The Realities Of Being A Film Actress

The Heat
Sandra Bullock and Melissa McCarthy are both over 40 and big movie stars. Just don’t ask them to try and sell a magazine cover.

Hollywood actresses are at a strange crossroads. Or that is what two articles published in the last week would lead one to believe. The first “On Newsstands, The Allure of the Film Actress Fades” (New York Times, June 5) focuses on how film actresses cannot compete with the likes of the Kardashians and thus cannot sell magazines. The second, “Revenge of The Over-40 Actress” (The Hollywood Reporter, June 14) suggests that actresses over the age of 40 are in the midst of career boom. Here are the main points we can take away from these articles.

    • Movie stars are less revered.
    • Magazine covers with films stars are not guaranteed to outsell those with TV or music stars.
    • Movies don’t appeal to women.
    • The film audience is aging.
    • Television is in the midst of a boom.
    • Actresses who were A-list as 30-somethings are still A-list as 40-somethings..
    • Women over 40 are no longer expected to look matronly.
    • A TV role can nurture and enhance an actress’s career.
    • Melissa McCarthy’s career success at age 40 is something to marvel at.
    • Angelina Jolie is more than a film star.

Interestingly enough, both articles cite a recent study by the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism. This study, which examined gender inequality in popular cinema, presents two statistics about women in Hollywood films in 2012. First, only 28.4% of speaking characters in 2012 films were women. Second, in 2012 films there was a ratio of 5 males to every 1 female behind the scenes. These statistics speak to the gross underrepresentation of women on screen and working in production.

After reading through these two articles and the study, my main question is: How can the thriving careers of actresses over 40 be commended if movie stars are less revered and if women are poorly represented on-screen?

Of course, Melissa McCarthy’s career surge at 42 is profoundly refreshing. After being an under-appreciated supporting player on TV and film for years, McCarthy deserves every bit of success and praise she is receiving right now. Likewise, it is great that over-40 actresses like Sandra Bullock, Gwyneth Paltrow, Nicole Kidman, and Naomi Watts can still generate box office revenue, headline movies, and win accolades. We shouldn’t want these actresses and their peers to stop working because they got too old.

But when it comes to selling their personal and not their careers, the actresses who have defined cinema for the last decade cannot compete with the appeal of reality stars like the Kardashians or young starlets like Selena Gomez. Should it matter that someone like Sandra Bullock can’t sell as many magazines as someone like Demi Lovato? No. Because there is a difference between selling magazines and selling movie tickets. They are less closely connected than one would think.

Actresses cannot sell magazines anymore because in order to sell a magazine, they must be willing to divulge every detail of their private lives.  Moreover, because of relentless gossip blogs, social media and reality TV, fans believe they have the right to access every personal detail about their favorite celebrities. For reality stars like the Kardashians, selling their private lives is a no-brainer. But for an A-list actress, keeping her private lives private is essential. She needs to sell a film, not a magazine, in order to keep working. The fact remains that a massive gossip scandal can undo an actress’s career far more quickly than it will ever affect an actor’s. (See: Reese Witherspoon or Kristen Stewart.)

Furthermore, the age of general movie audiences – that is the age of people who buy movie tickets – absolutely dictates which actresses we see in movies. There are countless talented actresses under 40 working in indie films, on television and on stage who should be bigger names. But because there are only so many film roles for women, taking a risk on unproven actresses in a studio film does not happen enough. As THR points out, only a few younger actresses such as Rachel McAdams and Amy Adams have demonstrated their own appeal. (Jessica Chastain, who can be classified as their peer, is still an unproven newcomer.)

Finally, both articles and the study argue that if more women work behind the scenes then gender inequality in cinema can be reduced. I hate this argument because it operates under the assumption that women can create better roles for women solely because they are women. More women working behind the scenes is not what will magically reduce gender inequality in Hollywood films. While it does help, it takes multiple writers, directors, producers, actors – male and female – to create complicated, multi-faceted, and interesting female characters.

This is why I think the surge of actresses working on television will ultimately change the film industry for the better. Some of the best female characters on cable television have been written by men on shows produced by men. Audiences gravitate towards these shows and admire the actresses who play them. In due time, how television favors actresses will influence the film industry and talented actresses of any age can get a variety of roles. Then we can stop reveling in the success of a woman because she is over 40 and start reveling in her success because after many years of going unnoticed, she’s making her mark.

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