Lack of good film roles for older women

I have been watching some older films recently, made somewhere between 10 and 20 years ago. What I noticed was that while many of the male actors were still around and appearing in current films, the female actors seemed to have disappeared, even though they had starring roles in the films I saw.

For example, the 1993 film The Firm starred Tom Cruise and Jeanne Tripplehorn and a host of well known supporting actors. While most of the other male actors like Gene Hackman. Ed Harris, and Hal Holbrook made many films after that and stayed in the public mind, I never heard of Tripplehorn again. Holly Hunter (who has a minor role in the film) had a major role that same year with The Piano but one rarely sees her these days either. The same with Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (2005) that starred Robert Downey Jr., Val Kilmer, and Michelle Monaghan. Monaghan has pretty much disappeared.

I think this goes beyond simple sexism in Hollywood but reflects our society as a whole. When male actors age, there are a huge variety of strong characters they can play, such as corporate executives, senior lawyers, military brass, criminal bosses, grizzled law enforcement officers, spy chiefs, murderous villains, and the like. But these kinds of positions are still largely occupied by men in real life and I suspect that films reflect this fact because screenwriters and filmmakers may not think of casting women for these parts.

For older women, their options are largely limited to playing women in traditionally female roles within the home or in relationship films. The few good roles are few and far between and those seem to be dominated by a few like Helen Mirren, Meryl Streep, Judy Dench, and Maggie Smith. Even a superb actor like Susan Sarandon rarely gets to play any serious role for an older person.

Right now there are actors like Julia Roberts, Nicole Kidman, Jodie Foster, Sandra Bullock, and Halle Berry who are on the cusp of ceasing to be able to play leads and it would be a real shame for them to end up in minor roles or disappear entirely.

One hopes that by the time young actors like Jennifer Lawrence, Natalie Portman, and Scarlett Johansson reach a mature age, things would have changed so that they too don’t end up playing secretaries, doting mothers, and interfering mothers-in-law.


  1. Rob Grigjanis says

    On topic, I think: Amy Schumer does a hilarious spoof of the “The Most Interesting Man in the World” beer commercial. Great lines like “Vietnam is a veteran of her”. I’m guessing each scene took multiple tries, because keeping a straight face must have been nigh impossible.

  2. says

    The impact of really good cable TV on Hollywood is not to be underestimated. Part of the change is that the traditional guardians of the distribution channel (actual film and theater seats) are having to downsize, refocus, reinvent, and may not survive anyway. “Good riddance” I say.

  3. jaxkayaker says

    Michelle Monaghan disappeared right into 5 subsequent movies and True Detective season 1. The last may not be film, but it’s not being out of acting work. It might be better. I think Jodie Foster mainly directs now. She may choose not to act. Jeanne Tripplehorn was in one TV series for four years and another for three.

  4. moarscienceplz says

    I’m hoping the new Ghostbusters does good box office. Melissa McCarthy seems to be prying open the door to roles for non sex kittens almost single-handedly, but she is trying to bring along as many of her fellow actresses as possible.

  5. mnb0 says

    The exception that confirms the rule:

    Danielle Darrieux was 85.
    Catherine Deneuve was 59.
    Isabelle Huppert 49.
    Emmanuele Beart 39.
    Fanny Ardent 53.
    Virginie Ledoyen 26.
    Ludivine Sagnier 23.
    Firmine Richard 55.
    The first five all are very famous in France and among admirers of French cinema like me.
    The movie is well worth watching.

  6. schini says

    One hopes that by the time young actors like Jennifer Lawrence, Natalie Portman, and Scarlett Johansson reach a mature age …

    What is your definition of a mature age? (JLaw is the youngest of them at 25)

  7. Mano Singham says

    McCarthy was good in Spy too and the fact that she was the lead and Jude Law was in a supporting role was a welcome sight.

  8. says

    Rebel Wilson hasn’t had a starring role that’s really put her over the top yet and sadly her sitcom only lasted one season (I personally enjoyed it), but she’s another “plus size” (I don’t care for that term) actress getting a lot of good attention in Hollywood. Granted, for every step forward they take, the film industry takes two steps back, but it’s nice to see some change happening.

  9. sonofrojblake says

    I immediately thought of Amy Schumer too, although my mind went to the “last fuckable day” sketch.

    Acting careers are strange. On Youtube there’s a series of vids with titles like “Why Hollywood won’t cast XXXX any more”. All of the examples that have popped up in my suggestion column have been male actors -- Tobey Maguire, Hayden Christensen, Seann William Scott. Google shows there are female examples, but sudden chilling of what seemed up to a point like a stellar career is by no means limited to female actors.

    What’s also interesting is that when you look past the tabloid fluff of those videos, quite often the real answer to why Hollywood “won’t cast” a particular actor is that that actor is no longer bothering trying. They have often, in the space of a very few years in their youth, made more money than most humans could ever possibly spend and have decided to get off the treadmill and enjoy life and spend time with their family.

    I can’t remember which actor said this, but it rings very true: acting in movies, especially bigger movies, is pretty hard work, but it’s enough fun that said actor would do it for free. What they regarded as being the “work” they were actually paid for was the publicity -- the soul-crushing, mind-numbing business of sitting in hotels rooms for weeks fielding the same dozen questions from every film journalist in the world, about a film they’d probably finished shooting a year or more before the day of the interview. It should be no surprise that most people who become millionaires by doing such a job choose not to do it once they’ve made a success of it. If anything, we should be surprised there are so many people who keep doing it year after year when by anyone’s standards they no longer need to.

    There’s definitely a lack of good roles for older female actors in mainstream films, but there’s more than just sexism at work -- it’s an industry that chews up and spits out people of all ages, races, genders and other signifiers.

  10. sonofrojblake says

    One other point that just crossed my mind:

    I never heard of Tripplehorn again [after The Firm]

    Two years after that she was the female lead on the (then) most expensive blockbuster science fiction movie ever made. Oh -- you didn’t go to see Waterworld? Me neither. I’ve noted a distinct absence of Kevin Costner in major roles since that debacle too.

    Some would say that the female lead for five years in a major HBO drama alongside Bill Paxton, Chloe Sevigny, Bruce Dern and Harry Dean Stanton was doing pretty well, too.

    Bad example?

  11. Onamission5 says

    A documentary you might enjoy (well. enjoy is probably the wrong word) in which Rosanna Arquette speaks with various female actors regarding the gender specific pressures they deal with in their careers. It’s from 2002, but as institutional change is often slow, I cannot imagine most of what is discussed doesn’t still apply: Searching for Debra Winger.

  12. Jenora Feuer says

    I seem to recall that when Carrie Fisher was asked if she had any second thoughts about taking up the role of Princess Leia again in The Force Awakens, her response was pretty much, “Do you have any idea how few roles there are available for a women of my age? I jumped right at it.”

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