Middle-aged actresses missing out on plum roles in Hollywood is likely the furthest thing on anyone’s mind when they think about “societal problems”. But for my money, it is a crucial concern about the American film industry that should be addressed. The lack of roles for women over 40 in Hollywood, currently, is appalling (as opposed to the earliest glory days of the “women’s picture” in the ‘30s, all the way through about the ‘70s or so). It seems the only woman of a certain age who is allowed to work consistently is Meryl Streep, arguably the most respected American actress living, perhaps, according to many, of all time.
The celebrated Streep is why it is so hard to resist the candy-coated allure of last summer’s unexpected smash box office and critical hit The Devil Wears Prada. There, on the bloody battlefield of all things haute couture, we find La Streep playing a workaholic harridan fashion magazine editor, seemingly forged in the deepest pits of hell. It is the kind of evil boss role that is at once an obvious caricature and a crowd-pleasing delight. What is interesting about watching Streep play this rather stock role is the villainous glee she exudes as she terrorizes everyone around her (the actress is clearly amusing herself playing such a cold, demonic woman). Ingeniously, she turns the character of Miranda Priestly into a pop culture icon by playing her as a cutthroat harpy with a corona of razor-sharp silver locks, a supreme sense of entitlement, and the most adventurous wardrobe (courtesy of Sex and the City’s brilliant stylist Patricia Field, Oscar nominated for her work here) Streep has ever experimented with on or off screen. The actress is currently enjoying some of the best buzz of her career: she won a Golden Globe for her work in The Devil Wears Prada, and has gotten an Oscar nomination (her 14th—an all-time record for an actor), to boot.
Since 2000, only three other Hollywood films have grossed over the $100 million mark and featured a woman over the age of 40 in a lead role: 2000’s What Lies Beneath (starring Michelle Pfeiffer, opposite major box office idol Harrison Ford), 2003’s Freaky Friday (starring Jamie Lee Curtis opposite the solid gold commodity that is Lindsay Lohan), and 2003’s Something’s Gotta Give (with comedic icon Diane Keaton opposite the equally iconic Jack Nicholson). These performers had a strong, bankable co-star to rely on for support in each of these winners, and only in this past year has there been a film that could be called a true victory in the fight against sexism and ageism in film: The Devil Wears Prada was the only one runaway hit that starred a middle aged actress. Streep is arguably the most respected, rewarded example of talent that most actors (young and old, male and female), use as the benchmark with which to measure their own craft. She carried this weak shell of a film on her back into the sunset, heading somewhere north of $150 million and counting, without much help from her co-workers.
Though Streep gleefully excels in her bitchy, oft-quotable scenes in The Devil Wears Prada, and tries to salvage some modicum of dignity by truly fleshing out her poorly-written role (she is given a single make up-free crying scene in which to reveal her character’s humanity, and succeeds), the film’s main focus is on a vapid, wan “journalist” named Andy Saks, a small-town girl who moves to the big, bad city to make it as a writer. Andy is played with a singular lack of charisma by Anne Hathaway, in an obvious, delirious bid to become America’s next sweetheart, which is something that needs to be nipped in the bud.
Completely ludicrous and antiquated in it’s depiction of “serious journalism”, The Devil Wears Prada instructs it’s viewers to believe that just because Andy wrote about bus driver strikes and other minor labor movements for her college newspaper, that she is the pinnacle of journalistic integrity, even though she is annoyingly naive enough to think that having disheveled, bag lady hair, no make up, and a complete lack of personal style will still somehow allow her to land a job at the world’s leading glamour rag. No person in their right mind would go out for a job interview—certainly not in New York—in the frumpy outfit she dons in the film’s first scene. We are led to believe that plucky Andy is above the trappings of physical appearance: her talent and drive are apparently enough to land her the one of the best jobs in the industry, despite her initial ungrateful attitude toward the world she so desperately wants to become a major part of. The Devil Wears Prada has the nerve to insinuate that no respectable writer worth his or her salt could ever condescend to work in the “fluffy” fashion industry, and that real writers should only work where they can “make a difference”.
Andy’s friends and boyfriend Nate (the inept Adrian Grenier) all mercilessly taunt her new vocation and belittle her, even though they are more than ready to greedily take part in her high-fashion booty (like handbags worth more than three month’ rent; a perk she receives after being on the job for about a week or so). They all think that neophyte Andy is so brilliant and relevant that she should just quit the job in fashion that she is totally wrong for and do something that “makes a difference”. It’s never clear for who or what she should be making this much-whispered about “difference”, though. Vile little clichés like that one just seem to pile upon one another after about the first minute or so of the film. Andy and Nate live in one of those concocted-in-fantasy NYC apartments in wonderfully safe neighborhoods that only movie characters can afford at such a delicate young age.
One of the worst problems with Andy’s storyline (and there is a slew) is that that it attempts to condemn the fashion industry by woefully inserting a bogus, tasteless running gag about Hathaway being too overweight to wear anything by a good designer, but ends up basically shouting the praises of the eating disorder as a good form of dieting. She’s a real “fatty” at size 4, according to Nigel, Andy’s queer fairy godfather (Stanley Tucci), who makes sure to slap any carbs out of her hand at the cafeteria so she can squeeze into the newest Chanel collection. Prada also (rather boldly) decries that if you compromise your principals and everything you believe in (as well as starve yourself), you will succeed. Rail-thin and model-gorgeous is what gets the job done around these parts. Smart girls who don’t buy couture are pretty much just good for making fun of. Not a very positive message for the film’s target audience of young women, who are already ruthlessly subjected to this sort of image-based discrimination every day.
Director David Frankel, employs an off-kilter comic relief crew, which includes Tucci (absurdly gaying it up as Streep’s right hand man; confusing an outrageous wardrobe with character development) as Andy’s Virgil-esque guide through the nefarious magazine office’s various circles of hell (and doesn’t every young, guileless straight girl need a middle-aged, Henry Higgins-like gay man to tell her how to dress and behave?); and Golden Globe-nominated Emily Blunt (who has received an insufferable, undeserved amount of critical attention for her funny yet unimaginative turn as Priestly’s “first assistant”—also named Emily), can’t save viewers from the absolutely whack, deer-caught-in-headlights performance of Hathaway.
The only thing of substance we are left with after The Devil Wears Prada is stripped of all of the clothes, vapid young actors, and jet-set locations is Streep’s canny performance, which is being shamefully promoted as lead actress for awards consideration this year when it is clearly a supporting role. Streep’s ability to miraculously avoid critical lambasting is not reason enough to care about the film, it’s thinly drawn characters, or it’s dim message that women over 40 in positions of power are essentially evil and should not only watch their backs for the cute little things on their way up, but also make sure to crush their hopes and dreams so they will never try it again. According to this film women in power are cruel, lonely, and constantly paranoid; not to mention supremely non-sexual.
For some reason, though, Streep is the only actress who is given this sort of playful carte blanche to work in her “old age” (it’s hard to believe that she is actually closing in on 60!). Witness the fate of contemporaries of Streep’s like Jessica Lange (who has been awarded the same amount of Oscars as Streep but is relegated to occasional, meaningless supporting roles) or Sally Field (who also boasts two Oscars, but is now doing infomercials for Osteoporosis medication—even though she co-starred in two of the ‘90s top-grossing films: Mrs. Doubtfire and Forrest Gump!). Both actresses enjoyed a career not unlike the Streep’s throughout the late ‘70s and most of the ‘80s, but for some reason, never were able to make a live connection to mass audiences, despite their critical successes. The casting of either of the actresses may have made The Devil Wears Prada are more inspired film, but they were more than likely never considered for the part due to their lack of work in the last 10 years. In a climate where it is rare for a part such as Miranda Priestly to even be brought to screen, the competition for such plum roles is surely fierce.
In the Golden Age of the “women’s picture” (as they were dubbed back in the ‘40s and ‘50s, mainly), actresses could do serious, respected work that made money. From this period, the world of film rewarded with some of acting’s most triumphant and daring moments. Icons of film acting were born: Bette Davis, Katharine Hepburn, Liv Ullmann, Gena Rowlands, Ingrid Bergman. Today we only have a select handful of performers that have the power to get a small, interesting story about a woman told, if that. Where are our female acting idols today? No one really comes close – at least not in Hollywood—to filling the shoes of these other legendary performers other than Streep. Accordingly, The Devil Wears Prada is the kind of film, and Miranda the type of character, that could have been made during this heyday. It seems that no matter the level of fame you have attained or what kind of money-making is involved, the film industry is generally unforgiving when it comes to hiring a diverse array of aging female talent.
What is the role of middle age women in current American culture and how does film reflect their real life experience? It doesn’t: The number of tickets sold to the most popular film genres (children, fantasy, and action) is an indicator that our current society not only values youth, escapism, and sex, but also proves that audiences go to the movies to be entertained, not for the realism that the women of this age bracket tend to provide. The Devil Wears Prada, along with films like The Queen and Notes on a Scandal are indicating a minor shift in the market, each featuring an older woman in a lead role, each doing respectably well at the box office.
Put any more than one woman over the age of 40 in a film today, though, and there is a real problem: no one wants to buy tickets. No matter how skilled or award worthy the performances may be. The last major film with a mainly female, mainly middle-aged cast was in 1996, with The First Wives Club. More than 10 years ago. Not exactly high-brow fare, but it proves a point: movie-goers either don’t care about the real issues of women in their middle age or they just naturally gravitate towards their male counterparts, like the ancient Sean Connery or aging Bruce Willis, who apparently will be romancing hot chicks hovering somewhere around age 30, performing grandiose stunt work, and still bagging over a hundred million bucks at the ticket counter, for the rest of eternity.
While this doesn’t seem to be a problem for the rest of the world (Europe’s most celebrated actresses are all well into their middle age, and still wildly popular), American actresses have all ran to another haven: cable and network television are making films specifically for and about these celebrated actresses that Hollywood seems to have forgotten about. Lange, Helen Mirren, Judy Davis, Kathy Bates, Vanessa Redgrave, and Glenn Close (any of whom could have easily subbed for Streep in The Devil Wears Prada) have all been more successful in this medium lately than they have been in years on film. Even Streep has acquiesced to take a few jobs on television. Maybe filmmakers will take note of such versatility and toss these other women a decent film job every now and then. Meryl has got to be getting tired of taking every good part that calls for a woman “of her age”.