BetteBack March 26, 1992: Researchers See Age Bias In Hollywood

Aiken Standard
March 26, 1992


BOSTON – In two of the season’s Oscar-nominated roles, 72-year-old Jack Palance got to whoop it up as a cowboy in City Slickers, while 82-year-old Jessica Tandy was reduced to reminiscing from a nursing home in Fried Green Tomatoes.

Two researchers point to the contrast in roles as proof of sexism and age bias in Hollywood.

In a report titled Real vs. Reel World – Older Women and the Oscar, they conclude that elderly women have virtually disappeared from the silver screen. And when older women are cast, they are likely to get less flattering roles than those offered to men.

“The elderly population is the most rapidly growing portion of the population today,” said Elizabeth Markson of Boston University’s
Gerontology Center.

But “Hollywood is designing films for an essentially male audience between 15 and 23 years of age.”

Since the Academy Awards were first given in 1927, female nominees nave been consistently younger than their male counterparts, said Markson and co-author Carol Taylor, a psychotherapist.

Among their other findings: ** The average age of women nominated for best actress and best supporting actress in the 1920s was 31; the average age for men was 41.

This year, the average age for best actor nominees was 49, while best actress was 36. The youngest man nominated this year was Robin Williams, 39, for his role in The Fisher King.

The other male contenders are: Warren Beatty, 54; Anthony Hopkins, 54; Nick Nolte, 50; and Robert DeNiro, 48. The oldest woman up for a best actress award is Bette Midler, 46, in For the Boys.

* Even movies with leading middle-aged or elderly women often portray them in less than flattering roles.

In the blockbuster Driving Miss Daisy, Tandy portrays “a bigoted, basically incompetent woman where men are needed to run her life,” Markson said.

Charles FitzSimons, executive director of the Producers Guild of America, agreed that ageism exists in the industry but said he believes the situation is exaggerated.

“Statistics can be very deceiving,” he said in an interview from Los Angeles. He cited the 1985 film Cocoon, about a group of people in a retirement home who find what they believe is the fountain of youth. Tandy also stars in that with Don Ameche and Hume Cronyn.

“In Cocoon we saw males and females as elderly people,” he said. “We have consistently seen both sexes, all colors, all races in elderly situations ”

FitzSimons also agreed with Markson that the elderly have the most money to spend on entertainment.

But he said: “The temptation on the parts of those who sit on the thrones is to go after the sure-fire audience. If box office statistics tell motion picture makers the main audience is from 19 to 39, they’re going to go after that audience.

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