There’s that age-old, frat-boy saying that women, like a fine wine, only get better with age. Cringeworthy, but could it be true?
Take this week at the movies. The three main films of note are Hampstead, a romantic comedy about a homeless Londoner; The Seasons in Quincy, an experimental documentary about a recently deceased art critic; and Souvenir, a little-known French arthouse melodrama set in a paté factory.
Each movie, taken on its own, has received indifferent reviews. But look a little closer and there’s something remarkable at play here.
The stars of each are America’s Diane Keaton, aged 71; Scottish actress Tilda Swinton, who also directs, aged 56; and France's Isabelle Huppert, aged 64.
Sexism in cinema doesn’t need evidence – it’s obvious. Even before the creation of the Bechdel test, which analyses whether a fiction film contains at least two female characters who speak about something that isn’t a man, the film industry weathered a torrent of criticism for its treatment of women.
There are signs the industry has started to respond. The number of female characters in films has begun to increase and, in Hollywood productions last year, a little over one-third of speaking parts were played by women. Which is great, until you consider the fact that the average actress reaches their earning peak at the age of 30, while male actors see their careers peak at the age of 46, according to a TIME analysis of the careers of over 6,000 actors and actresses who have played the lead role in at least one feature film.
Then there’s the study from the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, which looked at 1,256 speaking parts in 25 movies that received Best Picture Oscar nominations from 2014 to 2016. It found that only 148 – or 12% – of the characters from these films were more than 60 years of age. Of those 148 characters, only 22% were women. That's 3.5 men for every woman in what is already a minuscule category.
It’s almost as if the film industry has bought into the bullshit about the biological clock and come to the conclusion that, if you’re not of perfect childbearing age, you can’t act.
Yet men can carry on being the romantic lead until they pick up their pension. As Vulture noted recently, Hollywood routinely pairs young actresses with much older male leads (but never the other way round).
There are, of course, notable and celebrated exceptions. “Meryl Streep is so brilliant in August: Osage County,” Tina Fey said when opening the Golden Globes in 2014, “proving that there are still great parts in Hollywood for Meryl Streeps over 60.”
Streep has ruled the roost of older actresses for a long time. But what of the other women who are leading the way on our cinema screens this week?
The daughter of a Catholic schoolteacher who encouraged her daughter to act, and a Jewish manufacturer of safes, forced to conceal his background during the Nazi occupation, the 5ft 3in, pale, tightly wound Isabelle Huppert is the physical embodiment of French arthouse cinema, and Parisian culture in general. Forty-six years into an acting career, Souvenir is one of six films Huppert has slated for release in 2017. Among them is Elle, the controversial rape-revenge dramedy, and Happy End, her fourth collaboration with Michael Haneke, shot in the Calais 'Jungle' before it was bulldozed.
In Souvenir, Huppert plays bored and lonely factory worker Liliane, once a contestant in the European Song Contest. It’s about as shallow and fluffy a movie as Huppert has leant her name to, yet the film is still notable for the way her character can embark on a romance with a 21-year-old without it feeling the slightest bit out of sorts.
But her early career did not immediately mark her out as an acting prodigy. True, she won a BAFTA at the age of 24 for Claude Goretta's La Dentellière. But it wasn’t until her American film debut, in Michael Cimino's Heaven's Gate, an overlooked masterpiece, that Huppert started to gain genuine attention. By that point, she was in her late 20s. As she moved into her 30s, she started to become the actress we know today, working with Jean-Luc Godard, Andrzej Wajda and Claude Chabrol.
The Australian film critic Julie Rigg tells Refinery29 about the experience of interviewing Huppert in Venice for the release of White Material, the film she made with Claire Denis. “I asked Huppert some banal question about how she managed to achieve all that she does,” Rigg says. “She looked down at my feet, which were red and swollen in new sandals I’d bought for the Venice summer. ‘Comfortable shoes’ she said, and laughed.”
Diane Keaton’s career has lasted even longer. She made her debut in 1970, at the age of 24. Her third film, at 26, was The Godfather. At 28 came The Godfather II, and then, at 31, Annie Hall. Look at her early work: few actresses in cinema can point to such considered credits. She has continued to make a movie every year ever since.
As for Swinton, she didn’t start seriously performing until well into her degree in social and political sciences at Cambridge University. She spent her 20s on small parts in small movies, coming to some prominence through her relationship with the cult arthouse director Derek Jarman, with whom she first worked on Caravaggio at age 26. It wasn’t until Danny Boyle’s The Beach, in 2000, that Swinton started to garner mainstream attention. By that time, she had turned 40.
Hannah McGill, the film critic and former artistic director of the Edinburgh Film Festival, tells Refinery29 that the suggestion it’s all over for female actresses at 30 is overplayed – and risks becoming another way of imposing self-doubt on women.
"It's certainly true that Hollywood and the wider mainstream film business have a depressing tendency to cleave to convention by placing women in more passive roles, and having a lot of use for female eye candy,” McGill says. “But there's also a long tradition of female actors consolidating their power and doing their best work in their 30s and 40s, and carrying on long beyond that.
"Think of Mae West, Bette Davis, Barbara Stanwyck, Joan Crawford, Lucille Ball, Barbra Streisand – these were women who retained business clout, high glamour and megastardom far beyond the supposed female sell-by date."
McGill suggests we try and look at ageism the other way around, by worrying more about the dearth of substantial, non-objectifying roles for young women, rather than constantly claiming that it's all over at 30.
"The more young women get to cut their teeth on actual parts as complex human beings, rather than set-dressing, the more savvy and experienced actresses – rather than exploited-and-dumped flash-in-the-pan It Girls – will develop, and the more movies will be built around them as their working lives go on," she says.
"Nor should we confuse ‘still really young’ with ‘better off in every way’. In the movie business, as in life, being fresh-faced and in high sexual demand does not equal having power or control. The idea that there are twenty-somethings running around controlling Hollywood and getting first pick of all the best projects is bogus – but it's one that will only shift by women and men alike rejecting it.
"Why do we seem intent on minimising the achievements of older women, and hand-wringing on their behalf, rather than recognising that their success actually makes perfect sense?"