Getting Older in Hollywood

Reese Witherspoon recently stated that there were no sci-fi roles appropriate for a woman of her age (34). While I do not think it is true that she could not find her way into any sci-fi movies (Amy Adams at 36 was just cast as Lois Lane in the upcoming Superman reboot, Gwyneth Paltrow was about 36 when she starred in the first Iron Man, and Cameron Diaz was about 38-39 when she filmed The Green Hornet), she brings up a good point about the not-so-recent trend in the industry (and in society in general) of wanting younger actors and actresses. If you look at the list of upcoming sci-fi movies, most of the actresses being featured are in their twenties (Olivia Wilde, Amanda Seyfreid, Jennifer Lawrence, and Scarlett Johansson to name a few).

This obsession with youth (think about Nicole Kidman’s recent critique about how the surgeries she has had to look youthful have affected her ability to show emotion in her face) has impacted society in much the same way that the obsession with thinness has. Celebrities and casting agents take these trends to the extreme. Recently, celebrities have started to come under criticism for being too thin (in the modeling industry, Milan and Madrid have imposed some standards to deter too thin models from being used, similar but less extensive guidelines have been suggested in America), but there has been little to no critique of the age factor in Hollywood.

Kathy Bates’s recent show, Harry’s Law, is more surprising because it centers around a sixty-two year old actress than because of anything that happens on the show (including Bates’s character getting hit on by a man attempting to commit suicide in the pilot). Off-hand, I can’t think of another show that has someone nearly as old (fifties? forties?) as the title character. Harry’s Law isn’t doing fantastic in the ratings either. For NBC the show isn’t doing terribly and is likely o be renewed, but if it were on another network it would closer to the bubble (CBS’s CSI:Miami, CSI:NY, and The Good Wife draw about the same number of viewers or even a million or so more and are considered “on the bubble”).

More often than not, older actors are relegated to be background–the parents of the main characters for example. But the lack of age on television and in the movies wasn’t always the case. Dr. Who is a perfect example of this shift. The original doctor, played by William Hartnell back in the mid-1960s, had white hair! He was about 55 at the start of his run. The third doctor, Jon Pertwee, was 51 at the start of his run, also with grey hair. By the seventies, the age of the actor playing the doctor was early forties. The fifth doctor, Peter Davison, was only 31. The most recent incarnation of the doctor, doctor number eleven, began his role at only 26, less than half the age of the original! In the Sarah Jane adventures, we saw a reunion of former companion Jo Grant with the current doctor that puts this into perspective-
Sarah Jane: He can change his face.
Jo: I know, but into a baby’s?

I am not saying anything against Matt Smith. I think he is a fantastic doctor. And in a show that relies so heavily on running, it makes sense to have a younger actor (now if only they could cast companions who didn’t “run like a girl”). There came a point near the end of 24 where Kiefer Sutherland didn’t really look like he was in good enough shape to pull off some of the stunts his character did. In situations like that, having someone younger makes sense. But I sometimes wonder if we might be missing out on some incredible talent because of the desire for younger actors.

If you have ever seen Fringe, you know that John Noble, at age 62, is pretty incredible. He plays two characters–one a smart, crafty, politician and the other a scatterbrained, unstable but loving scientist–with equal brilliance and believability. His character and acting is a large part of what makes the show emotional, believable, and enjoyable. Somehow he has never won an award for this role (though he has been nominated three times for Best Supporting Actor), but it does make me think that perhaps there are some other, more experienced actors and actresses that we are missing out on because people don’t want to watch “old people.” (There are exceptions of course. Betty White has had a long, award-filled career that shows no signs of slowing down despite being 89.) It might be time for us to forget about this obsession with youth before we miss out on some of the great actors and actresses who are getting “up there” in years.

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