In 2013, Robin Hitchcock of Bitch Flicks published this telling stat: 62 percent of Oscar winners for Best Actress are 35 or younger, while only 14 percent of Best Actor winners are. In the world of Hollywood movies, men outnumber women, but older men vastly outnumber older women. The usual explanation for this divergence is plain old discrimination, with the men who run the studios and make the majority of movies assuming that audiences don't want a bunch of aging women in their epic tales of elderly men performing feats of strength. But Russell Crowe has a different explanation for the disparity.
“The best thing about the industry I'm in—movies—is that there are roles for people in all different stages of life,” Crowe told Australian Women's Weekly during a promotional interview for his movie The Water Diviner, where he plays a father with three sons and no daughters. “To be honest, I think you'll find that the woman who is saying that (the roles have dried up) is the woman who at 40, 45, 48, still wants to play the ingénue, and can’t understand why she's not being cast as the 21 year old.”
“Meryl Streep will give you 10,000 examples and arguments as to why that's bullshit, so will Helen Mirren, or whoever it happens to be. If you are willing to live in your own skin, you can work as an actor,” he continued, citing the two women who are tasked with playing basically all women over 50 that are allowed to be onscreen.
But Streep is not nearly as skeptical about the existence of sexism in the movie industry as Crowe says she must be. In a 2010 Barnard commencement speech, Streep said that “the hardest thing in the world is to persuade a straight male audience to identify with a woman character. It's easier for women [to identify with men] because we were brought up identifying with male characters in literature.” Perhaps this is why a study of films released in 2008 found that men had 67 percent of speaking roles, and that 26 percent of female characters wore “provocative” clothes, compared with a mere 5 percent of men.
As for the notion that there are a hefty and appealing number of roles for older women who are willing to act their age, it is particularly hard to believe when you look at Vulture's 2013 analysis of who is cast as the female romantic lead for men in their 40s and 50s. If Hollywood were indeed flush with roles for middle-aged women, we would see middle-aged men coupled off with women of their own generation. Vulture found otherwise: “As leading men age, their love interests stay the same, and even the oldest men on our list have had few romantic pairings with a woman their own age (or even one out of her mid-thirties).” Instead, you get 57-year-old Denzel Washington paired off with 35-year-old Kelly Reilly. Or 49-year-old Johnny Depp with 30-year-old Rebecca Hall. Or 50-year-old Tom Cruise with 33-year-old Olga Kurylenko. Or 50-year-old Steve Carell with 29-year-old Olivia Wilde.
Looking at Vulture's charts, it seems that it's not women who refuse to age gracefully onscreen. Instead we're fed a bunch of images of men who look, to quote Crowe, like they are “trying to pretend that [they’re] still the young buck” by bedding down women who are often young enough to be their daughters.