Revenge of the Over-40 Actress
No doubt, Hollywood's dearth of new stars, male and female, after a decade of franchises and tentpoles has further empowered older actresses. Planned obsolescence used to be the norm, where fresh young faces eventually obliterate the existing reigning class. But the new premium on concept over casting has upended a nearly 100-year-old star system. The March 2013 Performer Q Study, which measures both how well-known and how well-liked a celebrity is, found Bullock statistically tied with Hanks, 56, for the film star top spot among U.S. survey respondents over 18. "Her movie roles have been so diverse, from comedies to serious, that she's tracking younger and older, male and female. She cuts across the spectrum," says Henry Schafer, exec vp at The Q Scores Co. In fact, the list's top names reveal how decades-long relationships with the public, cultivated in an age when images could be built over years and not through the Internet alone, matter. Bullock, Julia Roberts, 45, and Streep are the three film actresses with the highest Q scores, with Bullock scoring 89 percent in recognition and a 41 Q score. By contrast, though their scores are higher among younger respondents, among all adults over 18, newly minted Oscar winners Anne Hathaway and Jennifer Lawrence rate Q scores of 20 and 15, respectively, while Twilight's Kristen Stewart checks in at just 10. "Unlike Bullock, Roberts and Streep, Lawrence and Stewart have a younger appeal," says Schafer. "Anne Hathaway is the exception [among young actresses]. She has good crossover appeal with all ages."
Even so, the industry still reacts with surprise whenever a female star demonstrates box-office clout. On March 15, The Call, an otherwise routine thriller, opened as that weekend's top new wide release thanks to the presence of Halle Berry, 46. The TriStar film bowed to $17.1 million, trouncing the heavily promoted Steve Carell-Jim Carrey comedy The Incredible Burt Wonderstone (in which Carell, 50, was paired romantically with Olivia Wilde, 29). Female moviegoers made up 56 percent of Call's audience, and 48 percent of the overall audience cited Berry as the reason for turning out.
Making sure older female moviegoers -- in Hollywood's marketing lingo, "older" means those over 25 -- have someone to root for in a movie even can factor into the casting of tentpoles looking to attract all four quadrants. And so, Gwyneth Paltrow, 40, became a key marketing hook for this year's top-performing film to date, Iron Man 3. (It's worth noting that when Marvel and director Jon Favreau were assembling the first Iron Man, they sought McAdams, then 29, for the role of Pepper Potts, which Paltrow eventually made her own.) "Ever since I've turned 40, I feel younger than ever and more energetic," announced Paltrow at the Iron Man 3 premiere in Hollywood. "I'm ready. I'm ready for action now."
There's even talk that Penelope Cruz is being eyed to play a Bond girl in the superspy's next outing, and if it does happen, that would make Cruz, who will turn 40 before production begins, the oldest Bond girl to date (excepting, of course, Judi Dench's M).
Outside of the economics at play here, other factors seem to be at work in the embrace of the over-40 actress. For starters, TV paved the way: Kyra Sedgwick, 47, was one of the first to inaugurate what would become a trend when she stepped into TNT's The Closer in 2005. Soon the basic cable landscape seemed to become the province of smart, take-charge women, with Glenn Close, 66, appearing first on FX's The Shield and then FX's Damages, and Holly Hunter, 55, starring on TNT's Saving Grace. "In TV, it's better now than it ever has been. Great, wonderful cable shows and even network shows are being built around female leads," says Leslie Siebert, senior managing partner at the Gersh Agency. "But even TV now has become so competitive because of people like Robin Wright or Laura Linney. The women who are going after these roles, it's crazy. But at least the product is there."
And there also is no ignoring the simple fact that older women just look better these days. It might be the wonder of dermatology, colorists and trainers, but women over 40 no longer are expected to look matronly -- rather, it's presumed that they'll go toe-to-toe on the red carpet with their younger peers. At 67, Mirren -- caught sunning in a bikini in a paparazzi shot that went viral in 2011 -- might be an extreme example. But she's hardly alone. Julianne Moore, 52, moonlights as a model, appearing in ads for Bulgari and Revlon. "There's a real sexiness, appeal and allure to these women because they are seasoned professionals, and they know exactly how to look and how to walk on a red carpet," says New York premiere guru Andrew Saffir, citing Sarah Jessica Parker, Sofia Vergara, Paltrow, Susan Sarandon, Jane Fonda and Moore among his favorites. "A red-carpet photo of Sarah Jessica Parker is prized. Nicole Kidman never disappoints on the red carpet: statuesque, beyond chic, takes fashion chances, and she is confident. And it's actually confidence that a lot of these women have in common, and it's that confidence that truly radiates."
Fox 2000's Gabler traces the current wave of films featuring actresses over 40 to the 2006 comedy The Devil Wears Prada, starring Streep, who was 57 when the movie was released. Hathaway, then 23, might have played the movie's new girl in the big city, but it was Streep, as fearsome magazine editor Miranda Priestly, who got the lion's share of the credit when the $35 million movie collected $326.6 million worldwide.
"I think Prada was one of the benchmarks of the trend because it was this iconic role with this brilliant actress in Streep that was hugely successful," says Gabler. "To see her in a role that was identifiable to both men and women was key to opening people's eyes that this works. I think it started this surge of terrific performances from actresses over 40 that we're seeing now. It's not just a young person's market anymore."
In 2011, DreamWorks' The Help further underscored the appeal of female-driven ensemble movies as the modestly budgeted $25 million drama pulled in $211.6 million worldwide. Although it featured relative newcomers such as Emma Stone and Jessica Chastain, it also leaned heavily on the appeal of such veteran performers as Allison Janney, 53, Viola Davis, 47, and, most especially, Octavia Spencer, 43, who would go on to win the best supporting actress Oscar.
"These types of dramas were out for a while, and now they seem to be back in," contends DreamWorks president of production Holly Bario. "And they tend to offer juicy parts for women over 40."
Older actresses also are beginning to make inroads by capturing roles that just as easily could have gone to a man. McCarthy's casting in Identity Thief wasn't some comic fluke: According to one top dealmaker, another high-profile comedy role originally written for a man is being recrafted for McCarthy. And when DreamWorks brass was looking to fill the critical role of a crusading State Department staffer for its upcoming WikiLeaks project The Fifth Estate, they looked no further than 49-year-old Linney, who in the past decade has moved deftly between Oscar-bait films including The Savages and Kinsey and star vehicles on cable TV like Showtime's The Big C and HBO's John Adams.