The Golden Ageism of Hollywood.

The numbers behind the industry.
Jan. 16 2006 12:00 PM

The Starlet's Dilemma

The Golden Ageism of Hollywood.

Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty. Click image to expand.

"Everything's geared to 15-year-olds ... I have girlfriends who are 25 in L.A. who are lying about their age because people tell them they're too old. That's how pathetic it is."—Morgan Fairchild

In Hollywood, where a starlet's fame may be briefer than her high-school education, the effective career of an actress can be nasty, brutish, and short, or, in the lingo, "way harsh." "The opportunities for a pretty starlet in the romantic comedies, horror films, and the amusement-park films that are made for the Clearasil crowd tend to dry up when they hit 30," one of Hollywood's most insightful producer notes in an e-mail. "They have to start 'acting' as opposed to simply gracing the screen with their gorgeous presence and many of those starlets are just not equipped for this second step." Anti-aging camouflage, such as plastic surgery, Botox, collagen injections, and other elixirs may provide a brief respite, but eventually every actress comes up against the age stereotyping in Hollywood. Goldie Hawn famously described the prevailing attitude this way in The First Wives Club: "There are only three ages for women: Babe, District Attorney, and Driving Miss Daisy."

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The glass ceiling in Hollywood is no secret. Some actresses succeed in breaking through, but they still find it a daunting challenge to escape Hollywood's requisites to satisfy the youth culture. Rosanna Arquette brilliantly demonstrates this point in her 2002 documentary Searching for Debra Winger, in which she interviews Meg Ryan, Holly Hunter, Charlotte Rampling, Sharon Stone, Whoopi Goldberg, Martha Plimpton, and a score of other actresses. Equally illuminating are Nancy Ellison's photographs in Starlets: Before They Were Famous that show gorgeously posed actresses who, having failed to make it beyond "the babe" stage, vanished from Hollywood. In the documentary, Plimpton succinctly describes the harsh casting process: "It's either, she's a starlet or she's an old hag." Such ageism on the part of studio executives proceeds not from malice, ignorance, or disdain for the performers, but from the studios' business model.

When studios found that they could no longer count on habitual moviegoers to fill theaters, they went into the very risky business of creating tailor-made audiences for each and every movie. Like in an election campaign, the studios had to get people to turn out at the multiplexes on a specific date: the opening weekend. The principal means of generating this audience was and still is to buy ads on national television. For this strategy to work efficiently, the studios must find a target audience that predictably clusters around programs on which they can afford to buy time. They then bombard this audience—usually seven times in the preceding week to an opening—with 30-second eye-catching ads.

The studios zero in on teens not because they necessarily like them or because they buy buckets of popcorn, but because they are the only demographic group that can be efficiently motivated to leave their homes in large numbers. Even though lassoing this teen herd is enormously expensive—more than $30 million a film—the studios profit from the fact that this young audience is also the coin of the realm for merchandisers such as McDonald, Domino's Pizza, and Pepsi. The studios depend upon these companies for tie-in deals that can supply $100 million or more in advertising to a single film and can expand the primary audience for DVDs, video games, and other licensable properties on which the studios now rely on for their economic survival.

Studios therefore place the lion's share of their TV advertising—more than 80 percent in 2005—on cable and network programs watched primarily by people under 25. The studios also incorporate music that teenagers listen to into their soundtracks and try to cast the sort of babe-actresses that this crucial audience can relate to, if not fantasize about. Adrienne Shelley, star of The Unbelievable Truth, described her casting experience this way: "I get a call in my car on the way to an audition from the agent. He said, 'What is really important is that they think you are f***able.' "

The silver lining for ex-babe actresses who are no longer able or willing to play this Hollywood game is that there is now an indie game. Independent movies, as I have previously written, often finance their productions by arranging presales abroad. Since foreign distributors usually require a recognizable American star (if only to increase the chance of DVD and TV sales in their countries), actresses who have earned name recognition as babes in Hollywood's horror, coming-of-age, and amusement-park entertainments are often needed to lock up these deals. But while roles in adult-oriented indie movies may be more artistically rewarding than roles as fantasy bait in teen movies, they are rarely, if ever, as high-paying. Such is the starlet's dilemma in babeland.

Edward Jay Epstein is the author of The Big Picture: The New Logic of Money and Power in Hollywood. (To read the first chapter, click here.)