Women and their societal problems are getting lots of attention these days. One aspect of women growing older in the United States is the invisibility factor. In general, when a young woman walks into a store, the clerks see her as a consumer and pay attention. When an older woman walks into the store, she is ignored. In so many venues, she is invisible.
For many years, this has been the case with strong older female characters in films and on television…until recently. Back in the twentieth century, the stereotypical old lady was played by such character actresses as Marion Lorne and Ida Moore. Their characters were befuddled but harmless, lovable eccentrics; they showed no depth of personality and were there only for the sake of a quick laugh. Other old lady stereotypes include the wacko women of horror movies which were parts accepted late in their sagging careers by superstars such as Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, and Gloria Swanson.
Just as LGBTQs, people of color, Muslims, obese people, and others who often come under fire, women past the age of sixty have been stressing the importance of seeing characters who reflect themselves on screens in a positive way.
Producers and various types of entertainment investors must have spotted the market, and there certainly is a market, because for the past couple years, there have been many older actresses appearing in meaty roles on screen in successful programs and films.
GRACE AND FRANKIE on Netflix is a lead project in portraying the post-seventy crowd as alive and well and busy, with constant life changes and doors constantly opening to new business ventures and exciting romantic adventures. Newly-minted octogenarian Jane Fonda and her co-star/co-producer Lily Tomlin play three-dimensional characters living full lives. Their situation is a far cry from the stale version of old age where mom is eccentric so let’s put her into a home. Fonda and co-stars Diane Keaton, Candice Bergen, and Mary Steenburgen are attracting large audiences in the new comedy BOOK CLUB about a group of female friends who decide to re-open their lives to romantic and sexual adventure. The box office intake for BOOK CLUB is around $53 million and growing.
Candice Bergen is further flexing her comedic muscle with the reboot of MURPHY BROWN. Thirteen new episodes are being released on TV this fall with many of the same actors and the original writer. The 72-year-old actress will play Murphy anchoring a cable TV news show and being in competition with her own son. Even more good news, Tyne Daly joins the cast. Personally, I can’t wait!
Shirley MacLaine hit a home run last year as a powerful and obstinate businesswoman who insists on writing her own obituary in THE LAST WORD. Next month, Julie Walters, Cher, and Meryl Streep will light up theater screens in MAMA MIA! HERE WE GO AGAIN. Meanwhile, Judi Dench and Glenn Close haven’t seen an unemployment line for many a year!
If there are any doubts about the wonderful turn-around from invisibility to prominence, just think about who won the most recent awards. Best Oscar for a female in a lead role went to 61-year old Frances McDormand. And Broadway’s Tony Award for best female actress in a play went to 82-year old Glenda Jackson who hasn’t appeared in a movie since 1992. Maybe there’s a meaty on-screen role awaiting her in the coming months. Today, anything seems possible!
Audrey Kupferberg is a film and video archivist and appraiser. She is lecturer emeritus and the former Director of Film Studies at the University at Albany and has co-authored several entertainment biographies with her husband and creative partner, Rob Edelman.
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