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Hollywood actresses over 40 fight for their screen lives

Conventional wisdom: The men who control the movie industry don’t provide good roles for women of a certain age

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Is turning 40 fatal for actresses in Hollywood? Ask that question—one of the most highly charged inquiries you can make in the film industry—and you’ll get a two-part answer. Definitely no—when you’re talking about Susan Sarandon, Anjelica Huston, Glenn Close, or Sigourney Weaver. Just possibly yes—if you mean Jessica Lange, Sissy Spacek, Sally Field, or Diane Keaton.

Why some over-40 actresses have thriving careers while the others are fading is as controversial as the subject of age itself. The conventional wisdom claims that the men who run the business scorn women much older than Demi Moore and Jodie Foster, both 30, and prefer those around the age of Julia Roberts, 25, or Uma Thurman, 23, blithely pairing them with relative oldsters like Nick Nolte or Robert De Niro.

The double-standard theory, coupled with a dearth of roles for women over 40, is the easiest explanation for why some of the hottest actresses of the early ’80s—such as Lange, Field, Spacek, Meryl Streep, and Jane Fonda—have almost disappeared. Since 1990, Field has been in only two movies, Soapdish and the flop Not Without My Daughter; this year, she was the voice of Sassy the cat in Homeward Bound: The Incredible Journey. And after 1986’s unsuccessful ‘night, Mother, Spacek all but vanished for four years. She resurfaced in 1990’s The Long Walk Home, 1991’s barely seen Hard Promises, and had a small role in JFK.

But while valid up to a point, the older-actress-as-victim-of-male-studio- execs theory has some holes. It hardly explains Susan Sarandon’s powerhouse career, the successes of the sought-after Huston and Close, or why such veterans as Mary McDonnell, Kathy Bates, and Mercedes Ruehl didn’t make it big until they neared 40.

Casting directors, producers, and agents, especially women, bristle at the politically incorrect notion that older actresses share the blame for their fall from the top of the Hollywood heap. They point out that as actresses age and their priorities change, they may not even want to stay at the apex. Yet many in the industry admit that certain career moves are better than others—call it the Smart Women, Foolish Choices theory. Some potential wrong turns? Moving somewhere remote (i.e., anywhere but New York or L.A.); resisting new kinds of roles; making too many boutique films (like Spacek’s Violets Are Blue… or Lange’s Music Box).

”Sissy and Jessica chose to go live in Virginia. Was that the best thing?” asks one producer. ”Jessica doesn’t get offered that much. I’ve fought for Diane Keaton many times and I meet with such resistance at the studios. She didn’t seem to want to break with the same persona.”

Writer-director James Toback (The Pick-up Artist) believes that actresses fail to keep their ambition ”at the same relentless level” as actors, but others suggest that’s blaming the victim. ”It’s incredibly hard to sustain a career over a 20-year period,” says one female agent. ”I think it’s grossly unfair to label women like this just because they aren’t as big as they once were. Clint Eastwood went through a period when he couldn’t get across the street. Some of these actresses are very bright women who choose not to raise their children in Hollywood and they pay a price. That’s not to say they won’t be hot again.”

How to be hot, and stay hot, in Hollywood, is about as tricky as predicting the success of any new movie. But here are some insiders’ prescriptions for increasing the odds on a long career:

* Beware of ingenue roles. ”One reason actresses like Anjelica Huston are doing well is they were never ingenues,” says one producer. ”Same with Glenn Close. It’s harder when you come to the forefront as this sexy young actress, then have to make the transition, like Jessica Lange.”

* Don’t be afraid of TV. An executive at one of Hollywood’s most powerful talent agencies praises TV as a good vehicle for older actresses in need of a career boost. ”But it’s dumb to do bad television,” she says. ”I wonder how Faye Dunaway will do with this series. I mean, Robert Urich?” Instead, she says, actresses should look to Glenn Close, whose choice of the classy TV movie Sarah, Plain and Tall and its sequel won high ratings. ”Faye Dunaway should only be doing event television.” Many 40-plus movie actresses, in fact, will be all over TV this season and next: Close will be seen in NBC’s The Colonel Margarethe Cammermeyer Story (produced by Barbra Streisand, a 51-year-old law unto herself), Spacek will appear in a Hallmark Hall of Fame movie next year, and Bette Midler is starring in a three-hour version of Gypsy for CBS.

* Go easy on the facelifts. ”In movies, we’re trying to portray real people, and real people don’t have shiny, tight faces,” says producer-director Lili Fini Zanuck (Driving Miss Daisy). ”You see someone with that look but you think she can only play a Park Avenue matron or a Beverly Hills housewife.”

* Study Susan Sarandon. She’s touted most often as the over-40 actress with the dream career (her next film, an adaptation of John Grisham’s The Client with Tommy Lee Jones, is due next summer). ”She made all the right career and personal moves,” says Toback. ”She’s done a variety of roles which have presented her in a good light.”

* Be aggressive. ”Go after your own properties,” says one male producer. ”Demand that your agent bring you scripts outside the usual 30 or 40 circulated every season.” And don’t count on studios to provide you with great material-the seven-picture deal Goldie Hawn made with Disney a few years ago has proved a disappointment, yielding only the lackluster Deceived.

* Find strength in numbers (or male costars). Don’t expect to carry every movie yourself. Ensemble pieces worked for Huston in The Addams Family and for Hawn and Streep in Death Becomes Her. And Field’s next two movies, Mrs. Doubtfire and Forrest Gump, will pair her with Robin Williams and Tom Hanks.

* Make movies men want to see. Sigourney Weaver consolidated her popularity with the heavy male-appeal Alien films and got a Best Actress Oscar nomination out of one of them. Even Streep, who recently made a series of canny career decisions—moving to L.A. from Connecticut, signing on with CAA and veering away from heavyweight heroines into comic roles-is nodding to male moviegoers. After solidifying her art-house constituency by costarring with Close in this winter’s The House of the Spirits, Streep’s next move will be The River Wild—an all-out action film.

In other words, Streep is observing the Golden Rule of Hollywood—and the one actors of any age forget at their peril: Go after the audience.