As Goldie Hawn famously said in The First Wives Club, “There are three ages for women in Hollywood: Babe, District Attorney, and Driving Miss Daisy.” The first age, which can otherwise be known as the ingenue phase of an actress’ career, is where they’ll typically be the most primed to play leading lady roles and win trophies for playing such parts.
The way the film industry views leading actresses as they age carries over into AMPAS who has often rewarded the Best Actress Oscar to youthful ingenues. Even in years where the Best Actress race would boil down to the ingenue and the experienced veteran, the ingenue would usually remain victorious. But with the recent tide shift in the Best Actress category, AMPAS appears to be moving away from its “out with the old, in with the new” mantra.
For the last four years, the Oscar for Best Actress was awarded to an actress over 40. A tide shift that can partially be attributed to the actresses themselves. Last year, Frances McDormand made history as the first person to win Oscars for both acting and producing in the same year for Nomadland. After McDormand bought the rights to the novel it’s based on, and a meeting between her, co-producer Peter Spears, and director Chloé Zhao at the 33rd Independent Spirit Awards, Nomadland became fast tracked and she is now one Best Actress win away from tying Katharine Hepburn.
Thanks to her wins at Critics’ Choice and the SAG Awards, Jessica Chastain looks to be the one to beat this year in Best Actress for her role as the titular real-life televangelist in The Eyes of Tammy Faye. Because the movie is co-produced by her production company Freckle Films, should Chastain win, she’d be the second actress-producer in a row to win this award. Additionally, recently-minted Best Actress winner Olivia Colman continues her Oscar streak with The Lost Daughter where she both stars and serves as an executive producer.
This trend is also due to filmmakers simply choosing to give such actresses proper showcases for their talents. Filmmakers like auteur Pedro Almodovar whose trademarks include writing great roles for women. One of them being the role of Janis played by frequent collaborator Penélope Cruz who’s nominated for Parallel Mothers. Lastly, after Being the Ricardos was sitting in an ongoing gestation period, Nicole Kidman managed to get it off the ground with a likely mix of her A-list cache and ongoing career resurgence post-Big Little Lies. If any of these four ladies were to win Best Actress, it’d be the fifth time in a row an actress over 40 took home the award.
Even if voters are simply deciding these actresses who’ve won and are being nominated were the best in their respective fields without taking age or veteran status into consideration, this pattern is a step in the right direction when it comes to recognizing more older women taking center stage. It’s a small but pivotal turn in an industry where 46-year old Charlize Theron was offered the role of the titular heroine’s mother in Wonder Woman even if she’s only nine years older than Gal Gadot. Meanwhile, Maggie Gyllenhaal once revealed that, at the age of 37, she was considered “too old” to play the love interest of a 55-year old man.
Then you have Sally Field going from being Tom Hanks’ love interest in Punchline to playing his mother in Forrest Gump despite the 10-year age gap between both actors. Although she was given old age makeup to appear much older, because Field was only 47 at the time, it still shows how actresses are viewed once they hit a certain age. Once they reach their late 30’s or early 40’s, they’re slowly deemed less viable as leading ladies and pushed into the realm of sidelined mother roles and supportive wifedom. Male A-listers get to attain their leading movie star status as they grow older while their female counterparts aren’t afforded the same luxury.
For actresses of a certain age to continuously receive Oscars for such involved leading lady roles is a way of both rewarding them for their great work and saying stories about them are indeed viable, both artistically and commercially. In addition, the way Best Actress has gotten older makes the category’s age average from the previous decade at 42. A spike from 36, the Best Actress age average from the 00’s as well as the 90’s, and almost the same number as the age average in Best Actor from this past decade (44).
This shift still remains a small step because it won’t fix decades of industry ageism overnight. Also, because the last four Best Actress winners are white, it shows the industry still has ways to go when it comes to shedding ageism towards actresses of color. As Frances McDormand earns rightful praise for defying Hollywood ageism, it still begs the question of whether someone like Alfre Woodard, who has her own awards pedigree, will get a plum showcase role like Lady Macbeth. Also, while Olivia Colman continuously gets quality parts, why not give another esteemed British talent like Sarita Choudhury a role as complex as Leda?
It’s especially egregious when considering how the realm of TV has served as a stronger platform for women of color over 40 to headline either own stories including actresses that have received Oscar attention. In the past decade, both Viola Davis and Regina King, who have Oscars for Best Supporting Actress under their belt, took home leading actress trophies at the Emmys.
The Broadway stage has served as another effective medium. For instance, just nine years ago, the late Cicely Tyson managed to win a Tony Award for Best Actress in a Play at 88 for The Trip to Bountiful. Plus, Audra McDonald currently holds the record of having the most acting Tonys of any performer in history with six. Two of them are for lead acting categories: Best Actress in a Play and Best Actress in a Musical.
As previously noted, the film industry still has miles to go. For this recent Best Actress trend to be more than just a moment in time, it depends on directors continuously seeing older actresses as principal players as well as actresses with A-list clout being able to consistently produce their own starring vehicles. As an Evening Standard article on the “rise of the actress-producer” points out, we’re certainly seeing the latter happen.
Rather than be cast as an action hero’s mother, Charlize Theron has gotten to be the actual hero in Atomic Blonde and The Old Guard which were made through her Denver & Delilah production label and are both on the verge of becoming franchises. Along with her and the aforementioned Jessica Chastain, such big names as Jennifer Lopez, Viola Davis, Reese Witherspoon, Halle Berry, and Sandra Bullock are starring in projects made through their own production labels, signing multi-picture deals with streamers in the process.
By stepping behind the camera as well as in front of it, women like the names above are helping further the action of allowing more dimensional lead roles for actresses over 40. As a result, the small screen and the stage don’t have to be places for women to find refuge in in order to receive great material. They can instead be additional feasible resources.
Hopefully, the Oscar for Best Actress can find a happier medium between continuing to reward older women for richly layered roles as well as spotlighting newer, incoming generations of actresses.