Turning 40 Is No Longer THE END for Actresses in Hollywood

What Women Really Think
June 6 2013 11:46 AM

The Rise of the Fortysomething Hollywood Actress

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They sag, but I'm still getting hired!

Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images

The cover story in the Hollywood Reporter this week chronicles the rise of the fortysomething actress, citing improvements in cosmetic surgery, opportunities in prestige television that have helped women extend their careers beyond their 20s and 30s, and more. But author Tatiana Siegel also credits another factor: a generational talent gap.

[T]op 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.

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Another explanation? Actresses like McAdams, Adams, and Katherine Heigl are part of a generation of actresses who built their careers on romantic comedies, and that genre has a pretty narrow window of opportunity. And unlike the class above them, they have yet to figure out how to diversify.

Tina Fey famously said that "the definition of crazy in show business is a woman who keeps talking even after no one wants to fuck her anymore," but that age doesn't only come with downsides. Many of the roles Siegel describes as plum parts for over-40 actresses fall outside of the rom-com. Sandra Bullock is playing both a stranded astronaut in Gravity and taking on a raunchy cop comedy with Melissa McCarthy in The Heat. Because McCarthy's weight meant that Hollywood was never going to treat her as a conventional romantic lead (unless the project was focused on her weight, like Mike and Molly), she's broken out by being aggressive, weird, and unrelentingly hilarious, rather than struggling to fit in the Hollywood box. Former rom-com queen Julia Roberts presumably won't have to wear patent-leather thigh-high boots to play a pioneering doctor at the height of the AIDS crisis in The Normal Heart. If people don't want to have sex with you anymore, the upside is that they might notice that you're capable of other things as well.

I have hope for the generation coming up after McAdams and crew. Chloe Grace Moretz, who is 16, played a pint-sized superheroine in Kick-Ass and went toe-to-toe in a game of corporate one-upmanship with Jack Donaghy on 30 Rock. Abigail Breslin, at 17, broke out in Little Miss Sunshine not by playing a radiant moppet, but rather an awkward child with a tight bond with her eccentric grandfather. She now has the horror movie Final Girl and a role as teenage blogger in Ender's Game on the docket. And the closest Saorsie Ronan, 19, has gotten to a romantic movie is The Host, in which an alien parasite and human consciousness vie for control of a single body. Meet cute! Even Kristen Stewart seems to have gotten the message that it's better to be known for what your characters do than who falls for them: She just signed up to star in War on Terror drama Camp X-Ray.

Actresses currently in their 30s and unsure of what to do next should take a page from Jessica Chastain, who cemented her standing with consecutive Best Actress nominations, first for playing a ditzy but unintentionally progressive Southern housewife in The Help, and then as a tough torturer and CIA agent in Zero Dark Thirty with no personal life whatsoever. Maybe her example can help demonstrate that actresses don’t have to divide their careers into before-and-after phases based on their perceived sex appeal.

Alyssa Rosenberg writes about culture and television for Slate’s “XX Factor” blog. She also contributes to ThinkProgress and theatlantic.com.