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Hollywood is a cruel place. But not as cruel as before. here’s why

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Anyone who cares about Hollywood was moved by the death of Olivia de Havilland this weekend. The last surviving star of Hollywood’s golden age since the 1930s had passed away at the terrifying age of 104.

It was time to complain about the fertility of the business in the days of Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, Barbara Stanwyck and Ms. de Havilland herself. Throughout the 1940s and 1950s, what is known as the image of women placed these actors at the heart of high-end drama. You no longer get movies like Mildred Pierce, Now, Voyager, and Stella Dallas. Well, not too much.

One moment. If we can afford good news, a glimpse into Olivia de Havillands’ career reminds us that, in one way at least, Hollywood has become a more welcoming place for women. She won her second Oscar, for The Heiress, in 1949. She was only 32 years old. Gone with the Wind, Captain Blood and The Adventures of Robin Hood were behind her. The future could hardly look brighter. Yet she never reached these heights again. There were good roles in My Cousin Rachel and Not as a Stranger, but by 1960, now living in Paris, she was no longer part of the conversation. She has been relegated to horror images and guest roles on TV shows.

Golden Age stars were allowed on the big screen, but only in projects macabre enough to contain their seemingly monstrous retirement

The same was true of the contemporaries of de Havillands mentioned above. Arguably Bette Daviss’ best role was that of the aging, monstrous diva in Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s immortal All About Eve. Delightful Margo Channing throws beards over her shoulder as Anne Baxters Eve Harrington walks straight inside. Davis, then 42, could see the writing on the wall of her own dressing room. She excelled in later films, such as The Catered Affair and The Virgin Queen, but by the time of the Kennedy administration she was also far removed from the A-list.

Crawford and Davis returned for Robert Aldrichs What Happened to Baby Jane? in 1962. It was, however, a qualified triumphant class. Both still middle-aged, they played grotesque versions of actors from a forgotten era. Davis has been awarded less prestigious shockers such as The Nanny and Madame Sin. Crawford’s final on-screen role was opposite a revived Wren in The Low Rent British Horror Trog. De Havillands’ appearance opposite Davis in Hush … Hush, Sweet Charlotte, Aldrichs 1964 followed by Baby Jane, was no longer useful in reopening the doors of prestigious productions.

Many of these films are worth exploring (Aldrich’s footage is timeless), but, viewed from an angle, this late wave was almost more insulting than being ignored. Golden Age stars were allowed on the big screen, but only in projects macabre enough to contain their seemingly monstrous retirement.

In retrospect, the thoroughness with which Hollywood washed the hands of its older stars seems outrageous. Male icons aged in parts of decent characters in big movies. Bette Davis has been reduced to guest roles on The Virginian. Anne Baxter may have pushed Bette aside in All About Eve, but by 1973 this actor was a suspect on Columbo (not to offend the greatest crime show ever made).

Charlize Theron, whose action film The Old Guard is currently a hit on Netflix, is two years older than All About Eve’s Bette Davis

Now is the time to have fun with math. Julia Roberts was a year older than de Havilland in The Heiress when she directed Notting Hill. She hasn’t left. Charlize Theron, whose action film The Old Guard is currently a hit on Netflix, is two years older than All About Eve’s Bette Davis. When Meryl Streep was the same age as Davis in What Happened to Baby Jane? playing a pathetic geriatric, remember her bouncing off the Everglades in Charlie Kaufmans Adaptation. The Hours, Mamma Mia! and The Devil Wears Prada were yet to come.

I remember being around my 40s, I thought every movie would be my last, really, Streep told the Wall Street Journal in 2006. And all the evidence from other 40-year-old women around that time … believe it was over. Fortunately, this turned out to be far from the case.

Much of the rest of this column will be filled with qualifiers (so breathe first but … but …). There is, however, an undeniably contrast between how the industry now treats its older superstars and how it handled them in the 1960s and 1970s. It is still a cruel affair for older actors. But no equivalent of the near-total erasure that happened to the de Havillands generation has taken place. Meryl Streep, Helen Mirren, Maggie Smith and Glenn Close all received Oscar nominations in their sixties. Judi Dench has, since middle age, enjoyed a more active career in cinema than she did as a young woman.

Not everyone is in this proverbial fiery hand basket.

Streep would nevertheless be the first to introduce an icy reality into the conversation. We still meet women actresses who, after a few starry years, go into the background when they are in their forties. If the #MeToo scandal has taught us anything, it’s that more than a few of these women have been punished for rejecting sexual advances from powerful men. Only an idiot would claim that this is not happening yet.

Male movie stars retain the status of romantic leaders against women until they are 20 years younger. How often does 58-year-old Tom Cruise cuddle someone his age?

Meanwhile, the movies that make all the money continue to disproportionately treat men’s affairs. A 2018 study found that just over 32% of the characters in 50 of the top-grossing films in the United States were female. The figure was even worse when you reduced the analysis to the tracks. It is hardly surprising when male movie stars retain the status of romantic leaders against women until they are 20 years younger. How often does 58-year-old Tom Cruise cuddle someone his age?

These are the roles they write for women my age, Streep said. Usually they are some sort of gorgonian or dragon or somehow grotesque. In recent years, she has been nominated for an Oscar for playing a witch in Into the Woods, a bitch in The Devil Wears Prada, an adorable nut of Florence Foster Jenkins and Mrs. Thatcher in The Iron Lady (and won for the latter) .

So we should not get too carried away. But it remains undeniable that the upper echelons of the acting sorority are much more enduring than they were when de Havilland came of age. It reflects a culture that no longer awaits anyone over the age of 40 to dedicate their life to tweed twins and flower arrangements. This confirms that Hollywood saw the potential in an older audience.

Movies are not what they used to be. In some ways, they are much better.

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