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In Praise of Hollywood’s Working Actresses

In Praise of Hollywood's Working Actresses

For years, when anyone asked what
advice we had for aspiring actors, our knee-jerk response was, “Don’t do it!” But now, as we look back on careers that add up to almost four decades, we have gained a much more positive attitude toward our line of work. Despite the dismal
statistic that a mere 1-2% of SAG/AFTRA members support themselves solely by
acting, that 2% represents thousands of women like us, who have managed to
live nice, middle-class existences doing work they love. What’s not to
recommend about that?

abundance of tabloid attention to celebrities obscures the fact that there is, in
fact, a wide expanse between “starving artist” and Angelina Jolie
among the ranks of union actresses. Featured players and second bananas are the
backbone of the guild. We know their faces, but often not their names, and they
remain largely outside the purview of the general public. But they continue to
sustain careers, own their homes, send their children to college, and finance
their retirement. And they do work that provokes, enlivens, compels, enriches
and delights us.

Not that there aren’t significant obstacles. Even
the one Emmy category designed to acknowledge the guest star has been co-opted by
celebrity cameos. And, of course, these worker bees of the acting world —
especially the women — are the hardest hit when ageism takes its toll. Of the
roles available to women, 63% go to 20-30 year-olds. Suddenly, at forty, you’re
too old to play Mom on TV, and due to the disappearance of film roles in that
age range, movie stars inhabit the few parts you used to book. Also, let’s not forget the imbalance in the
ratio of female-to-male roles in the majority of
action-adventure/political thriller/superhero blockbusters — or as we like to
call them, “dick flicks.” It’s a tough business, but we
imagine air-traffic control or waitressing at Denny’s are too.

The point
is that there is a narrative other than the “rags or riches” fable in Hollywood
that should be acknowledged. Show business supports a large, mid-tier class of performers and craftspeople here in
Los Angeles and is subject to the same marketplace whims most industries face. We used to discourage people from an acting
career, admonishing wannabes about the likely necessity of holding down a
second job and the difficulties of managing a freelance lifestyle. But in
today’s economy, almost everyone in every field has to confront those issues at
some point. There really is no lifelong position with a gold watch finale any

So maybe those of us women who embarked on acting careers are
actually better prepared for the instability of the current workplace than
those who took what looked like a safer path. There are many, many working rank-and-filers and talented union actresses who can attest to the fact that it is possible to have a
full career and life without landing the cover of Vogue.    


Molly Cheek starred as Jim’s mom in the American Pie
movies and was featured in the Showtime series
It’s Garry Shandling’s Show and the syndicated sitcom Harry and the Hendersons. Best-known for
her recurring role as Donna in
Murder She Wrote, Debbie Zipp has also
starred in the series
Small and Frye
and shot over 300 national commercials. Molly and Debbie co-wrote the recently released e-book
The Aspiring
Actor’s Handbook: What Seasoned Actors Wish They Had Known

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