Are women over 40 really getting the best parts of their lives?


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A 43-year-old Julia Roberts has just been cast as the Evil Queen in ‘Snow White.’ The 50-year Melissa Leo, as she’s been not shy in reminding us in her glammed-up ad, is going strong with her turn as a domineering mother in ‘The Fighter.’ Helen Mirren didn’t let the fact that she was blowing out 65 birthday candles last summer stop her from blowing away the bad guys in ‘Red.’

A few years ago the conventional wisdom was that women over 40 were relegated to minor screen roles, or at least to roles that fit more stereotypical notions (Meryl Streep’s recent casting as an older married woman in ‘Great Hope Springs,’ for instance). Cable was the place for women over 40 to get meatier or unconventional parts.


But change has been in the air, as evidenced by a host of parts this season, including a 43-year-old Nicole Kidman’s complex turn as a grieving mother in ‘Rabbit Hole’ and 52-year-old Annette Bening’s Oscar-nominated part as a lesbian mom in ‘The Kids Are All Right.’

On Monday night at the AARP’s Movies for Grownups Awards, comments about a new era trickled down from the podium.

‘I do think things are slowly, slowly getting better for women, and this year proves that,’ said the British actress Leslie Manville. Manville plays one of the year’s most memorable female characters -- the semi-alcoholic, daffy Mary in Mike Leigh’s ‘Another Year’ -- and she called this year a ‘milestone’ and went on to say that ‘women over 40, women over 50, women over 60, are playing roles that are sexy and sexual and interesting and intelligent.’

My colleague Rebecca Keegan reported recently that the percentage of women over 40 in principal screen roles, according to the Screen Actors Guild (which doesn’t distinguish between television and film), has jumped from 11% to 28% in the last seven years.

‘Hollywood, an industry so often driven by the ids of 14-year-old boys, used to usher actresses into retirement after they lit their 39th birthday candle,’ she wrote. ‘But this year, leading ladies in their 40s, 50s and 60s have elbowed their way onto the screen in an abundance of principal roles in both studio and independent films.’

It’s a continuation in some ways of last year’s film season, when a 45-year-old Sandra Bullock collected accolades and an Oscar statuette for her role as the brook-no-nonsense mother Leigh Anne Tuohy in ‘The Blind Side.’


But Manville’s ‘slowly, slowly’ may still be the more operative phrase. A number of these movies (‘Rabbit Hole,’ ‘The Kids Are All Right’) were made outside the Hollywood system. And many of the films have women playing parts that they’ve played for years, as mothers (or queens).

Manville may be right that notions of sexuality have changed -- ’10 or 15 years ago, playing a woman who was as sexy’ was not common, she said -- but the idea of a wholesale change may, at the moment, be overstated. As Kidman said in The Times story, ‘Unless I produce, it’s rare that I get to read scripts of substance.’

-- Steven Zeitchik


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