She’s too old! Ageism in Hollywood

Posted on July 27, 2015 by Eleanor McKenzie
Hollywood boulevard sign and palm trees

I had just finished watching The Honourable Woman, which is a classy BBC mini series starring Maggie Gyllenhaal, when I spotted a headline about this actress. It is well known that Hollywood has not treated ageing actresses well, and every so often the complaint about the lack of parts for actresses over the 50 mark rears its head again.

You’re too old!

Maggie’s complaint was slightly different, but equally troubling, even if you’re not an actress. I say that because frankly, Hollywood tends to reflect social norms, so its casting decisions and choice of scripts reflects how Hollywood thinks society sees people of a certain age. Maggie claims that producers refused to give her a part because at 37 she is too old to play the love interest of a 55-year-old male.

Men and girls

Really? Is Hollywood asking us to believe that the majority of men in their 50s expect to have a ‘girlfriend’ who is more than 20 years their junior? As I wrote that sentence, I burst out laughing: that is probably what is going on in some men’s heads, but not in the lives of most of them. Indeed, it is not a widespread reality; yet, research shows that Hollywood has a preference for an older man/younger woman relationship dynamic.

Hollywood ‘Ageism’ from 1984-2014

In response to Maggie Gyllenhaal’s complaint, British film director Stephen Follows studied 422 romantic films made between 1984 and 2014 to see how this ‘ageism’ has manifested in Hollywood blockbusters with box office takings of over $1 million. He discovered that there was an average age gap of 4.5 years between any male lead and his love interest, with the man being the older of the two. He also discovered that this has never changed over the 30-year period he looked at.

The ‘real life’ age gap

This age gap may only be slightly higher than in real life, where there’s an average age gap of 2.4 to 2.8 years between couples, but, says Follows, “it has an effect on what we think of as an ‘ideal’ relationship,” particularly, if the age gap appears in romantic comedies and dramas. He attributes Hollywood’s casting of younger female partners to the veneration of youth in celebrity culture.

As he also points out, casting directors have no problem pairing Robert Redford, Richard Gere and Colin Firth with much younger actresses. Meanwhile Julia Roberts and Winona Ryder have regularly had on-screen relationships with older men. Only Goldie Hawn and Sandra Bullock have managed to have younger men as their partners.

No more Mrs Robinson

It would seem that Anne Bancroft’s character ‘Mrs Robinson’ in The Graduate was a role that Hollywood preferred not to repeat, and in fact the character’s name has become a remark of disparagement, along with the ghastly term ‘cougar’. Nor has the plot line of the wonderful Hal Ashby film Harold and Maude, about a young man who falls in love with a much older and unglamorous woman, ever been revisited.


Hollywood sign

San Andreas bucks the trend

Apparently, there is a glimmer of hope emanating from an unexpected quarter: disaster movies. According to a recent Guardian film blog, the new Hollywood blockbuster San Andrea, starring Dwayne Johnson (I always think of him as The Rock from WWF but nobody is allowed to call him that anymore) and Carla Gugino is an on-screen pairing in an “age appropriate” relationship. That means they are actually the same age. Like real people! In fact, Carla Gugino’s character is actually eight months older than her partner.

It certainly bucks recent trends: Magic in the Moonlight pairs 53-year-old Colin Firth with 25-year-old Emma Stone and in the Edge of Tomorrow, Tom Cruise (51) fell for Emily Blunt (31). What happens if you’re an actress over 50? The answer is: you get Liam Neeson who is 63. To be honest, I wouldn’t complain about working with Liam!

Hollywood is a man’s world

Stephen Follows is something of a champion for women in Hollywood. In 2014 he published some damning figures that revealed how women are treated throughout the industry. With men comprising 75% of blockbuster film crews, it’s certainly a man’s world in Hollywood. He also points out that there are few female directors and women in the crew tend to appear in the Wardrobe and Make-up jobs.

Who will challenge this Hollywood fixation with younger women? Even female directors haven’t touched the issue in casting. How should we respond to it as women regardless of our age? These questions are suitable for a renewed feminist debate. So how did Maggie respond to the ‘ageist’ rejection? “It made me feel bad, then it made me feel angry, and then it made me laugh.” That’s the spirit – even if it doesn’t solve the problem.

by Eleanor McKenzie

Eleanor McKenzie is a Northern Irish writer with a passion for art, literature, and red wine. She's worked at advertising agency JWT, edited a journal for a European social policy think tank and tried to teach teenagers the difference between "there" and "their". Being 50+ has not significantly changed Eleanor's life, although she finds it a handy excuse when she wants to avoid anything too energetic.