Hollywood has long had an ageism problem. And no one knows that better than the women in Hollywood themselves. At the 95th Academy Awards, Everything Everywhere All At Once actress Michelle Yeoh directly addressed this age-old discrimination while accepting the Oscar for Best Actress. “Ladies, don’t let anyone tell you you are ever past your prime,” Yeoh said to cheers. “Never give up.”
It was a history-making moment, not only because Yeoh became the first Asian woman to win her category (and the second woman of colour after Halle Berry in 2002 to take home the golden statue in the ceremony’s 95-year history). It was notable because Yeoh is 61 years old, making her almost 20 years older than the average female Oscar winner for an acting role. Which on its own is exciting news. But, what makes Yeoh’s win even more monumental is the fact that, in an industry that has historically favoured giving award-winning performances to younger women, Yeoh wasn’t the only nominee — and winner — in her 60s. Beaming from the audience as Yeoh accepted her award to a standing ovation were Jamie Lee Curtis, a first-time Oscar nominee and winner of Best Supporting Actress, and Angela Bassett, whose first nom was almost 30 years ago for her turn as Tina Turner in What’s Love Got To Do With It. Both women are 64 years old. And while it may not sound like anything special, three women over the age of 60 nominated and winning major awards later into their careers in Hollywood *is* a big deal — and something to be excited about.
It’s been called a renewal, a resurgence, and “The Aging Actress Renaissance” for stars in the third act of their careers. Like Yeoh, Curtis, and Bassett, newly-minted TV queens Jennifer Coolidge and Sheryl Lee Ralph are seeing a level of superstardom — and the recognition that come with it — in a way they haven’t before. Often, they’re taking on roles that not only centre the experience of different older women, from a Chinese American immigrant navigating a tax audit and multiple universes, to an heiress trying to find love (again) off the coast of Italy, but celebrate and validate them in a way we’ve typically seen reserved for men of the same age.
But are the nominations and wins of actresses like Yeoh, Curtis, and Bassett indicative of actual industry change? If we’re going based on data, the answer would be a resounding no. A 2023 study from the Annenberg Inclusion Initiative found that of the 44 movies in 2022 that featured women as leads or co-leads, only 10 of these films starred women over the age of 45. Of these 10 leads, five were women of colour. (This study did not include Curtis and Bassett, who were supporting actresses.) It was only a slight bump from 2021, which saw seven top-grossing films starring women 45 and older. The year with the highest number of women over the age of 45 as leads or co-leads was 2018, with 11. But there was a reason for this, the study’s lead author Katherine Neff, who attributed this rise to films like Insidious: The Last Key and Halloween, which kept their original actresses, Lin Shaye and Curtis, on. Comparatively, men of the same age in leading roles accounted for 35 films.
And a recent analysis by Sky News found that the average female Oscar winner for acting categories is 39. The average male actor’s age is 47. Meaning once women hit a particular age demo, they’re not being given the same opportunities — roles, stories and material — as younger women, or their male counterparts of the same age; and that’s curtailing them from receiving accolades.
But despite the fact that women over the age of 45 are still underrepresented as leads in Hollywood, the increased visibility of women later in their careers starring in nuanced leading roles — and being recognised for it — is a sign of change and, most importantly, reassurance that there is value and opportunity as we age.
While the 2023 Academy Awards highlighted older women finally getting the roles and awards they deserve, this Oscars class is far from the first as of late. Coming back as Tanya in season 2 of The White Lotus, Legally Blonde actress Jennifer Coolidge received a slew of awards, including an Emmy for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Limited Series and a Best Supporting Actress Golden Globe. After a break from movies, Jennifer Lopez is firmly back in her rom-com era at 53 years old. And Sheryl Lee Ralph, a fan fave as Barbara Howard on Abbott Elementary, took home the Emmy for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Comedy last year. Ahead of her performance at the 2023 Super Bowl, the 66-year-old actress told Refinery29, “It has been amazing. I am so happy for [this recognition] to happen now.”
Or at all, because the hype and reception of these actresses is so different from how it’s been historically. “Hollywood, since its inception, has been obsessed with youth and beauty when it comes to women,” says Alicia Malone, a host on Turner Classic Movies who has written two books about women in cinema. “And we’ve routinely seen great actresses be cast out of Hollywood once they turned 40.” Often, actresses over the age of 40 have been relegated to desexualised side characters or overlooked, one-dimensional mothers. In 2017, at the age of 50, Nicole Kidman played then-41-year-old Alexander Skarsgard’s older wife in HBO’s Big Little Lies, a series produced by Kidman and co-star Reese Witherspoon. By 2022’s The Northman, a film produced by men and directed by Robert Eggers, Kidman, now 55, played his mother. Or they’re just “gruesome monstrous roles,” Malone says. Like witches — literally. When Meryl Streep turned 40, she was offered the role of a witch three times in the span of a year.
It’s a path Yeoh knows well, having followed it herself in her career before EEAAO. Having started out in Hong Kong action flicks in the ’80s and ’90s, Yeoh became known in US markets after playing a Bond girl in Tomorrow Never Dies and hit the awards radars as female warrior Yu Shu Lien in 2000’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Before EEAAO, audiences probably best knew Yeoh as the family matriarch in Crazy Rich Asians. And though her career has spanned decades, Yeoh has often been relegated to supporting roles. “I have not been the first lead in a movie in Hollywood in a long, long time,” Yeoh told Refinery29 in April 2022.
It’s also a standard that men of the same age aren’t beholden to. As Tom Cruise ages, his Mission Impossible love interests get even younger. Older men like Keanu Reeves (John Wick), Robert Downey Jr. (Iron Man), and Liam Neeson (Mission Impossible) have action franchises built around them. Actors like George Clooney are labeled a “silver fox.” “It’s been this insane thought that once women reach a certain age that they’re no longer really no longer sexually viable or attractive enough to play a lead even to a man who is the same age as them,” Malone says. “It’s all in the culture that women are only important or only interesting or viable when they have youth on their side, when they are considered beautiful and sexy,” Malone says. “If they’re not considered either of those things, then what’s the point?”
Not only does the ticking clock put pressure on actresses themselves to present themselves publicly as youthful, but it also affects viewers more widely. “It does a lot of damage to viewers to only see [younger] women in leading roles,” Malone says. “It gives us the idea that once women are past a certain age, that they are, like Michelle Yeoh said, ‘past their prime,’ that they’re not worth watching, that they’re not interesting, that they don’t have stories to tell and that they should just be cast out to somewhere we don’t see”.
And it means we’re missing out on just some great art — because these women, with their age and experiences, can bring depth, nuance, and a groundedness to their roles. And their age can inspire great art as well. Malone recalls watching Francis McDormand in 2020’s Nomadland, about a woman in her 60s who loses everything and travels across America, and thinking about how beautiful she looked. “In that film, she was wearing very little makeup and we got to see her face and all of the beautiful wisdom on the face that comes with age,” Malone recalls, “Chloé Zhao, the director of that film [talked] about how she saw Francis McDormand’s face as being as beautiful as the landscape that she was in. … I’d love to see that more in film.”
Ultimately, “it’s going to be a benefit for all of us who watch movies if these women continue to be allowed in the door, and especially in lead roles,” Malone says.
It’s because of people like the Daniels (EEAAO writer/director duo Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert), Chloé Zhao, and Ryan Coogler — read: diverse talent — that we’re seeing these changes in both mainstream TV and films, which eventually, thanks to their success, spill over into blockbusters, like Marvel’s Black Panther franchise. Bassett may have played a mother, but she is the heart and soul of the movie, and her character Ramonda is given more than one dimension to play with as she grapples with her grief. “Often it starts with independent films where it is less of a financial risk to actors who may not have that track record, box office for a while, or have had time off screen,” Malone says. “But I’m glad these Marvel movies and bigger budget films are starting to allow different people to tell stories. That’s really exciting.”
Even thought data doesn’t indicate a massive tide change, Malone thinks we should still be celebrating seeing more women over the age of 45 on our screens. Having older women who are complex, beautiful, flawed, and nuanced on-screen, as well as thriving in their careers not only validates the IRL experiences and stories of women later in their lives, but also gives us hope that there is success and fulfilment after you hit 40.
“As long as we keep this conversation going and keep asking Hollywood for more, then I think this can be a trend that continues to grow in the future,” Malone says. Especially after the recent Oscars, with Yeoh and Curtis taking home major awards, Malone is optimistic that we’ll start to see more women getting chances and roles that lead to top honours. “There’s still a long way to go,” she says, “but the spark is there.”
And for Yeoh, it’s only the beginning. With a historic awards season under her belt and a slew of new projects underway, her career — or at least this iteration of it — is just starting. “Just because you are now an older actress, they think, Oh, no, no, no, no, we should let the guys do all these kinds of things,” Yeoh told Refinery29 shortly before EEAAO’s release. “And thank God the Daniels didn’t think like that. They thought outside of the box — or the universe.”
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