Older Women in Feature Films

By Rina Rosselson

harold-and-maude-hal-ashby.jpgHarold and Maude, 1971

A Research Guide about representations of women over 60

Women’s acting careers seem to suffer from what one writer calls double jeopardy. Not only do actresses receive fewer roles and have less star presence than actors, but this difference increases with age. Contrary to what might be expected following second wave feminism, this pattern has not changed in the US in the period between 1926 to 1999. Since 1927, 58 men and 32 women over 60 have been nominated for the Academy Awards. Correspondingly, overall roles available to older actors far outnumber those for older actresses. This difference has increased remarkably since the 1960s. A similar pattern exists in the UK. An article in Equity magazine called ‘Boys Town: Or how the Feature Film Industry Conspires to Exclude Older Women’ recounts the experiences of British actors. Overall, a general absence of older actresses in film is compounded by a shortage of roles. This under-representation of older women in films bears no comparison to the pattern of the general population. 

In spite of a huge interest in media portrayals of women by feminist academics since the 1970s, and in spite of demographic changes, the image of the older woman in films has attracted little academic attention. What little research that does exist appears in Sociology and Gerontology publications and only considers American produced films. Worryingly, even in these academic papers an ageist/sexist bias is sometimes present. Equally, this published work into representations of older women in American-produced films highlights a worrying dependence on stereotypical roles.

The stereotypes reported are:

1. The Mother: Depending on the historical/social circumstances, she can be wise, strong and loyal, tragic and self sacrificing. But equally, she can be the overprotective, overbearing, repressive, controlling, suffocating Mom. A recent paper shows that since the 1990s a new trend seems to be emerging in that the mother is portrayed as suffering some sort of dementia.

2. The rich dowager: often a widow, she can be feather-brained, a figure of fun or a powerful figure of inflexible authority.

3. “... feisty grandmothers, ageing careerists and sharp tongued spinsters” of the 1930s.

4. Servants, maids or waitresses, often of ethnic minority background.

In all films, the function of a central protagonist that is psychologically developed and provides the narrative motivation is crucial. On rare occasions the protagonist is an older woman, although this does not necessarily escape stereotype. The protagonist is frequently a mother stereotype. Ma Joad in The Grapes of Wrath, is a good example of the strong mother, whilst Make Way For Tomorrow and Lady For A Day portray the tragic and self sacrificing mothers. The menacing ‘Mom’ is present in The Anniversary, whilst in Psycho ‘Mom’ pervades the film with her controlling tyrannical terrifying presence, even though she is never visibly represented. This last film is interesting in that Hitchcock’s downbeat ending reveals the horrific mother to be a construction of the diseased mind of the young man.

From the 50s another type of protagonist appears: the ageing, embittered, sad and grotesque actress. The classicSunset Boulevard (1950) is described sometimes as a metaphor for the end of the studio area in Hollywood but there is also Whatever Happened To Baby Jane? (1962) and Fedora (1978). In Whatever Happened To Baby Jane?, we have the psychotic ex-child actress, the embittered spinster career woman and ‘Mom’ in one film.

Two films, Arsenic And Old Lace and the cult Harold And Maude have been identified by some U3A members as standing out: in that they unsettle pervasive stereotypes of defenceless, sexless older women. In the former film, two ‘little harmless old ladies’ turn out to be serial killers. In the second, ‘little old’ Maude is full anarchic energy. She inspires in Harold the will to live life to the full, and at 80 initiates him to sex. Even though she ends her life, it does not diminish the impact of her enduring vitality.


mother-roger-michell.jpgThe Mother, 2003

The 1980s are often considered as producing a new era for older women in films because three Oscars for Best Actress in a Leading Role were awarded to Katherine Hepburn (age 74) (On Golden Pond 1981), Geraldine Page (age 61) (The Trip To Bountiful 1985) and Jessica Tandy (age 80) (Driving Miss Daisy 1989). But even though these films employ an older actress, do they really show any change in the representation of older women? In as much as their main theme is ageing rather than the decaying old age of the 60s they are different. But each one still retains some attributes of previous portrayals. Ethel Thayer in On Golden Pond is primarily the supporting wife/mother of the 1930s. Also, in The Trip To Bountiful the mother/mother-in-law conflict is once again placed under scrutiny. But the new theme of nostalgic need to visit one’s past is explored and the obstinate older woman is not rich. However there is a suggestion of early dementia in the acting that deprives the woman of any sort of dignity, and reduces her strength of character to a disease of aging, rather than a trait of feminine strength. Finally the rich dowager is here in Driving Miss Daisy, although not as inflexible as before as she changes her racist attitudes. In one way it is a new departure in that the female lead is Jewish and the male lead black. They are seen in a social/historical context and are not one-dimensional. But the film could well symbolise the double standard in the representation of ageing. The chauffeur who becomes the carer remains competent as he ages while the woman loses her autonomy and control. The film also makes it safe to represent a mixed relationship since the older women is de-sexualised.

Twenty years on from the shifts of the 1980s three British films – Iris (2001), Ladies In Lavender (2004), The Mother (2003) – that provided the motivation for this project were released. The representation of older women in British films has received even less attention than their American counterpart. Indeed, if we take Hollywood as a national cinema, it is the only one to have inspired the kind of research of interest to this project. Existing research on 1930s British films does identify older women as being typed as difficult dowagers who are typically eccentric. They are largely confined to comedies, and Old Mother Riley, a drag performance, is also quoted in this category. Also, in British films, the little old lady in The Ladykillers, the eccentric nanny/spy of The Lady Vanishes and the many impersonations of Miss Marple, present us with autonomous older women outside any family relationships. But how far these representations are typical of British films has yet to be explored in the academic context.

Whilst brilliant older women get star billing in films like IrisLadies In Lavender and The Mother, the roles they perform do no justice to the lives and aspirations of older women, nor do they represent the contributions they make to society. In these films, there is no sign of our changing world, nor of the diversity of the population of modern Britain. Whilst the proliferation of incidental characters with dementia- and Iris, a major film showing the descent into Alzheimer disease of a brilliant female intellectual – could be interpreted as a representation of social reality, they can also be seen as expressing a new fear of ageing in the mainly young, male media executives. Consequently, they do little to address the absence of older women’s lives on our screens. Similarly, the nostalgic return to a genteel (class-bound) idyllic time in ‘Postcard’ Cornwall of Ladies In Lavender provides comfortable viewing. The two sisters who live by the sea and the gentle pace are reminiscent of The Whales Of August. But inLadies In Lavender one of the women is unbalanced by her unfulfilled motherly/sexual needs. In the latter the women are autonomous. The Mother has been hailed as a breakthrough because it depicts an older woman having explicit sex with a much younger man. This time we have a selfish Mother as Victim liberated by having sex with her daughter’s lover. A majority of our respondents found the character unsympathetic and it was the least liked of the eight films of our survey. In 2005, two films – Mrs Henderson Presents and Keeping Mum – were released. The former features an eccentric rich dowager again. In the latter, a black comedy, a murderous Maggie Smith subverts the mother-grandmother-housekeeper stereotypes.

The research for the filmography, which is still work in progress, has been instructive. There are some films which are relevant to our times, are intellectually challenging or just entertaining. While waiting for the establishment of the film industry to discover the richness and diversity of older women’s lives we can remain alert to the issues around stereotyping and ageist practices within the film making industry highlighted by existing research into representations of older women and film. At the same time we can enjoy and share the films above so appreciated by some U3A members.

Rina Rosselon's full report is available from the BFI website: http://www.bfi.org.uk/filmtvinfo/library/publications/litresearch.html