Nicole Kidman has won every single award for which she’s been nominated for her role as an abused mother of twins on Big Little Lies. She used her Emmys and Golden Globes acceptance speeches to talk about the importance of shedding a light on the stories of survivors of domestic abuse. At the Emmys, Kidman called domestic abuse a “complicated, insidious disease.” At the Globes, she said, “This character that I played represents something that is the centre of our conversation right now: abuse. I do believe and I hope that we can elicit change through the stories we tell and the way we tell them.” For her SAG Award win – her first after 10 nominations — Kidman decided to take on a different topic. The actress, who is 50 years old, talked about the previous dearth of roles for women over 40 in Hollywood. Specifically, the importance of continuing to tell the stories of women of all ages — something that it’s been proven is a major problem in an industry where ageism runs rampant.
“I want to thank you all for your trailblazing performances you have given over your career and how wonderful it is that our careers today can go beyond 40 years old. Twenty years ago, we were pretty washed up by this stage in our lives, so that's not the case now. We have proven [that] these actresses and so many more are proving that we are potent and powerful and viable. I just beg that the industry stays behind us, because our stories are finally being told. It’s only the beginning, and I’m so proud to be a part of a community that is instigating this change. But I implore the writers, directors, studios, and financiers to put passion and money behind our stories. We have proven that we can do this; we can continue to do this, but only with the support of this industry and that money and passion.”
All jokes about one’s “Last Fuckable Day” aside, there is a proven paucity of roles for women once they hit a certain age. “I remember as I was hovering around 40, I thought each movie would be my last, really. And all the evidence of other 40-year-old women at that time — this is 27 years ago — would lead you to believe it was over,” Meryl Streep told Wall Street Journal magazine in 2016. In 2015, Liv Tyler, then 38, told More magazine, “When you're in your teens or twenties, there is an abundance of ingénue parts which are exciting to play. But at [my age], you're usually the wife or the girlfriend, a sort of second-class citizen."
Age discrimination is what led then 40-year-old actress Huong Hoang to sue IMDb for revealing her age in 2011; she said it cost her jobs in an industry where “youth is king.” Hoang brought the suit against the database anonymously, suing for a number of violations, including fraud, privacy and disregard of a consumer protection law. The Screen Actors Guild supported her cause, as did many other actors, but IMDb referred to its side of the argument as a “search for truth.” Hoang’s identity was eventually exposed, and she lost the suit.
This problem extends beyond anecdotal evidence, though. In 2016, the Institute for Diversity and Empowerment at Annenberg at the University of Southern California released a comprehensive report on diversity in entertainment. It found that “One of the most politicised areas in Hollywood pertains to casting women 40 years of age or older.” Only 35% of the characters evaluated in the study fell into that age bracket, and of that 35%, only 25.7% of those roles were filled by women. Women fared better in terms of representation on streaming platforms — 33.1% — and were the most underrepresented in film — 21.4%.
In another study, Clemson economists Robert Fleck and Andrew Hanssen analysed IMDb data on domestically produced films from 1920 to 2011. Their results showed that there’s a sliding scale when it comes to ageism for women in Hollywood. Women in their 20s actually get 80 percent of leading roles; that flips by the time they’re 40 (men then claim 80 percent of those roles). “This is a key thing — women have shorter careers that start earlier,” Fleck told the Washington Post. Women in their 20s are at their peak, while men in their 40s are in their prime, and almost just getting started (think of the Clooneys and Pitts of the world).
This is how we get those so-true-they’re-sadly-funny consistent pairings of Jennifer Lawrence, Scarlett Johansson, and Emma Stone, and increasingly older men (which Vulture so handily compiled into charts). Vulture made a similar set of charts to demonstrate how Harrison Ford, Denzel Washington, Johnny Depp, Richard Gere, and more famous actors keep getting older, but the women who play opposite them stay the same age, or in some cases get younger. Woody Allen has been making movies about May-December romances for his entire career. It's also why for years, we've seen ludicrous scenarios in which actresses were barely older than the actors who played their children. Angelina Jolie was one year older than Colin Farrell when he played her son in Alexander — one!!!
Hopefully, the tide is turning when it comes to telling the stories of women over the age of 40 — and casting women who are actually of that age to play them. This year at the SAGs, all of the nominees for Outstanding Performance by a Female Actor in a Limited Series or Television Movie were over the age of 40. Frances McDormand, who took home the award for Outstanding Performance by a Female Actor in a Leading Role, Motion Picture, and is well on her way to scooping up the Oscar for her role as an aggrieved mother avenging her daughter’s murder, is 60.
Unfortunately, in Hollywood, it all comes down to bankability, which is what Kidman was alluding to in her speech. Which actors are going to make the most money for studios or TV networks? Which studios or TV networks are willing to take risks on unknown stars? Which financiers are going to put up the money to tell the story of a 60-year-old woman living a life of quiet desperation following the death of her only remaining family member, even if that woman is Isabelle Huppert? While this may prove to be a good thing when it comes to ending Woody Allen’s career — he’ll have trouble continuing to get financing for his films if big-name stars refuse to work with him — it won’t help get more women beyond their twenties in front of the camera if we’re dealing with the same close-minded directors, writers, producers, financiers, and studios.
There is a solution for that, though: more women directors and creators. The latest Celluloid Ceiling study from Martha Lauzen at the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State University found that, “In 2016, women comprised 18% of all directors, writers, producers, executive producers, editors, and cinematographers working on the top 250 domestic grossing films.” That number is disappointingly low, but that 18% comprises a powerful network of women who support and employ one another. They increasingly have the power to get films made and financed. Reese Witherspoon is producing more and more of her own material. Ava DuVernay is making $100 million movies for Disney. According to a 2016 MPAA report, women make up 52% of movie-going audiences. Per Nielsen, adults between the ages of 50 and 64 watch more TV on average per week than the coveted 18 to 49 demographic.
Nicole Kidman is right. The hunger for the stories of women of all ages is there. It’s just a matter of finding the people to tell them.