At the end of last year, we raised a glass to the class of lead actresses over 40 who have turned television into something that looks more like life. But Hollywood’s entrenched ageism clearly isn’t going to be undone by a few seasons of progress. As Maggie Gyllenhaal’s head-slapping revelation (at 37, she’s “too old” to play a 55-year-old’s girlfriend) indicated last week, the industry is still clinging to its creepy insecurities. Which is why these screwed-up phenomena persist:
Widespread lying about age. If I had a nickel for every time the publicist of a star I’m interviewing lied or ducked a question about their client’s age, I wouldn’t have to finish this blog post. Last week, a former classmate of Rebel Wilson’s tried to out her for reportedly lying about how old she is. My sympathies lie firmly with Wilson on this one. I’d love to live in a world where we can all band together and own our birthdays, but for actresses, not being born in the ’90s is officially strike one. Making it in Hollywood is like wearing a bandage dress on the red carpet: It takes a ton of time and effort to get in, but no one’s supposed to know that. So actresses do the only thing they can until Apple invents a time-warping device: They delete a couple of years from their history.
Iconic couples that would be, let’s say, “of note” in real life. By “of note,” I mean: There’s nothing wrong with it, but if your 24-year-old friend was dating a 40-year-old guy, you’d discuss it. You’d feel the gap. You might love them separately and love them together, but you and the rest of your friends wouldn’t forget about the 16 years between them like you were under a magic spell. Yet I don’t think I’ve ever had a conversation with anyone about Bradley Cooper being 40 and Jennifer Lawrence being 24. Maybe it’s because they’re portrayed as evenly matched on-screen; maybe it’s because I grew up watching Julia Roberts and Richard Gere, who were 22 and 50—50!—when Pretty Woman came out.
The rise of the weird-plotline loophole. I know the counterargument to that Pretty Woman dig: But his character is a successful businessman, and she’s a hooker! Yep. I know. Just as, in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, Daniel Craig (47) was a grizzled journalist and Rooney Mara (30) was a troubled hacker wunderkind. And in House of Cards, Kevin Spacey (55) is a megalomaniacal power broker and Kate Mara (32) was an ambitious cub reporter. And in Gone Girl, Ben Affleck (42) is a professor and Emily Ratajkowski (23) is a student. So you look at all of these setups and think: Sure, major age difference, but those are messed-up story lines. And you’re right. I’m not saying the authenticity of a plot should be tampered with. I’m just pointing out that when a script includes an older guy/younger girl seductive setup, studio execs see that as an advantage of the project.
The vicious It Girl cycle. Ratajkowski, who blew up after starring in Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines” video, is in fact the perfect example of what happens when a young, pretty girl takes the industry by storm. She made her big-screen debut in Gone Girl and will appear next in the Entourage movie, and while details on her role are scarce, I’ve seen every Entourage. It’s a safe bet she’ll be eye candy, playing opposite actors in their 30s and 40s. Then there’s 24-year-old Margot Robbie, whose path to stardom was the opposite of Rajatkowski’s; she drew buzz for her sharp turn in an Oscar-nominated film, The Wolf of Wall Street. But where did she land next? Pretty much the same place: costarring with a guy a couple decades her senior in Will Smith’s Focus (he’s 46). See, ageism works against young actresses too, because they’re too often put on the hot-girl track regardless of their acting chops.
So why does this matter for all of us non-Hollywood people? Because it’s the all part of the tabloid tapestry that makes us feel inferior next to stars. When an actress has her face pulled tight or emerges from the birthing suite as a snapped-back size 2, and we blame her for perpetuating an unachievable image, we’re missing the point. You might not want to be cellulite’s official spokesperson, either, if it meant your job would evaporate. So, look to their bosses—the people sitting across the casting room and in the studio corner offices. They’re mostly men, they’re mostly old, and if their choices are any indication, they’re the ones who are terrified of time passing. Not us.