Studying cinema throughout the ages sheds light on changing trends, lifestyles and general states of society through time – the big-screen is there, not only for escapism, but also to mirror life as we see it. It is therefore such a shame that the characters we see within mainstream cinema seem to be becoming increasingly homogenised: young, attractive film-stars are what ensures box-office smashes and this alienates both the middle-aged and elderly entirely from fair representation. Obviously, the likes of Judi Dench, Maggie Smith and Helen Mirren don’t seem to be struggling for roles, but they are a lucky few.
Furthermore, the often dubious age-gaps between male leads in film and their female romantic counterparts highlight the sexism inherent in the Hollywood system. To cite a recent example, Woody Allen’s new film Magic in the Moonlight sees a 54 year old Colin Firth play the beau to Emma Stones’ (aged 25) much younger character, Sophie. You could argue that age isn’t important when it comes to matters of the heart, however this is a disturbing pattern within cinema. For example, Harrison Ford rose to stardom in his late thirties, but the first time he had a notable love interest in her late thirties, it was in 1999’s Random Hearts, when Ford was aged 57 to Kristin Scott Thomas’s 39.
The vast majority of Ford’s love interests have been at least fifteen years younger than him, and some were even younger than that. Liam Neeson also usually robs the cradle by wooing actresses around fifteen years younger than him, and ever since Taken reestablished his box-office virility, the age of his love interests has dropped accordingly: More than two and a half decades separated Neeson from his on-screen wife January Jones in Unknown, and in Paul Haggis’s next film, Third Person, the 61-year-old Neeson will bed 29-year-old Olivia Wilde.
It appears that leading men age, whereas their love-interests don’t. Watching the wondrous Paolo Sorrentini film The Great Beauty (2013) at Filmhouse (as part of their Introduction to European Cinema season) it was refreshing to see the lead protagonist go after women his own age, not young whippersnappers without a crows-foot in sight. But surely it shouldn’t be necessary to have to venture into the realms of Italian Art-house cinema to see relationships between older people portrayed authentically? This film also gave much attention to an extremely elderly 104 year old women, and reminded me how rare it is to see elderly people portrayed on screen with as many hopes, desires and vivacity as the other, younger characters.
The prevalence of older men and younger women being paired up in films highlights the fact that the idea of a ‘desirable’ women is one who is young; middle aged women are too often portrayed as ‘fading violets’ desperately trying to cling on to their youthful looks rather than embracing the physical changes that come with age.
Of course there are some fantastic ageing actors and actresses who are doing incredibly well, both on and off screen. Clint Eastwood, at the ripe old age of 84 has in recent years directed several successful films such as Million Dollar Baby and starred recently in Trouble with the Curve. He put the issue brilliantly, saying “everybody wonders why I continue working at this stage. I keep working because there’s always new stories…And as long as people want me to tell them, I’ll be there doing them.” If only the entire film industry could adopt a similar attitude.
Notoriously shallow Hollywood often tends to prefer casting pretty young things as the leads in films, as this helps to ensure box-office success. Several noted actors have mentioned the difficulty in finding well-rounded interesting roles to play as you reach a certain age, as most are replaced by those younger generations who, although lacking in experience, have dewy skin and youth on their side. Actress Julie Walters recently commented that: “We have this thing in this country of constantly trying to appeal to the young in everything, especially with our drama.”
She admitted that women were growing in influence across the stage and screen industries, but stressed that “this is still not being reflected in our drama.”
She continued: “There is this idea that appealing to youth is the only way forward. But that is no longer the case. Youth is not everything.”
All hail Julie.