The statistics could not be more stark. Take a look at the highest-grossing films this weekend in the US – the Top 10 includes star vehicles for Denzel Washington (aged 57) and Liam Neeson (60) and a starring role for Tom Hanks (56), while the Top 20 including first-billed roles for John Hawkes (53), Daniel Day-Lewis (55) and Bruce Willis (57 – though Willis is admittedly not the lead in his film).
Where are their female peers? Actresses like Sally Field (66) and Judi Dench (77) are highly visible and significant presences in their respective films "Lincoln" and "Skyfall", but there is not a single film in this week’s Top 20, and as far as I can tell, not a single high-profile release in the Top 50 films nationwide – that gives a starring role to a woman older than 50 (and not too many more with a starring role for any woman, for that matter).
A couple of months ago, this column looked at the life cycle of a Hollywood actress, revealing the all too frequent ways in which careers expire before their time. Thankfully, it is not a golden rule. There exists a select group of actresses whose careers not only thrive beyond their fifth decade, but positively blossom.
READ MORE: Heroines of Cinema: The Life Cycle of an Actress
Here is a list – by no means comprehensive – of mostly recent films that have grossed $100 million or more worldwide while giving top billing to a woman aged 50 or older. The figures have been very crudely adjusted for inflation to give some sense of perspective.
In actual fact, there are 13 films on my list, which can be explained by two words – Meryl Streep. In recent years, Streep has become an unprecedented box office phenomenon, with “Hope Springs” recently becoming her sixth film to gross $100 million or more in the past six years. I can’t think of a single other actor with a matching record in the same time frame – and given the commercial climate, the fact that a 63 year old woman is the sole person to achieve that milestone is something of a miracle.
And yet, Meryl is not alone in busting the myth that audiences won’t turn out in droves when a film led by a woman of a certain age is one they want to see. Conservative studio heads take note – the higher up this list you go, the more instances you find of women who are sexually active, desirable, funny and intelligent. Why is this? Is it possible that this is in fact the reality of life for women that age, and yet there are so few instances of it being authentically replicated on screen that when it does happen, they can’t stay away? Just a thought.
10. Calendar Girls (2003) – $118 million (all grosses are worldwide)
The star: Helen Mirren / Julie Walters
Age on film’s release: 58 / 53
The story: In this surprise British comedy hit, the age of the women involved in this true-life tale of a Women’s Institute who pose for a nude calendar for charity was part of the story. But as the film exceeded all expectations at the box office, it turned out not to be part of the joke.
9. The Iron Lady (2011) – $115 million / Julie & Julia (2009) – $130 million
The star: Meryl Streep
Age on film’s release: 62 / 60
The story: A double entry for two towering Meryl Streep interpretations of two 20th century icons – Margaret Thatcher and Julia Child. As Streep’s star wattage continues to rise, we can only imagine what grand dames of history she will turn her celebrated skills of mimicry to next – but there is little doubt there is an audience for it.
8. The Queen (2006) – $123 million
The star: Helen Mirren
Age on film’s release: 61
The story: As with Meryl Streep’s “Julie and Julia”, “The Queen” was officially a two-hander between Mirren’s Queen Elizabeth II and Michael Sheen’s Tony Blair. But despite Sheen’s stellar impersonation, all the talk in 2006 was about Mirren’s unbeatable and empathetic portrayal of the long-serving monarch – said to have played a significant part in rejuvenating the Queen's personal popularity among the British public.
7. The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (2012) – $134 million
The star: Judi Dench / Maggie Smith
Age on film’s release: 76
The story: Judi Dench may take top billing, but let’s take a moment to celebrate the dual careers of Britain’s most celebrated septuagenarian Dames. Between them, they have 3 Oscars from 12 nominations and, including TV awards, a ridiculous 18 BAFTAs from 42 nominations. Hogging the limelight maybe, but having never been more popular or high profile following the successes of “Skyfall” and “Downton Abbey”, Dames Judi and Maggie show no signs of quitting yet.
6. The First Wives Club (1996) – $256 million
The stars: Bette Midler, Diane Keaton & Goldie Hawn
Age on film’s release: 51 / 50 / 51
The story: A blueprint for the success of Meryl Streep’s recent romantic comedies, the film may have made a selling point of its stars’ relatively advanced progress through their romantic travails, but it worked – the film posted huge numbers, tapping into a previously neglected audience.
5. Driving Miss Daisy (1989) – $259 million
The star: Jessica Tandy
Age on film’s release: 80
The story: Not everyone was comfortable with this hugely popular tale of a wealthy white woman and her black chauffeur. But few doubted the performance of Jessica Tandy, which eventually made her the oldest ever Best Actress Oscar nominee and winner – an impressive statistic in her case, but perhaps also proof that we are not exactly comfortable as a species with telling stories about people in life’s final stages.
4. On Golden Pond (1981) – $290 million
The star: Katherine Hepburn
Age on film’s release: 74
The story: Katherine Hepburn took top billing but famously shared screen time with fellow legend Henry Fonda and his daughter Jane. Hollywood pounced, awarding Oscars to both Hepburn and Fonda Senior – in the process allowing Hepburn to break records with an unprecedented fourth Best Actress statuette.
3. Something’s Gotta Give (2003) – $267 million worldwide / It’s Complicated (2009) – $314 million worldwide
The star: Diane Keaton / Meryl Streep
Age on film’s release: 57 / 60
The story: A double entry for two Nancy Meyers rom-coms. Meyers is one of very few female writer / directors making commercial films about the love lives of women in her age bracket. These numbers show how ridiculous it is that there are not more like her – the figures for both are up there with all but the most super-saturated of blockbusters.
2. The Devil Wears Prada (2006) – $363 million
The star: Meryl Streep
Age on film’s release: 57
The story: Here’s where it all started for Meryl Streep’s renaissance as a major commercial star. Anne Hathaway was the film’s arguable lead, but Meryl received both star billing and the lion’s share of plaudits, including a Best Actress Oscar nomination – a rarity for any comic performance. Industry observers were shocked by the film's opening weekend grosses – and Meryl has never looked back.
1. Mamma Mia (2008) – $635 million
The star: Meryl Streep
Age on film’s release: 59
The story: Who else? Of course, it was hardly Meryl alone that led “Mamma Mia” to such extraordinary box office returns – a certain band named ABBA may have helped in that regard. But the film’s bumper business – at the heart of a worldwide recession – was fuelled by women making repeat visits to this tale that gleefully hinges on the romantic forays of Streep's exuberantly liberated character.
Critics be damned – what audiences got from this film, and indeed most of the films on this list, they don’t find at their multiplex very often. But as the above list confirms, the problem is most certainly one of supply and not demand.