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by Matthew Hammett Knott
September 13, 2012 11:28 AM
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Heroines of Cinema: The Life Cycle of an Actress

Winona Ryder in "Heathers"
According to the old adage, a Hollywood actress’s career ends at 40. Of course, this is an adage, not a scientific formula. If you are good enough (Meryl Streep) or famous enough (Sandra Bullock), there is still hope. And the adage only applies to traditional leading ladies — if you are a character actress, forty may be when your career takes off. Judi Dench received her first Oscar nomination at the age of 64, and five more within the following decade.

But when it comes to your classic Hollywood star, it appears there is some truth in the matter. If we look at some of the biggest female box-office draws of the 80s and 90s - Meg Ryan (aged 50), Demi Moore (49), Michelle Pfeiffer and Sharon Stone (both 54) - it is clear that they are no longer appearing in lead roles in commercial films, as once they did. By contrast, their peers such as Brad Pitt (48), George Clooney (51), Denzel Washington (57) and Bruce Willis (57) are all still major box office draws.

Of course, some would say it is no great shame that the likes of Demi Moore can no longer command our attention at the multiplex, but that is beside the point. Hollywood has happily replaced Demi and co with such questionable luminaries as Katherine Heigl, Scarlett Johansson and Megan Fox, and whatever we think of their acting skills, the existence of a gaping gender inequality in terms of career opportunity cannot be denied.

Why is this so? Partly, it comes down to simple chauvinism, and the fact that the Hollywood studio machine has always fetishised youth and beauty in the female roles it has greenlit and subsequently cast. But this is not the whole story. Sharon Stone is incapable of being cast as Denzel Washington’s love interest, not because she is too old, but because mainstream commercial cinema has played a primary role in shaping the general public’s perception of what a 54 year old woman is - what she feels, thinks, is capable of.

This can be demonstrated by taking a wilfully unscientific look at the career of an actress currently at the dreaded age of 40. Step forward, Winona Ryder - who just happens to be interviewed on Indiewire today. Through her example, allow me to demonstrate how Hollywood conspires to make unwholesome use of its brightest female stars in seven easy steps.

"Girl, Interrupted"
1 - Become a star
Winona pulled this off with admirable speed when breakout roles in two 1988 releases - Tim Burton’s “Beetlejuice” and cult hit “Heathers” - made her a hot property at the age of 18. Subsequent performances in “Edward Scissorhands”, Francis Ford Coppola’s “Dracula” and Martin Scorsese’s “The Age of Innocence” - which yielded an Oscar nomination - confirmed her as a bona fide star. But for how long?

2 - Lose your edge
The problem with breaking into the mainstream is that it tends not to have many interesting parts on offer, especially for women. And thus, Winona made a series of bland choices. From “How to Make an American Quilt” to “The House of Spirits”, a succession of mid-90s roles saw her star persona start to lose its edge. And when that happens, it is only a matter of time before you can expect to…

3 - Be over-shadowed
A Hollywood actress is never too young to be upstaged by a younger pretender. This happened for Winona in damning fashion with 1999’s “Girl, Interrupted”, which she produced and starred in. Widely seen as her big comeback film, attention was quickly drawn to supporting player Angelina Jolie, then a relative unknown. Critical acclaim led to an Oscar for Jolie, not to mention a subsequent career as the biggest female star of the 21st century. While Ryder has only ever expressed praise for her young co-star, the All About Eve-esque scenario (which cast the then 29 year old Ryder as an ageing, fading has-been) was lapped up by the press and certainly did her no favours.

4 - Fulfil middle-aged male fantasies
With Angelina now on hand to satisfy male audiences’ bedroom fantasies, Hollywood needed to cast Winona in a new role. Regrettably this came in the form of 2000’s execrable “Autumn in New York”. Starring opposite Richard Gere - twenty three years her senior - she played a terminally ill young woman whose tragic early death is not without its benefits - her brief romance with Gere’s character allows him to see the truth about love and the error of his formerly womanising ways. That’s positively feminist, right?

5 - Play a mother
We’re not here to gossip, but suffice it to say that Winona’s career in the early 2000s had its tricky moments. Nonetheless, she was only 37 when she played the mother of then 31 year old Zachary Quinto in 2009’s "Star Trek" reboot. Of course, she also appears with a child version of Quinto’s character, making sense of the age anomaly, but the role was significant nonetheless. Once cast in the Mother role - by which I mean not simply a woman with children, but one whose motherhood is defined by its supporting context, with no story of its own - it can be difficult for actresses to return to parts which acknowledge a woman’s agency, sexuality, and god forbid, career.

6 - Play a slut
That is unless you are willing to play a less forgiving role than the classic romantic heroine. Many people were surprised when Winona was cast as one of the female leads in Ron Howard’s 2009 film “The Dilemma” - until they read the synopsis. She plays a woman who cheats on her husband with a hot younger man, and judging by reviews (I admit, I haven’t seen it) the film is hardly concerned with giving a balanced account of why a woman might be led to cheat.

7 - Play a psycho
Tired and depressed by stages one to six? Behold your fate. The professional ballet world is one of the few arenas with a worse reputation than Hollywood for cutthroat ageism. Still, there are physical justifications, and one assumes that not all prima ballerinas retired against their will take the psychotic approach exhibited by Winona’s character in Darren Aronofsky’s “Black Swan”. Many critics were delighted with her performance, but I found it a depressing example of casting laziness, for an actress often unfairly characterised as fragile and odd. She only narrowly avoids the fate often required by Hollywood for a character both female and crazy - death.

Before we get too depressed on Winona’s behalf, bear in mind that I have mostly been discussing the worst tendencies of commercial cinema, and that any actress with even a passing taste of A-list stardom should have no trouble finding interesting work in the independent sector or on stage, should they so wish. Indeed, Ryder told Indiewire that she is looking forward to the “Baby Jane” stage of her career, demonstrating a wry awareness of how her career has progressed and perhaps even an excitement at freeing herself from such an unforgiving cycle.

The real victims here are not the most wealthy, beautiful and privileged women in the world, but the mainstream cinema goers who are fed little other than these bland and often damaging female roles — versions of womanhood that consistently decay and expire before their time. They deserve better - and Meryl Streep can’t do it all by herself. With Winona Ryder and countless other actresses raring to join the charge, it is time to give the traditional life cycle of an actress a shot in the arm.

Matthew Hammett Knott is a London-based filmmaker and writer and contributor to Indiewire's Lost Boys blog. Follow him on Twitter.

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  • BabyfacedAssassin | September 14, 2012 7:09 AMReply

    I think you should remove Michelle Pfeiffer's name from that list since she's virtually the only one of that generation of actresses still getting decent film roles. She's made several films in the last few years (including the one she's currently shooting in France w Luc Besson where she stars as De Niro's wife) that range from indie to big budget, 3 of which she was the lead character while playing central/key roles in the others.

    There's obviously a difference when people like Meg Ryan and Melanie Griffith are reduced to appearing on sitcoms in guest spots or when Rene Russo and Kim Basinger are given only 5 minutes of screen time as moms to younger, handsome leading men. Pfeiffer only just took on her first mom role this past summer in People Like Us, but that role went above and beyond the glorified cameo conventions of Russo and Basinger's. Instead it was a well-written part with an arc which led to some of the best reviews for Pfeiffer in recent memory.

    I'm sorry, but I think she is one of those rare exceptions to the rule...

  • CR | September 13, 2012 1:49 PMReply

    I certainly find it worth examining the difference with which our culture allows actors and actresses lead roles as they age.

    But I do think it is worth mentioning inthis particular article the talent and ability Ms. Ryder has demonstrated so clearly, even in her recent work. I found her work in Girl, Interrupted courageous and realistic, without having to be showy or over the top, as her co-star.

    The fragility in her performance helped temper her character in Black Swan. And I made a point of catching a screening of The Dillemma, after reading areview which mentioned her performance - which, I agree, was complex and exciting; from some other film entirely.

    A talented woman - look forward to seeing her in her next role.

  • lalaw | September 13, 2012 12:36 PMReply

    Great article. Perhaps the writer of the Winona interview on this site should have read this article first before casually and unnecessarily mentioning that she could pass for 30.

  • MHK | September 14, 2012 3:58 AM

    Winona is famously childlike / impish-looking -- that comment was clearly innocuous.

  • Peter Knegt | September 13, 2012 2:00 PM

    I did read this before (and completely agree with it), and my comment was a simple, reasonably casual truth: She still looks like she's 28 years old.