Poor Elise Elliot. Thanks to plastic surgery, collagen injections, and quality time spent with her StairMaster, her face is taut, her lips are full, and her butt is as firm as a Clinton handshake. But the fortysomething actress played by Goldie Hawn in The First Wives Club boozes it up in misery because, by Hollywood standards, she’s over the hill, washed-up, old.
The character of Elise is a great, cathartic roar of a role. It’s comic, sure (especially as played by taut, full, firm, 50-year-old Hawn, for whom the showcase in the only big box office hit of the fall is a giant career boost). But the presence of Elise is also meant to nail Hollywood — more specifically, the men who run Hollywood — for the way moviemakers treat aging actresses as so much old flesh, of diminished box office value. Hollywood is brutal toward women, the mantra goes. Men can age sexily and lucratively: Look at Sean Connery, Harrison Ford, Paul Newman, or Clint Eastwood. But once an actress turns 35 — and definitely by 40 — she’s over. All the toning in the world can’t compete with the sight of Gwyneth Paltrow waiting in the wings, flipping her wheat-colored hair.
The only problem with this mantra is that it’s wrong — and actresses who chant it should, perhaps, try another guru. For starters, one by-product of the babyboomer universe is that the moviegoing audience is maturing too. ”There’s a really big adult audience now that wants to see movies made about themselves,” says First Wives producer Scott Rudin. ”They don’t want to see movies made about 25-year-olds.” And as independent producer Lynda Obst points out, ”Over the next five years, some of the greatest actresses in the world will be turning 40. I can’t imagine the public will tire of them.”
Actually, Obst could safely raise the age bar even higher. Many of the greatest actresses in the world today are already 40. They’re the ones getting the interesting roles while their younger sisters are slapped up on the screen as generic girlfriend/hooker/waitress wallpaper. (Never mind the Paltrow generation; the role options for 32-year-old Sandra Bullock aren’t nearly as meaty as those that come 50-year-old Susan Sarandon’s way.) Crunch a few numbers while perusing the roster of Best Actress Oscar nominees for the past eight years: The average age has never been less than 35, and in most years it’s been considerably more than that. In 1996, Sarandon beat out 46-year-old Meryl Streep, 37-year-old Sharon Stone, 36-year-old Emma Thompson, and that kid, 32-year-old Elisabeth Shue. In 1995, 45-year-old Jessica Lange swept past 23-year-old Winona Ryder. Fifty-year-old Stockard Channing was in the running in 1994; 49-year-old Catherine Deneuve made the list in 1993; Kathy Bates got tapped at 41; Joanne Woodward was a nominee at 61; and the late Jessica Tandy was a force to reckon with six years ago, when she was 80.
True, an employment disparity does exist. A 1993 Screen Actors Guild study reported that in 1992, women over 40 straggled in with a paltry 8 percent of all theatrical film roles — down, in turn, from 9 percent in 1989 and 10 percent in 1986 — while women under 40 got 25 percent of all parts. And true, men are better paid, earning about twice as much as a group than their female colleagues. Lost, however, in the who-makes-more-millions competition is the unglamorous truth that the average male SAG member made a little over $14,000 in 1992, while women brought home an even skimpier $11,000.