Kidman 42
    Monica Bellucci 45
    Cate Blanchett 40
    Catherine Zeta Jones 40
    Naomi Watts 41
    Salma Hayek 43

  4. It is pretty discraceful that women are only allowed to continue their career if they work out 14 times a week and stay a near as possible to their nubile 18 year old counterparts. Personally I would like to see more well written roles for older women. Two shocking attempts at broaching this subject are The Woman (ugh a shocking waste of everyones time!) and ‘I will never be your woman’ with Michelle Phieffer, which I watched accidentally recently. It’s about an older woman and younger man, I’m half tempted to recommend it because it is SOOO BAD.

    On the other side don’t forget Helen Mirren and Dame Judi Dench who are still getting great roles.

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