It’s no secret that Hollywood promotes younger women and that by the time they are 40 most actresses find themselves being overlooked for starring roles. Actress Maggie Gyllenhaal paid testament to this when a few years ago she said in an interview that at 37 years of age she was considered too old to play the love interest of a 55-year-old actor, and that by her mid-30's she was considered "over the hill".
Even legends like Meryl Streep have spoken about how turning 40 made her worry about her career, when she said: "I remember as I was hovering around 40, I thought each movie would be my last, really."
Gyllenhaal and Streep had reason to worry.
Analysis of US films made from 1920 to 2011 have shown that as far as leading roles are concerned: “By age 30, women only got 40 percent of the leading roles. And past age 40, men claim 80 percent of the leading roles, while women only get 20 percent.”
Past age 40, men claim 80 percent of the leading roles, while women only get 20 percent.
Another study conducted by the University of Southern California found that: “One of the most politicized areas in Hollywood pertains to casting women 40 years of age or older.” Only 35 per cent of the characters evaluated in the study fell into that age bracket, and of that 35 per cent, only 25.7 per cent of those roles were filled by women.
The recent backlash against the pairing of 62-year-old actor Gary Oldman opposite 33-year-old actress Tuppence Middleton in the movie Mank (despite the characters they're playing being the same age), showed us how ageism is well and alive in Hollywood.
It's nothing new for older male actors to play opposite young actresses. The likes of Denzel Washington, Johnny Depp and Harrison Ford have had actresses decades their junior playing their love interest.
And it gets worse. Another study showed that female stars reached their peak earning age at 34 whereas male stars didn't peak until 51 and remained stable after that. It was this issue of bankability or earning capacity that Nicole Kidman alluded to when she gave her acceptance speech after winning a SAG award for her role in Big Little Lies. After thanking a number of actresses over the age of 40, Kidman said:
"I want to thank you all for your trailblazing performances you have given over your career and how wonderful it is that our careers today can go beyond 40-years-old... We have proven and these actresses and so many more are proving that we are potent and powerful and viable. I just beg that the industry stays behind us, because our stories are finally being told."
The importance of telling the stories of women as they get older is what drove Geena Davis to set up the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media.
As Ms Davis mentioned in an interview: "Film roles really did star to dry up when I got into my 40s. If you look at IMDB, up until that age, I made roughly one film a year. In my entire 40s, I made one movie, Stuart Little."
Shockingly, or perhaps not so shocking if you know the sort of movies Hollywood produces, Geena Davis's Institute highlighted how no women over 50 were cast in leading roles in 2019's top films.
📝What's The Ageless test?⠀ There are only TWO rules: 📺The film must have at least one female character who is 50+...
It's worth remembering that some of Hollywood's most famous actresses including Nicole Kidman, Viola Davis, Salma Hayek, and Halle Berry (amongst a host of others) are all over 50.
Things are changing, albeit slowly. Kidman's acceptance speech was an example of how women in Hollywood are speaking out about the ageism within their industry. Initiatives like the The Writer's Lab for female screenwriters over 40, supported by both Streep and Kidman, will hopefully enable more women over 40 to have their stories making it to the screen. But there is still a long way to go.
Gary Oldman being much older than his love interest isn't the only controversial thing about Mank - the fact is that not a single actress over 40 is cast in the film, despite Marlene Dietrich (who appears as a character in the film) being 43-years-old when the movie is set.
It's just another example that ageism and sexism are deeply rooted in Hollywood and it's going to take a huge overhaul of how movies are made and which stories are told, to change that.
Saman Shad is a freelance writer. Follow her on Twitter at @muminprogress