Wasted older women

"Boozy grandma" characters are all over TV, but it would be nice if veteran actresses had more to do


Kate Harding
December 29, 2009 11:30PM (UTC)

It's notoriously difficult for actresses of a certain age to get work in Hollywood, but CNN's Breeanna Hare notes that if you're an older white woman who looks suitably patrician, opportunities abound in the "boozy grandma" role that seems to be featured in every other TV show these days. Veteran actresses Kelly Bishop, Holland Taylor, Caroline Lagerfelt and Jessica Walter have all recently played such three-martini matriarchs — I'd add Susan Sullivan, currently working out her elbow on "Castle," to that list — and now Susan Sarandon has brought the type to the big screen in "The Lovely Bones."

And at this point, it is a type. Says Hare, "It's a role that's virtually paint-by-numbers — drunk grandmothers are nearly always wealthy, white and cruelly witty, with poor parenting skills," but in the hands of such talented performers, the outspoken, cocktail-fueled older woman is still extremely watchable — which really ought to make us wonder what they could do with other roles. For all the talk of Meryl Streep rocking Hollywood's socks off this year (and believe me, I'm as thrilled about that as any other female moviegoer who's not invested in Edward vs. Jacob), let us not forget that she's Meryl Freakin' Streep. Is her recent wave of success really going to help other women her age to open movies and land the cover of Vanity Fair? TVGuide.com senior editor Mickey O'Connor provides the reality check: "Maybe it's become, play a drunk grandmother and you get to work past the age of 60." Even if you're Susan Sarandon, let alone an award-winning actress (Bishop has a Tony, and Taylor an Emmy, for instance) who's spent decades stuck in "Hey, it's that guy!" territory.

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I suppose the boozy grandma is better than the dotty — or nonexistent — older woman character, in that she at least has a discernible personality, opinions and enough brains to produce just the right clever, cutting remark on the spot. But does she have to be a functional alcoholic for the audience to accept those things? Does a woman over 60 — or 50, even — have to be snobby and self-absorbed to be interesting? As cookie-cutter types go, "wealthy, white, witty and wasted" does at least offer an actress something to do, but given the talent and résumés of some of these performers, "wasted" is exactly the right word.


Kate Harding

Kate Harding is the author of Asking For It: The Alarming Rise of Rape Culture--and What We Can Do About It, available from Da Capo Press in August 2015. Previously, she collaborated with Anna Holmes, Amanda Hess, and a cast of thousands on The Book of Jezebel, and with Marianne Kirby on Lessons from the Fat-o-Sphere. You might also remember her as the founding editor of Shapely Prose (2007-2010). Kate's essays have appeared in the anthologies Madonna & Me, Yes Means Yes, Feed Me, and Airmail: Women of Letters. She holds an M.F.A. in fiction from Vermont College of Fine Arts and a B.A. in English from University of Toronto, and is currently at work on a Ph.D. in creative writing from Bath Spa University

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