For decades, the age of 40 was the point of no return for the majority of Hollywood’s leading ladies of film. But there’s been a seismic shift in the way the industry and moviegoers view “aging” top actresses, and today their clout and box-office muscle have never been greater.
Forty-nine-year-old Sandra Bullock is getting a ton of attention for her starring role in the space epic “Gravity,” but this was already a great year overall for actresses over 40. Oprah Winfrey, Jennifer Aniston and Melissa McCarthy all starred in breakout box-office hits.
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And there are more high-profile movies with women over 40 in plum roles still to come. Emma Thompson will star opposite Tom Hanks in the Mary Poppins tale “Saving Mr. Banks,” due on Dec. 13. And later that month, 64-year-old Meryl Streep – who’s been an exception to the rule for some time – will be featured with Julia Roberts, who turns 46 on Monday, in the drama “August: Osage County.”
Their success has been artistic as well as commercial.
The five top contenders for the Best Actress Oscar, according to the GoldDerby.com experts, are Bullock, Streep, Thompson (54), Cate Blanchett (44) and Judi Dench (78). If those end up being the five nominees, the average age in the category will be almost 58.
There are a lot of reasons things have changed. Here are six:
The Box Office
Nothing breaks down barriers like a healthy bottom line and over-40 actresses have delivered this year.
Bullock and McCarthy were cop buddies in 2013’s biggest comedy “The Heat,” which has taken in $228 million worldwide. Jennifer Aniston drove the summer’s surprise hit “We’re the Millers.” And the popularity of 57-year-old Oprah Winfrey had a great deal to do with the success of “Lee Daniels’ The Butler,” an Oscar contender that has already served up $130 million worldwide.
Their success has crossed genres, too. Vera Farmiga starred in the year’s biggest horror hit, “The Conjuring,” and Halle Berry topped the box office with the dark thriller “The Call” in March.
Even Gwyneth Paltrow, who played Tony Stark’s gal pal in the year’s highest-grossing movie, Marvel’s “Iron Man 3,” is 41.
Audiences Are Getting Older
A lot of the people who saw Oprah in “The Butler” also saw her in “The Color Purple” back in 1985. The same goes for “Gravity” viewers, who recalled Bullock in 1994’s “Speed.” That gives moviegoers a sense of connection, as with long-time friends.
“The Baby Boomer generation has been going to the movies all of their lives and they’ve never stopped,” said Catherine Paura, chairman and chief executive of Capstone Global Marketing and Research. “They want to see narrative-driven movies, with strong stories that they can relate to. They’re in the habit of going to the movies, and they like them, especially when their stars are in them.”
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More than a third of all movie tickets purchased in the U.S. last year were by people past 40, so these actresses don’t seem old to them at all. And Baby Boomers now represent 28 percent of the populace, so the trend is here to stay.
They’re Getting Better with Age
People watched Julia Louis-Dreyfus yuck it up on TV’s “Seinfeld” back when they were in their 20s and 30s and she was, too. But anyone’s who’s seen her nuanced portrayal of a discombobulated single mother taking a tentative step toward romance in “Enough Said,” has to be impressed with how far she’s come since her Elaine days.
“You look at people like her or Sandra Bullock and people say they’re hitting their stride as actresses,” said casting director Marci Liroff, who specializes in feature films and TV, “but they couldn’t have excelled in these roles without the career and life experience that they developed when they were younger. And I loved Elaine.”
Hollywood Is Wising Up
A decade ago, it would have been hard to imagine a film like this year’s “Blue Jasmine” making $30 million. But the Woody Allen joint in which Blanchett plays a middle-aged woman struggling to find her footing after her swindling husband is jailed has done just that.
While roles designed specifically for women of that age group remain the exception, Hollywood is making more movies that appeal to older audiences of late.
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“The studios are seeing there’s an audience out there and saying let’s make something for them to see,” said Paura. “Look at last Christmas, when you had ‘Les Miserables,’ ‘Lincoln’ and ‘Argo’ all out there at the same time, all doing great business. It’s a realization that this is an under-served and very viable audience.”
Where progress is most apparent is with movies like “The Heat” or “Gravity,” in which the protagonists almost certainly would have been male a decade ago. And “The Heat” showed that women can be as foul-mouthed, obnoxious – and funny – as men.
Young Actresses Aren’t Translating
Other than Jennifer Lawrence and Anne Hathaway, there aren’t many actresses under 40 who can sell tickets overseas, an increasingly critical component when movies are developed and cast today.
That’s not necessarily a gender issue – there aren’t many young men who can, either. But Roberts, Streep, Bullock, Angelina Jolie and Cameron Diaz can – while Scarlett Johansson, Emma Stone and Amanda Seyfried generally don’t. But that’s nothing time won’t cure, according to casting director Liroff.
“These young women are at exactly the stage the legends we’re talking about were back then,” she said.
We Saw It on TV
“When you see a Robin Wright on ‘House of Cards’ or Jessica Lange on ‘American Horror Story,’ I think people and – and Hollywood — take notice,” said Martha Lauzen, executive director of the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State University.
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She gives the small screen a lot of the credit for women’s gains in film.
“TV has been leading the way recently. A few years ago, when Glenn Close was in ‘Damages’ and Kyra Sedgwick in ‘The Closer’ started showing how incredibly talented they were, I’m sure that some of that seeped into film.”
But Let’s Not Get Carried Away
While a number of elite over-40 actresses are making their mark as never before, the situation hasn’t changed that much for most of them. While 55 percent of film roles went to women in their 20s and 30s, just 13 percent went to women in the 40s, according to the 2012 report “It’s a Man’s (Celluloid) World.”
“Attitudes toward women, gender and age are deeply embedded,” said Lauzen. “These are very stable attitudes that take a long time to evolve, but with steady and continued success our culture will be moved.”