Every once in a while you find yourself saying things you never thought you'd say. This happened to me last year when I was sitting in a meeting about a project I’d written. The casting director, the producers and I were discussing a list of actresses we were considering going out to. The project in question would be my directorial debut and in the world of independent film, a celebrity attachment can mean the difference between life and death. Since the film was based on a memoir, we needed an actress who could “stretch” (playing the character at several different ages). Plus, she had to be bankable, accessible and (God willing) actually able to act. It was a lot to hope for.
The casting director suggested we brainstorm a list of actresses ranging in age from their late 20’s to their mid-40’s. But whenever a mature actress’ name was mentioned, the producer would grouse “I can’t get anything for her.” I understood what he meant, but it felt sort of harsh and creepy (as if the actress was an old cow at a livestock auction). I could sense the tide turning. I’d entered into the project excited about the possibility of creating an opportunity for a 40ish actress, but now the pressure was on. Maybe the producer was right. Maybe younger was better. Younger was easier. Younger meant more money. More media attention. Then the casting director mentioned the name of a truly fabulous actress; a woman with phenomenal credits, blessed with an ageless face and spirit; the sort of artist any first-time director would be blessed to have onboard. But it was too late. An evil, boorish instinct had already taken root in me. I raised an eyebrow and in a bemused, dismissive sort of way said, “Have you seen her lately?” The actress was 45 years old. It was not my finest hour.
Ageism in Hollywood isn’t exactly new and no one is immune. Actors, writers, directors, producers, executives, cinematographers and all manner of below the line talent are affected by it. I’ve noticed that on Facebook (my latest obsession) the Hollywood contingent is all too happy to tell you the month and day they were born (but rarely the actual year) Only people born after 1983 tend to display that critical piece of information. I don’t know about you, but in 1983, I was dancing to “Beat It” on a linoleum dance floor in Diane Duff’s Little Club in Buffalo, New York. At the time, I could never have imagined walking into a pitch meeting and having a polite young executive extend his hand and say “A pleasure to meet you, Mr. Bottrell. Did you have any trouble finding us, sir?”
Actresses obviously bear the brunt of Hollywood’s phobia about aging. A couple of years ago, Demi Moore actually listed all the cosmetic procedures she’d had done including liposuction, implants and even one to make her knees look younger. And still no jobs! Every year there’s yet another outcry – Where are the roles for older actresses! I understand that they want to work, but my question is this: Do they want to play older characters? If so, why all the surgeries, diets and trainers? Why allow your stylist to continue attaching massive hair extensions to your head? Why not ease up, let nature takes its course and give Kathy Bates a run for her money?
I hate saying this, but the studios can’t really be blamed since they are simply responding to a chaotic marketplace. These days, young men and teenage boys are pretty much the only people left who can be dependably lured out of their homes. Young men are not a complicated bunch. Give them a few explosions and some big boobs and your film is a hit. A couple of years ago I was in a theater and right before the previews began, we were treated to an ad for some of kind of moisturizing soap. In the spot, we saw all these people; each of them “beautiful” in their own way. “Beauty,” by the way, meant looking great while wearing nothing but a bath towel. The last image was of a woman in her late 50’s blessed with a gorgeous face and a killer body. She was amazing looking. Her beauty brought a smile to my face until the kid behind me (who was maybe 19 years old) groaned… “Oh man…Gross,” as if some rotting cadaver had just appeared on screen. Youth is cruel.
The truth is, when it comes to entertainment, neither the young nor the old particularly like it when things get too real. Audiences depend on Hollywood to give them a version of events that’s as fabulous as it is ridiculous. I ask you…How many people do you know who look like Brad Pitt? How many people come home to Angelina Jolie or Halle Barry? Hollywood is not about the lives we are living. It’s about the lives we wish we were living. Lives where people live in huge apartments, wear beautiful clothes and have mattress-slamming sex seven nights a week. In the movies, we fight bullies and corruption, say witty things in the face of death and have gun fights in crowded train stations (without ever killing a single innocent person). We are forever brave. Forever smart. Forever young.
Last weekend I went to a screening of “Gran Torino” and I couldn’t help but be awed by Clint Eastwood. Here’s an actor-producer-director who passed 40 quite a long time ago and only now seems to have hit his stride. Who else puts out (on average) two movies a year? And substantive Oscar-worthy movies to boot. In “Gran Torino,” he gives a terrifically entertaining performance as a crusty, hard-ass retiree trying to redeem his sins with what little time he has left. Clint has unapologetically allowed age do what it does best – etch his remarkable face into an intricate map of human experience. I know, I know. We’re not supposed to look forward to growing older, but watching Clint, it didn’t look so bad. Maybe that’s what movie stars are really here to do. Make us not afraid of things. Including that new set of lines forming under my eyes.
Copyright 2008 Quitcher-Bitchyn Entertainment, Inc.
David Dean Bottrell is an actor (“Boston Legal”) and screenwriter (“Kingdom Come”) who writes a weekly blog about being strangely middle-class in Hollywood at www.partsandlabor.tv