Russell Crowe and Women of a Certain Age (In the Movies)

C: If you ever wondered what the Quibbling Siblings discuss at their father’s birthday dinner, you’re going to get a dose of it in this post. But first, the spark that provoked it. Have you heard that Russell Crowe thinks women of his age should embrace their maturity in order to perform in rich, meaty, dramatic roles like he does, and quit chasing that dream of trying to be seen as still young and beautiful?

M: To quote the key passage… “The best thing about the industry I’m in – movies – is that there are roles for people in all different stages of life. To be honest, I think you’ll find that the woman who is saying that (the roles have dried up) is the woman who at 40, 45, 48, still wants to play the ingénue, and can’t understand why she’s not being cast as the 21-year-old.” Because, you know, now that he’s playing a character of his own “older” age FOR THE SECOND TIME, he has the right to cast stones.

E: As far as Hollywood’s obsession with youth goes, he’s not wrong that it’s troubling. There everyone agrees.

C: But as the Siblings, at least, agree, that doesn’t make the stink of male privilege all over Crowe’s statement any less repugnant.

E: No it does not. As a note to our readers, we’re joined in our indignation by guests P and MMGF (My Movie-Going Friend).  Welcome guys!  Now M, you had a point you wanted to open with?

M: Ahem, yes. I’d like to submit some pieces of evidence that show that Crowe’s argument, if right, is only half right…

(The Rambo one is a fan poster. The real poster does not exist, but evidently the film does:

E: Clearly trying to keep a youthful career going is a female phenomenon!

M: Exactly. I believe this is a systemic issue in Hollywood (and society to a lesser degree) with both genders, though it is certainly more pronounced with women because there are less leading roles written for women in general. Look at the Expendables movies — basically every action hero ever trying to prove they’re not too old. How about Lethal Weapon? The first movie started out with Danny Glover’s character being days from retirement…. and they made three more movies, with Glover being more and more of an action hero in each. Then there are the movies I listed above. In general, Hollywood needs EVERYONE to act their age. Just because Crowe is starting to do that for the first time now doesn’t mean he should be, you know, crowing about it.

P: It’s pretty funny how they’re all basically the same movie, too. Old action hero saves child, continues franchise. Russell should be drafted into Expendables 3.

M: You mean 4…

P: Same difference.

M: Fair enough.

C: I guess it’s supposed to be cute when men do it? Or, like, heartwarming? Anything other than degrading, vain, and embarrassing, as it would be called for women?

P: Reds and Reds 2 at least have Mirren kicking butt. But then three more dudes.

C: Okay, so we’ve established that male actors face a fear of aging out of relevance, too. Yet they don’t seem to find that “the roles have dried up,” to borrow Crowe’s phrase, at all. And for women? I have a piece of evidence to share, too. Ladies and gentleman, Crowe directed the movie he’s discussing in this interview, The Water Diviner. Who did he cast in the only significant older female role? Drumroll please… That’s right! A 35-year-old Bond girl!

E: Yeah, telling women to act their age doesn’t really take into account the fact that Hollywood relegates women to playing the mom when they hit 30 (if not significantly before).

C: Does Crowe even see this happening, though? Nope. “Meryl Streep will give you 10,000 examples and arguments as to why that’s bulls**t, so will Helen Mirren, or whoever it happens to be,” he said. Um, yeah, Russell, “whoever happens to be” those older women other than Streep and Mirren being offered many plum dramatic roles? So… Judi Dench, basically. End of list.

M: Maybe Julie Christie and a few others.

E: Julie Christie, sadly, makes a movie every 2-3 years; that’s any role, not just a starring one. When you talk older women, you’ve got Streep and Mirren and Dench in a lot of stuff, and if you’re not them, well.

C: Streep, who is literally in theaters right now playing AN OLD WITCH. And she’s the one getting the good older female roles!

E: Meanwhile, let’s talk age imbalance in movies. She’s a great actress and I love her, but for Jennifer Lawrence to play the love interest of Bradley Cooper and Christian Bale within a year?  When she was, what, 20, and still starring in The Hunger Games?  You could say she’s an extraordinary actress, and she is, but that argument is only a reasonable point if she’s the exception.  And she’s not.

C: As these handy charts show, most leading men routinely act with women much younger, and their partners’ ages tend to plateau as they age. Whereas leading women, when they hit a certain age… often become supporting actors.

MMGF: Speaking of which, E and I could write an entire critique about the Oscars’ offenses here, too.  In the last 20 years, the average Best Actress winner age has been 36, while the average Best Actor age has been 41.

M: Five years doesn’t seem like that big a difference, I’m betting there’s more.

MMGF: There is. The youngest Best Actor winner EVER, Adrien Brody, was 29, just shy of turning 30.  Since 1995, FIVE of the 20 Best Actress winners have been YOUNGER than that.  And when Reese Witherspoon won, she was only five days older.  It’s kind of crazy.

E: You can say that again.

M: And she didn’t win, but Quvenzhane Wallis was what, six years old when she filmed Beast of the Southern Wild, for which she was nominated for Best Actress?

E: Five, actually.

MMGF: Although, maybe it’s a chicken-and-egg scenario?  Are younger women winning the awards because they’re the only ones hired in the best roles?  Or are the Oscars rewarding the pretty young thing, so those are always the best roles in the best movies?

P: I dunno, there are some women getting good roles — Kathy Bates and the rest of the cast of American Horror Story: Lange, Paulson…

E: On one hand, that’s a good point. Orange is the New Black, The Good Wife, Downton Abbey, House of Cards — these kinds of shows are where women aged 35 plus get actual, substantive work.  BUT.

C: Yes, but.  You can’t count television.  Television is where all the great actresses are going because that’s where they get to star in shows and have complex roles.

E: It’s true. The small screen stigma is gone (which is to say, movie actors don’t think it’s slumming to do TV), and we’re living through what’s widely considered  a golden age of television — and in fact that recent TV shows feature actresses like Bates, Lange, Paulson, Harden as well as Angela Basset, Viola Davis, Taraji Henson, Kyra Sedgewick, Mary McDonnell, Octavia Spencer, Holly Hunter, Kerry Washington, all of who have either won Oscars, been nominated for Oscars or starred in Oscar nominated movies!  The list is pretty huge, really.

C: And why are they all flocking to TV? Way more parts, of course, but also parts they wouldn’t get on the big screen.

MMGF: It’s true. You rarely get movies where the FILM’S lead is a woman, old or young.  Something like The Iron Lady is so rare.  Maybe there’s still some kind of not only ageism, but sexism in movie-going-ness.  (I mean, it sounds silly; obviously that’s true.)  I just can’t see why a great, big movie about Martin Luther King can get made, but we don’t have a similarly-scaled movie for, say, Rosa Parks.  Why aren’t people going to want to see that?  Remember all the “WOW” exclamations when it was announced that The Blind Side was the first movie headlined by just an actress made $200 million?  It’s like… really?  The first one, ever, and we’re supposed to be excited about that?  (Plus, it was kind of a football movie, too.)  Yikes.

C: You’re sure right about the imbalance — I just came upon these recent statistics: “Even though women comprise 52% of moviegoers, only 15% of protagonists and 30% of speaking characters in the top 100 grossing domestic films in 2013 were female.” When women make up more than half of movie-goers, does anyone really believe there’s no bias on the movie-making end to account for these discrepancies?

E: Yeah, it’s pretty terrible, and the crazy thing is that I’m pretty sure classic Hollywood had lots of movies about women.  How is it that we’ve gone so far backwards?  Honestly, of this year’s Oscar contenders, there’s only two that have women as official co-leads, Gone Girl and The Theory of Everything, and honestly I’m not even sure about the latter. None is about a woman.  Not one.

C: Let’s just let that sink in for a moment.

E: Of course, there were good movies made about women this year, but they’re somehow not in the running for Best Picture.

M: That’s a different conversation entirely, don’t get me started.

E: Ok, good point. On a happier note, Mockingjay might still be able to beat Guardians of the Galaxy as the top earner of 2014, and in 2013, both Catching Fire and Frozen made more than $400 million dollars.  So movies about girls and women can, in fact, rake in the bucks, so long as studios are willing to make them.

M: Okay, we’re pretty much all on the same page here (or at least in the same chapter), but to back up a bit, I don’t think that you can just throw TV out like that. Like you said, E, the small screen stigma is gone, and the money is there, too. Sometimes the money is bigger for TV. So now, the silver screen needs to catch up with the flat screen.

C: I think we can throw out TV when specifically answering Crowe’s original contention — that older women are vainly seeking out ingenue roles instead of taking on rich, complex, dramatic fodder written for their age, and embracing their age to give depth to their performance. Crowe is talking about the movies, and insanely seems not to realize that those roles for women exist in almost no movies. Including his movie.

E: Yeah, I don’t think you can count them as the same. Television is a different medium, one that reflects gender more realistically (shows about men and about women, amazing!) and even some racial/ethnic diversity in a way that the movies simply don’t.  In fact, it kind of feels like the studios have just ceded women’s stories over to the small screen so that they can lure folks to the big screen with spectacles — which, to them, can only be about men.

C: That’s just it. The big stories, the epic stories, the stories worth leaving your giant TV and adjacent kitchen and paying $12 for a movie ticket — Hollywood is still insisting those are men’s stories.

M: All good points, but I’m not ready to rule out TV just yet. Like with any kind of minority searching for equality, you don’t want to throw out the progress being made just because there is still a ways to go. You are better off, in my opinion, highlighting the success that has come to TV shows that have female leads than throwing out TV from the discussion. Juxtapose the lack of critically acclaimed movies at the top of the box office with the critically acclaimed female-driven shows that have huge TV audiences and win awards.

C: I agree there’s some good to celebrating the progress made on TV — if filmmakers and production companies took more notice of it, maybe that would migrate to the big screen. Just like it’s important to recognize the Catching Fires and Frozens in hopes that Hollywood recognizes the existence of a demand.

E: TV is just years beyond film in recognizing that you can make money from female audiences, and that men will watch art about women.

C: Agreed. I do think it’s equally important, though, to recognize that film has been sluggish, to say the least, in approaching anything close to parity, numbers-wise. And I think it’s also important to recognize that TV isn’t at parity either with the great dramatic lead roles for women, even while it is a lot better than film. Where’s the Breaking Bad or House of Cards starring a woman? (As lead, not co-lead with a man?) The fact alone that people inevitably mention misogyny-fest Game of Thrones when talking about all the wonderful roles for women on TV speaks volumes…

E: Well, I personally think that show does exist, and it’s called The Good Wife — and because it sounds domestic (and the fact that it airs on broadcast TV) it doesn’t get the same level of respect.  But critics (who long have admitted it’s the best show on broadcast) are slowly acknowledging that it is just as good.

C: Didn’t mean to commit blasphemy against your household gods, E! I guess I was thinking of those other two shows as one-two punches of a sort: massive water-cooler popularity (all my students have seen Breaking Bad, for instance) plus genuine dramatic heft. TGW I think of primarily in terms of the latter — I know it doesn’t lack for viewers, though.

M: Not sure your college students are an appropriate representation, even if they are a key demographic. My circles contain a far less Breaking Bad discussion. Not none, by any means, but not a plurality.

E: No offense taken, sis. It’s interesting, though — to echo M, I don’t know that those water-cooler shows actually have greater over all viewership. I think more people play World of Warcraft than watch most things on TV, to be honest.  It’s just too fragmented a market these days.  And plenty of people don’t watch TGW because of the name, even.

C: Though that may be more to do with the fact that people assume it’s a family drama (historically low-rated) than the gender of “wife.” Still, to segue back to the original point, roles like Julianna Margulies’s are few and far between, and in film, even more endangered. And sex appeal is still the primary quality women seem to be cast based on, so it’s hardly surprising if they try to keep that going as they get older. To quote Tina Fey: “I have a suspicion that the definition of ‘crazy’ in show business is a woman who keeps talking even after no one wants to f*** her anymore.”

E: Gosh, that’s so depressing. But there’s a similar saying about Oscar, too — that the Academy votes for the man they want to be and the woman they want to sleep with.

M: We’re getting off track a bit, let’s bring it back and wrap up.

C: I’ll close with this. Male artists throughout history have celebrated the young female body as a source of inspiration and the epitome of desire.

M: Ummmm…

C: Geesh, M, quit being impatient and bear with me. Throughout history, those same artists have labeled older women who try to hold on to that youth and beauty as vain and laughable. In short: what Crowe’s saying isn’t new, but that doesn’t make it any less smug or lacking in compassion, realism, or perspective.

5 comments on “Russell Crowe and Women of a Certain Age (In the Movies)

  1. […] This is an excellent lead in to another post we’re writing at this moment, where we discuss Russell Crowe’s comments about actresses needing to “act their […]

  2. […] E: Clearly you need to re-read our open letter to Russell Crowe. […]

  3. […] Because we spend a lot of time bemoaning the lack of roles for women, I thought it was important to include this story of late in life […]

  4. […] I think perhaps you’re forgetting our repeated conversations, like this one, on the topic when the genders are reversed, and how we always […]

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