Though poetically referred to as ‘only getting better with age,’ when it comes to Hollywood, older women are, for the most part, not celebrated. Per usual, the internets are awash with articles and opinions on the subject. You may have heard about the woman who recently sued IMDB for revealing her true age (spoiler alert: she lost), or perhaps back in 2009 you caught this Guardian article about Hollywood “abandoning its prejudice against older women” because Meryl and Sigourney each made a rom-com.
Don’t misunderstand me – any and every complex and genuine representation of female characters on-screen is a step forward, especially when it comes to Women of a Certain Age. There are countless examples of Hollywood’s fear of the older woman, whether it results in a great performance in a great film (32-year-old Elizabeth Taylor in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf), or a terrible performance in a terrible movie (29-year-old Angelina playing 28-year-old Colin Farrell’s MOTHER in Alexander).
For the purposes of this post, “older” will be defined as “50 or older.” I have to shout out Maggie for recently scolding all her dumdum friends on FB who whine about “getting old” when they’re turning 30. (side eye) As she asserted, “unless you’re getting a check from AARP, shush!”
So I set out aiming to feature my Top Ten favorite performances from older women in film since the beginning of this century, in order to consider the representation of older women in film in the Modern Era. Right now I have five, and sadly they’re all white women. The issue of older women of color on-screen is something we’ll delve into in a moment. For now, we can easily name the top ten women over fifty who work on-screen regularly in halfway decent roles. Here, watch:
There is no research I have to support the above list, these are just the actresses that I believe we most often see on-screen when there’s a featured role calling for an older woman. There have been some exceptions in recent years (Jackie Weaver, Melissa Leo) but I imagine it’s usually a matter of choosing from the above list. I’d wager the B list (in terms of how often we see them, not their talent) includes Kathy Bates, Olympia Dukakis, Jane Fonda (how much do we love that she came out of retirement to do rom-coms??), Vanessa Redgrave, Whoopi Goldberg and Alfrie Woodard (finally some women of color!)
For women who aren’t white, there is still work to be had, but it appears to be mostly relegated to television and lesser-known films. The actresses we most often see here include Alfre Woodard and Whoopi Goldberg (of the above B list), as well as CCH Pounder (61), Loretta Devine (64) and Angela Basset (55). If you’re revving up to brandish The Help in my face, the principal actresses in that film, Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer, are 48 and 43, respectively.
A Confession: I haven’t yet seen For Colored Girls, which is based on an amazing play, and features a slew of talented older women in what are sure to be complex roles (if it’s true to the stage script). Finally seeing this film would quite likely alter my Favorite Performances list.
It would be Great to hear about some working actresses over 50 who are neither white nor black. A google search for “Asian actresses over 50” produced this list, which consists exclusively of white and black actresses.
Let’s set all the bad news aside for a moment and highlight some great female performances. (I might actually be up to ten now!) In no particular order, here are some of my favorite characters portrayed by women over 50 since the year 2000 (clearly this list is restricted by what I have seen, feel free to post recommendations for things I’ve missed):
Meryl Streep as Donna in Mamma Mia
That’s right, of all her great films, I’m going with Mamma Mia. Before you dismiss it as a fluff piece, allow me to elaborate. Donna is a (reluctant!) love interest, competent proprietor, and fervent lover of life. She dances down the cobblestone streets of her Greek paradise, has delightful adventures with her friends, and sings her heart out like a frakking Rock Star.
This role flies in the face of every convention that is held for What an Older Woman Should Be. Ms. Streep was 59 when this film was released, meaning she was probably 57 or 58 during filming. Props must also be given to Julie Walters and Christine Baranski, who basically play the greatest besties ever. S, can this be our lives when we’re 58?? Slash 49??
Judi Dench as M in Casino Royale, Quantum of Solace, and Skyfall
photo credit: www.aceshowbiz.com
Bad. Ass. If you enjoy 007 films, see these movies. If you don’t, you’re missing out on pretty much the coolest woman over 50 ever. Except for my mom. M is *almost* as cool as my mom.
Frances McDormand as Miss Pettigrew in Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day
photo credit: http://www.7dvt.com
This film wasn’t a huge hit and so I often think of it as a hidden gem. Based on a novel published in 1938, the story addresses issues of class, gender, and finding your place in the world, and it’s focused primarily on the lives of two women – Miss Pettigrew, and Delysia LaFosse (played by Amy Adams in the film).
Released in 2006, Ms. McDormand would’ve been 50 or 51 when shooting the film. Her performance is an absolute joy to watch.
Alfre Woodard as Ruby Jean Reynolds in True Blood
photo credit: http://www.coachella.com/
We’ve only been treated to Ruby Jean Reynolds in a handful of True Blood episodes, but she is a scene-stealer every time. As the schizophrenic, Jesus-loving, homophobic mother of everyone’s favorite bruja chef, Lafayette, Alfre Woodard is flawless. Even though she’s often quite hostile to him, I wish Lafayette would visit her more often.
Annette Bening as Nic in The Kids are Alright
photo credit: http://www.dailytelegraph.com.au/ – Courtesy of Focus Features
Annette Bening has delivered some incredible performances in her lengthy career. American Beauty and Being Julia come to mind first and foremost. As Nic in The Kids Are Alright, Bening is extremely authentic. She was 52 when this film was released in 2010, and though the story itself had some flaws, Ms. Bening’s performance is, in my opinion, what makes the film worth seeing.
Maggie Smith as The Dowager Countess in Downtown Abbey
photo credit: Nick Briggs http://www.usweekly.com
“What is a week-end?”
Genius. Maggie Smith won my heart back in the 80’s with her portrayal of Cousin Charlotte in A Room with a View. The woman turns prim and proper on its head, always layering a heavy dose of wit, vulnerability, humanity, or all of the above.
Jackie Weaver as Dolores in Silver Linings Playbook
I just finished the book that inspired this film, and it only increased the appreciation I have for what Jackie Weaver did with this character. What could easily have become a caricature of a fussy, worried mother became a loving and layered human being in the hands of Ms. Weaver.
There were good photos of her on her own, but I had to use this one because I love how teeny she looks.
And now for something completely different…
Megan Mullally as Tammy Swanson (Tammy Two) on Parks and Recreation
photo credit @ianiscold http://www.tumblr.com
There are so many things wrong with this woman, and she never fails to entertain. She and her real-life paramour Nick Offerman are unstoppable comic geniuses as Ron Swanson and his (second) ex-wife named Tammy.
I REALLY want Emma Thompson to be on this list, but she’s only 54, meaning the pool of her movies that I can choose from is limited to the last several years. Can I use Elinor in Brave? Sure, it was an animated film, but she was still great, and they logically chose to cast a 53 (or perhaps 52) year old woman as the mother of the teenage protagonist, so that counts for something, right?
photo credit: http://pixar.wikia.com/Emma_Thompson
Whew! That’s nine, and I’m afraid I’m tapped out. Please let me know what must-see performances from women over 50 I’ve missed in the last 13 years. They’ll go to the top of my list!
It’s worth noting that every single actress mentioned above started her career in her twenties or thirties. According to these statistics, I have about six years to break into film and television, or it’s time to put me in the cellar with the other fine wines.