Revenge of the Over-40 Actress
This story first appeared in the June 14 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
They were looking to cast a man. It was summer 2011, and Jason Bateman and producer Scott Stuber were searching for a co-lead who could play the titular scam artist in their movie Identity Thief. Taking an evening off to attend the premiere of Bridesmaids, Bateman didn't expect to discover the solution to their problem. But then he witnessed Melissa McCarthy's a-comedy-star-is-born performance as a no-nonsense gal who barrels her way through wedding preparations. The next morning, Bateman called Stuber with a bold idea: Overhaul the script and tailor the role of the thief for McCarthy, then 40.
It proved a stroke of casting genius as moviegoers greeted McCarthy's appearance in the movie's first trailers with huge, welcoming laughter. Marketed largely on her raucous comic appeal, the Universal release has become the sixth-highest-grossing film of the year domestically, with a $134.5 million haul as of June 2, outperforming the Tom Cruise sci-fi outing Oblivion and dwarfing the Michael Bay-helmed Mark Wahlberg starrer Pain & Gain.
McCarthy's whirlwind success story suggests, just maybe, that Hollywood's youth-obsessed climate has begun to thaw, paving the way for what would have been impossible only a decade ago — a female film star born after age 40. McCarthy's box-office power will be further tested June 28 when Fox releases The Heat, a mismatched-buddy action comedy in which McCarthy, now 42, plays a Boston cop who teams up with an FBI agent, played by the 48-year-old Sandra Bullock, in pursuit of a drug lord. Expectations for a summer breakout hit are so high that Fox already is prepping a sequel for Bullock, McCarthy and director Paul Feig.
"We could have easily told the story with two 30-year-olds, but it didn't seem to have the resonance that I wanted it to have," says Feig, who also directed Bridesmaids. "The whole reason that Melissa McCarthy and Sandra Bullock are the stars of The Heat is they are the funniest, most awesome women who could play these roles."
Bullock and McCarthy are but two of the over-40 actresses whose careers aren't just thriving but dominating big castings in Hollywood. For decades, middle-aged actresses largely were relegated to the sidelines in studio films, fighting for supporting roles -- figuratively and literally -- as the hero's wife, mother or teacher (who can forget Sally Field's infamous casting, at age 47, as Tom Hanks' mother in 1994's Forrest Gump when he was 37). The longevity of a handful of exceptions such as Meryl Streep, Helen Mirren and Diane Keaton notwithstanding, most starring film roles went to actresses under 40.
Interestingly, many of those actresses who were hot a decade ago as thirtysomethings still sit atop the A-list as fortysomethings. Cameron Diaz of the Shrek franchise was 28 when she first was the voice of Princess Fiona. Now, at 40, she is regarded as the highest-paid actress among the over-40 set. While many actresses might not command the same upfront fees as their male counterparts, Diaz -- who received first-dollar gross on the 2011 comedy Bad Teacher instead of her occasional $15 million fee, despite Sony's reluctance to do such deals -- ended up scoring $42 million after the movie (which cost $20 million to make) grossed $216.2 million worldwide. Her deal for Sony's comedy Sex Tape, in which she and Jason Segel, 33, will play a married couple trying to recover a missing sex tape they made together, is said to be similarly structured.
Of course, Hollywood suddenly isn't socially enlightened. MPAA stats for 2012 cite that more than one-third of all tickets purchased domestically were by those age 40 or over. Furthermore, at 28 percent, baby boomers are the largest segment of the overall population. It also is a demographic that most likes to see movies in a theater -- having developed the habit long ago. "The audience is aging," says a studio chief. "It's no surprise that the stars are as well."
The numbers bear the facts out: Streep, now 63, enjoyed the biggest hit of her career when Mamma Mia!, the highest-grossing movie musical of all time, took in $609.8 million worldwide. Bullock's 2009 drama The Blind Side racked up $309.2 million, while Nancy Meyers' It's Complicated took in $219.1 million globally. Older actresses are front-and-center at awards shows as well: Naomi Watts, 44, was among the most recent crop of best actress Oscar nominees for The Impossible, a sizable indie hit that grossed $172.5 million worldwide. And among the supporting actress nominees, three were over 40: Helen Hunt, who didn't shy away from nude scenes in The Sessions at 49; Jacki Weaver, 66, from Silver Linings Playbook; and Field, 66, who fought to secure her role in Lincoln opposite Daniel Day-Lewis, who's 10 years younger than she. And in the foreign sales arena, age also has its perks, with one agent contending the top female sells abroad are Judi Dench, Nicole Kidman, Mirren and Streep.
"There's a change afoot," says Sean Bailey, head of production at Disney live-action films. "Part of that is attributable to changing audience trends. Women and a broader array of age groups are starting to matter more and more. A lot of these big movies are no longer solely dependent on young men showing up. When you take that in combination with the number of phenomenal actresses in this age range, it adds up to something exciting."
When it comes to salaries, the high-water mark for an actress -- of any age -- is the more than $20 million that Angelina Jolie, 38, commanded for 2010's Salt, in which she played a CIA agent. But that was a straight-up summer action thriller. Those types of movies, and their commensurate paychecks, usually go to men. Actresses, on those occasions when they do find themselves as the top name above the title, are more likely to be in dramas or romantic comedies, which aren't budgeted as lavishly. As a result, confides one exec, actresses' quotes tend to be "schizophrenic."
Still, top film actresses in their 40s now outearn their counterparts in their 30s, say several studio executives. "There are more exceptional [casting] choices in the over-40 range than there are in the 30s range," says Fox 2000 president Elizabeth Gabler. "The 30s range is kind of the tricky zone right now." She explains that talent sometimes comes in waves, and with only a few exceptions such as Rachel McAdams and Amy Adams, the next generation hasn't produced as many shining stars.
Industry sources peg Bullock as among the top tier of actresses over 40 when it comes to salaries. She earned $10 million for Heat. McCarthy, who earned $2.5 million for Heat, quickly has moved into the $3 million-to-$4 million range -- and could be about to jump sharply again. And Streep is said to get about $6 million a movie (though she just agreed to $1.5 million upfront to play the central role of the witch in Rob Marshall's adaptation of Stephen Sondheim's Broadway musical Into the Woods).