Private Viewing: It’s time to put people of all ages back on the big screen
- Credit: Matt Sayles/Invision/AP
At 37 actress Maggie Gyllenhaal is too old for Hollywood. Arts editor Andrew Clarke says this is what’s wrong with movies
Maggie Gyllenhaal is one of my favourite actresses. Sparky, quirky, intelligent – she always delivers an interesting and surprising performance. It helps that she has a very good eye for slightly left of centre, off-the-wall movies – something which she can bring her own idiosyncratic personality to.
The beauty of this approach is that she can work equally well in mainstream Hollywood as well as the independent sector. Her first high-profile role in Secretary, playing a personal assistant who could have written her own version of 50 Shades of Grey, was a dazzling calling card and delivered the sort of multi-layered, attention-grabbing performance that clearly signalled that here was a woman with talent and versatility.
Other off-beat movies followed – cult films like Donnie Darko, George Clooney’s true-life indie film Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, the arthouse hit The Pornographer: A Love Story, a girls’ school drama called Mona Lisa Smile with Julia Roberts, a little seen caper movie called Criminals and a period drama about the Victorians inventing the vibrator called Hysteria.
It’s an eclectic mix of work and so it was somewhat surprising to read an interview with Gyllenhaal last week in which she revealed that a Hollywood producer had told her that the reason she hadn’t got a role recently was because, at 37, she was too old to be the love interest of the leading man.
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If this wasn’t insulting enough, it turns out that the unnamed leading man was a seemingly decrepid 55. It’s absolutely extraordinary that this sort of abstract discrimination still goes on.
While British cinema isn’t exactly bursting with demanding roles for women in their 30s and 40s, work is still easier to find than in Hollywood where they appear to take a personal pride in squandering the gifts of great actresses.
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It seems that once you are no longer able to play a high school cheerleader or the new intern in an office there’s nothing for you until you start being someone’s mother or perhaps pop-up as that eccentric neighbour in a horror movie or rom-com.
This is not a new problem but the situation has become a lot worse in recent years. This is why older actresses with commercial clout – people like Jodie Foster, Nicole Kidman, Michelle Pfeiffer and Julia Roberts – create their own production companies. They have to make their own opportunities, because rich, rewarding roles are not waiting to be snapped up.
This is why actresses like Maggie Gyllenhaal are finding refuge in television. She delivered another outstanding performance in the wonderfully complex thriller The Honorable Woman which is the sort of material that she was used to being in on the big screen.
Hollywood is increasingly obsessed with big blockbusters aimed at teenagers and twenty-something rom-coms for the date-night crowd. This lack of diversity in Hollywood is, I suspect, the real reason why actresses of a certain age are forced to take matters into their own hands.
Happily, the situation is much better in Europe where actresses of all ages not only star opposite men aged 55 (or younger) but they carry their own movies. Actresses like Juliette Binoche, Isabelle Huppert, Catherine Deneuve, Ludivine Sagnier, Marion Cotillard, Penélope Cruz, Sophie Marceau, Fanny Ardant and Emmanuelle Béart are all busily working away in high profile films. Monica Bellucci, at 51, has just become a Bond Girl – or as she has pointedly remarked: “A Bond Woman”.
The difference is that European cinema continues to make films for audiences of all ages. They make films featuring women in their 30s, 40s and 50s because they make up a significant proportion of the audience.
British cinema is slightly better off because of our theatrical and literary heritage. Successful books and plays still transfer to the big screen offering actresses like Kate Winslet, Rebecca Hall, Rosamund Pike, Kelly Reilly, Brenda Blethyn and Imelda Staunton work. Of course Judi Dench and Maggi Smith remain national treasures but without our heritage films, our great British actresses would be in the same fix as Maggie Gyllenhaal. We can’t be complacent. The film industry should be making films for a wide range of audiences and we need to see society in all its diversity up there on the big screen. It seems utter madness to encourage talented young actresses and then toss them on the proverbial scrapheap at 37. It just doesn’t make sense.