Act Your Age

Why are 46-year-old actresses forced to play 36-year-old characters? Because it's Hollywood, stupid.

Published June 2, 1997 7:00PM (EDT)

i'm tired of hearing about how "revolutionary" the "Ellen" lesbian episode was. Here's what would be truly revolutionary: if Ellen Morgan, the sitcom character, were allowed to come out as the same age as Ellen DeGeneres, the actress. For those who may have missed what I consider the real story here, Ellen the actress is 39 -- which I'm basically willing to believe, despite that business with her neck -- while Ellen the character is (ahem) 35.

Why can't they both be 39? The obvious answer is that the spectacle of a downwardly mobile single woman with nothing better to do than hang out with her friends all day becomes unnerving, even pathetic, if she's hurtling toward 40. Better to pretend she's only a little older than, say, the cast of "Friends," whose youth makes slackerishness safely cute.

But the bigger truth is that middle-aged women are a far more dreadful taboo in Hollywood than lesbians -- even when they are lesbians, which you might think, biologically at least, would make the whole point moot. After all, one lesbian isn't going to impregnate the other, so what does it matter if either is getting past childbearing age? However, so powerful is the Hollywood pretense of endless youth that it's even infected the comfortable shoe set.

Outside Ellen's faux down-to-earth world of Hush Puppies and crew necks, of course, the obsession with youth is even more blatant. A few years ago, in an attempt to seem more journalistic, the Hollywood Reporter began asking subjects their age for its yearly "Women In Hollywood" special issue. Predictably, this resulted in endless snickering calls to the paper afterwards, the gist of which were typically, "she's not 34! She's at least 38!" At least Dawn Steel, the legendarily nasty producer, was direct. Her answer to the age query: "Fuck you."

There was talk in Hollywood that the success of "The First Wives Club" would loosen things up, but that hasn't happened. First of all, remember that while the actresses in that movie were all over 50, the characters were in their (oh, sure) 40s. Not that men are immune to this weird screen convention: After the Albert Brooks character's cri du coeur that he was a 40-year-old man in last year's "Mother," I couldn't take my eyes off the 49-year-old Brooks' jowls. But women always end up getting the short end of the stick here. Like in "North by Northwest," where Jessie Royce Landis played the 55-year-old Cary Grant's mother even though in real life she was 11 months his junior.

But back to "The First Wives Club." It made enough money that not only is a sequel in the works but so are a lot of knock-off projects. On the surface, this is good news for post-ingenue actresses. However, this being Hollywood, naturally there's a nauseating twist. A friend of mine, a 46-year-old actress-turned-writer, recently got a lot of interest in a vaguely "First Wives"-ish treatment she wrote, about three over-40 friends reentering the dating world. But when she actually met with the producer -- an over-40 woman herself -- the news wasn't good.

"These women cannot be in their 40s," the producer announced flatly. "They have to be 38." Why? "Because we have to believe they have a chance at a future life."

And actually, even 38 may not be young enough. Because then a studio executive said that the studio was only interested in the project as a starring vehicle for Sandra Bullock. And Sandra Bullock, of course, is ... well, let's see -- either only 32 or only 29, depending on which reports you believe. With true foresight, Bullock began fudging her age several years ago (although she seems to have stopped after Vanity Fair called her on it).

I commiserated with my friend about this on the phone for a while, but then she had to go, because she was on her way to keep an appointment with a plastic surgeon. She'd been planning to get rid of her upper-lip wrinkles last year, but chickened out, and now she was determined. "Listen," she said, "I just had lunch with a friend of mine, an actress, who's only 40. She was up for the Anne Heche role in that Harrison Ford movie "6 Days/7 Nights." But she was told, flat out, that she's too old."

Which returns us to the fake bravery surrounding all things Ellen. How come, when Anne Heche came out as Ellen DeGeneres' girlfriend, Hollywood was worried that the young actress therefore might not be believable as the romantic lead opposite Harrison Ford? How come no one ever asks if the 55-year-old Harrison Ford is a believable romantic lead for the 27-year-old Anne Heche?

I know the answer, of course -- it's the way of the world. But please, let's stop pretending that coming out as gay is the most shocking thing women in Hollywood can do. What would be genuinely shocking is to announce: We're here. We're over 35. Get used to it.

By Catherine Seipp

Catherine Seipp is a regular contributor to Salon.

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