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Revenge of the Over-40 Actress

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"Cable television has become the savior for women over 40," says Feig. "That's where all these strong, interesting female roles are happening now -- Weeds, The Big C. It used to be if you're on a TV show, you're dead in movies. Now a great TV show is the road to becoming a movie star."

Laura Dern, 46, has become the envy of many over-40 actresses with her self-developed starring vehicle Enlightened on HBO, which ran for two seasons before being canceled. Lucy Liu, 44, who launched her career on the Fox series Ally McBeal, made the move back to the small screen, first with the police drama Southland and now with the CBS hit Elementary. Salma Hayek, 46, has been producing (Ugly Betty), directing (The Maldonado Miracle) and acting (30 Rock) on TV for years. Other fortysomething film stars making inroads in TV include Paltrow (with guest spots on Glee and The New Normal) and Helena Bonham Carter, 47, who will play Elizabeth Taylor in an upcoming BBC movie about Taylor's relationship with Richard Burton.

And Roberts, who between 1990's Pretty Woman and 2000's Erin Brockovich reigned as the top female film star of the '90s, is just taking on her first major TV role. The 45-year-old actress will play a wheelchair-bound physician who is one of the first to recognize the developing AIDS crisis in HBO's The Normal Heart, an adaptation of Larry Kramer's autobiographical play. (Ellen Barkin won a Tony for her performance in the same role when the 1985 play arrived on Broadway two years ago.) Not that Roberts can be accused of slumming. The blue-chip production, which HBO hopes to air in May, is being directed by Ryan Murphy (who helmed Roberts' 2010 feature Eat Pray Love), and Brad Pitt's Plan B is producing.

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Still, not every actress is enamored with the medium. When Berry made the switch from ICM to CAA, Huvane began putting her up for TV projects. But Berry balked, deeming it beneath her. Still, scoffs one industryite, "Please, Halle Berry reinvented her career after winning an Emmy for Introducing Dorothy Dandridge."

Bullock and Watts also won't do TV. And though Rachel Weisz starred in the British TV movie Page Eight, she has yet to take the plunge into U.S. television. "If you can make several million dollars for four weeks of work on a studio film versus less money for 10 months on a TV show, why would you do TV?" asks a rep of one of the most in-demand female stars of the 40-to-49 set.

But not all the news is encouraging. A recent USC study tracked characters appearing in the 500 top-grossing films from 2007 to 2012 and found that the percentage of females between the ages of 40 and 64 has not changed meaningfully over time. The majority of all female characters onscreen in the 100 most popular films in 2012 were between ages 21 and 39. And, among characters in the 40- to 64-year-old range, males outnumbered female characters by nearly 4-to-1.

And for all the evidence that suggests that, cast in the right vehicle, older actresses can triumph, it's not clear that everyone in Hollywood has received the message -- particularly at those studios where male execs dominate.

Bullock, for example, didn't immediately percolate to the top of Warners' wish list when it was casting Alfonso Cuaron's upcoming space thriller Gravity -- despite her status as one of the studio's most dependable earners with such hits over the course of her career as Miss Congeniality, Two Weeks Notice and Blind Side. First, Marion Cotillard tested for the lead. Later, Scarlett Johansson and Blake Lively were in the running. Eventually, Natalie Portman was offered the part without a screen test. It was only after Portman passed that Warners finally approached Bullock.

Her co-star Clooney? He's 52.

Email: Tatiana.Siegel@THR.com, Twitter: @TatianaSiegel27