There are more women directors with movies in competition at this year’s Cannes Film Festival. But in terms of older women it looks like Same Old Same Old.
The Cannes 2016 main jury is headed by George Miller, director of the Mad Max action movie franchise. At 71 he is NSP (No Spring Chicken) but I haven’t heard the kind of snarky comments about his white hair and wrinkles that routinely target actresses Of A Certain Age.
Older men can still direct and even star in action movies. In fact, this genre has morphed into what’s jokingly called “geri-action” as actors play hunky heroes well into their 60s. Like Liam Neeson, whose action movie career took off in his golden years. Or action movie veteran Sylvester Stallone, who looks likely to follow Harrison Ford, still starring in action movies in his 70s.
“We have been saying for so long now that ‘60 is the new 40’ that it would be almost surprising not to see this put into action – pun intended.”
– Peter Lehman, director of the Center for Film, Media, and Popular Culture at Arizona State University in the US
The rise of geri-action movies is no doubt boosted by the fact that the Hollywood studios profiting from these movies are run mainly by old men. The geri-action trend has been linked to the economic recession, as well as the ever-growing aging population worldwide.
“In today’s economy, by the time you get to 50, you are closer to the end than the beginning of your work career. So there is a natural appeal to the idea of saying, ‘Hey, I can still be the guy.’ It is not as much ‘50 is the new 30’ as ‘Look, I’ve still got it.’ It’s an idea that resonates with an older audience obviously, but really with anyone facing an uncertain economy… Action is a genre of film that has historically not been very popular with older audiences, with the exception being James Bond, and even that is a role that the actor eventually ages out of and is replaced by a younger version. These movies finally push that boundary past 50 and that appeals to a similarly-aged demographic that’s expanding.”
– Dirk Mateer, University of Arizona economics lecturer and co-author of Movie Scenes for Economics
It’s all about Baby Boomers getting old. The average age of action movie stars is now over 48, a dramatic increase from 10 years ago when it was just over 35. Of course, we’re talking males here. South Africa’s own Charlize Theron was a rare female lead in the latest Mad Max movie, Fury Road. But I’m not placing any bets on her getting this kind of action when she hits 60. Unless things change radically in the next 20 years.
This year Cannes will honour two actresses for their contribution to keeping women, young and old, on screen. Geena Davis and Susan Sarandon, aged 59 and 69 respectively, will receive the 2016 Women in Motion Award to celebrate their film, Thelma and Louise, which premiered at Cannes in 1991. That film was the first for Brad Pitt, who was paid $6,000 as a newcomer; just five years later he got $10-million for a film, Sleepers.
So now, 25 years after Thelma and Louise, how’s it going for women in film? The Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media found that, even in female-focused films, men have 3 times more lines in movies than women. Women have 3 times more nude scenes than men, according to another survey, by the Mount St Mary’s University in Los Angeles. A recent study by Directors UK revealed “widespread, unjustified and unconscious bias” against women in the British film industry.
Unfortunately there is no similar trend among older women to rival the male geri-action movie boom. Older women rarely get roles that ooze power and sex appeal. They can play grannies (Lily Tomlin in Grandma) and Alzheimer’s victims (Julianne Moore in Still Alice), provided they were once stunning starlets and have aged well.
As for aging male movie stars, they even have perks, e.g. wives and lovers young enough to be their daughters. Whereas a new slang word had to be coined to describe the an older woman dating a younger man (cougar).
At last year’s Cannes Film Festival My New Old Self spoke to Jonathan King, who is with a US film production company that has made films for and about older people, both male and female. Fueled by its founder’s eBay profits, Participant Media produces fiction films on social issues like child abuse (Spotlight) and war in Africa (Beasts of No Nation), and documentaries on topics like government surveillance (CITIZENFOUR).
King said that the unprecedented growth in aging populations worldwide led Participant Media to launch the film franchise starring octogenarians Judi Dench and Maggie Smith frolicking in India, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel.
A big factor in encouraging movies about and starring older people is that many are money-spinners. The fast-growing 55+ demographic now rivals the 18-34 year-old market. So much so that the Marigold Hotel sequel outperformed Fifty Shades of Grey at the UK box office. This gave rise to the Guardian newspaper headline, “Age Before Bondage”.
Retired people go to matinee screenings when cinemas tend to be empty of youth. Thus boomer-friendly films often enjoy sold-out afternoon shows. Another advantage of older audiences is that they are not buying less cinema tickets in favour of internet downloads.
Participant Media sees the older market as still underserved, so expect more movies with themes around aging, starring aging actors. “Every year I want to make what I call a Movie for Mom,” vowed King.
Let’s hope there are many moms in those films, and not just geri-action-loving dads.