February 1, 2012
The lady and the anti-tank gun: Why aren’t there action roles for older actresses?

Movie Poster - The Bonnie Parker Story 1958Something remarkable happened at the box office recently when two, yes, TWO action movies fronted by women debuted. And one of them claimed the top spot. Yes, the Plot Device Power Rankings proved its supremacy, and legitimacy, once again, but that’s not the point here. What’s interesting is that we’ve got a ‘splodey, derivative, ludicrous and loud action flick winning the box office that doesn’t have a dude running the point.  

That won’t last long. Why? Because here come the dudes, again. Or, maybe we should say, out of respect, the older gentlemen. These aren’t your Will Smiths, Vin Diesels or even Shia LeBeoufs. No, these are actors who can clearly remember the Reagan and Carter administrations. Within a two week span a pair of Hollywood’s, uh, mature, statesmen will be bare-knuckling their way into theaters, with Liam Neeson leading the way with The Grey, followed by Denzel Washington in Safe House

Let’s just get it out of the way now and say both of these movies give off the air of uninspiring energy drinks. Sure, they’re filled with blinding amounts of caffeine, enticing food dyes and the promise of brief, enjoyable highs. But they’re ultimately empty. Unless, of course, you pop a big, even aging, name on it.

Action films are funny that way, the line between success and failure is mostly pointless outside of box office numbers. But we do know that people are more likely to check out an action movie if its got a name attached, and most often that name is male. And those names seem to endure, since the likes of Harrison Ford, Bruce Willis and Sylvester Stallone continue to outrun explosions even as they’re eligible for AARP. Male actors have a remarkable longevity when it comes to action movies, despite how uninspired their latest offering looks. (Deja Vu Denzel? Really?)

Look, we’re not stupid. We know Hollywood practically wrote the rule book (or co-authored it with Wall Street) on boys clubs. It’s as testosterone filled and exclusionary as a southern country club, just maybe slightly less racist. Men are executives, producers, writers, directors, editors, and of course, stars. There’s a logic that goes with most thinking in entertainment, if formula X worked previously, tweak it slightly, and repeat. And that’s how you end up with movies that are more or less cloned fare. The pipeline favors men, which is why someone like Sly can get a movie like The Expendables green lit just by reading names out of his address book off his BlackBerry.

Still, Hollywood is not laughably stupid. If anything they like to cover all their bases, some cheaper and less consistently than others. There’s two big factors producers know: Men like looking at women, and, separately, women represent a potential movie market. The former is a timeless truism, the second has become quick wisdom thanks to Bridesmaids. (Of course, any sane person could have told you “yes, women will watch good movies about women even if they aren’t sunny romances with Reese Witherspoon.” Alas.)

Think about it, two if the biggest action  franchises of all time were led by women, yes Linda Hamilton and Sigourney Weaver, we’re looking at you. Those ladies were  bad asses, and could still be given the chance. Imagine a flick with Ellen Barkin, Patricia Clarkson and Angela Bassett also in the mix. Are you telling me if someone made an Expendables/Magnificent Seven type movie with those women, that it wouldn’t find an audience? I WOULD PAY TO SEE THIS.

And so, we’re curious if box office success for younger women today could translate into similar roles in the later years. The question we’re curious about is this: Where are the action roles for older actresses? 

Dennis:  Firstly, I think the appropriate plural is “Shias LeBeouve.”

Secondly, and perhaps more pertinently, I suppose there are more than a few forces at work here.  One - Hollywood has very little use for old people in general.  Sure, they’ll always need “cantankerous but loveable grandpa,” “evil, cadaverous adviser to the president,” and “scary old guy who won’t give the ball back.”  But as far as meaty roles for oldsters go, the pickin’s are pretty slim.  (And don’t get me started on Slim Pickens…)  For hunky leading men unwilling to play second-fiddle as wise uncle to someone from iCarly, the options narrow quite a bit. And with the aid of their personal armies of makeup and FX people, they’re going to keep squeezing their rheumatic arm sockets into that shoulder-holster for as long as possible. 

Case in point: In 2008’s abominable Righteous Kill, costars (and once-virile Hollywood tentpoles- yeah, I said it) Al Pacino and Robert DeNiro, at ages 68 and 65 respectively, were, in addition to soiling their legendary careers with the worst movie each has ever done (simultaneously), running New York’s mean streets (and how long ago was Mean Streets?), roughing up bad guys, and looking very much like they’d like a nice lie-down.  (Incidentally, the NYPD retirement age is currently 63, for obvious and completely-understandable reasons.)  Now I don’t begrudge two of the best actors in American movie history for wanting to keep working although one of them (- cough- initials are RD) seems to have stopped trying around 1994. And there have never been two more formidable film tough guys than these guys!  But, to quote another powerless Fool attempting to advise a once-powerful old man, “Though shouldst not have been old till thou hadst been wise.”  (Pacino, for crap’s sake, worked with the same hack director, Jon Avnet, on this and another geriatric thriller 88 Minutes, thus appearing in his two worst films, in the same genre, in the same year!)

For aging actresses, of course, everything’s three or four times worse.  For one thing, actresses, as a rule, don’t have that action hero(ine) slot to ease into; sure, every once in a while a Geena Davis, a Bridget Fonda, or an Uma will whip herself into shape for a foray into arsekickery, but those are the exceptions that prove the rule, and they quickly subside into “understanding wife to the protagonist” mode.  I mean, apart from someone like Cynthia Rothrock or some similar martial-arts “actress” in straight-to-DVD actioners (like MMA fighter turned thespian Gina Carano in last week’s Haywire), is there any Hollywood actress who is consistently thought of as an action star?  Pam Grier, gos bless her, had her time, but the mixed blessing that was the end of Blaxploitation sent her packing.  Angelina Jolie took a stab at it before deciding to either save (in films) or adopt (in real life) the world through do-goodery, but she’s now clearly more comfortable weepily reacting to the world ill she’s decided to throw her Hollywood spotlight on this week. Plus, her action movies sucked. And poor, brittle Kate Beckinsale just looks miserable in her vampire catsuit, longing for a world where she can dress in Victorian petticoats and sip tea with Colin Firth instead of the one where she’s marginally-bankable shredding CGI werewolves.  And while it’s seemingly-incumbent on every actress to play a cop at some point (Kathleen Turner, Ashley Judd, Diane Lane, Jamie Lee Curtis, for gods’ sake, even Melanie Griffith), none of them has ever carved out a comfortable living in the action hero department.  That role, as they age, is off the table, unlike for their male counterparts, who’ve been comfortably shootin’ blanks (yeah, I said it) and ceding to their stuntmen for long enough that people pretend not to notice their gut or how their fight scenes are broken down into ever-smaller, breather-friendly cuts. 

Now you’re gonna throw Helen Mirren at me (and yes, please), but as formidable a presence as Dame Helen has ever been, her steeliness has been more about nobody daring to mess with her than about her filling bad guys with hot lead. (I think I just turned myself on a little…)  And, yes, her screwing around in Red is that exception that does something again…

On one hand, I’d like to think that the lack of mature women in dumb, fun action fare is a result of the fact that women are way smarter than men, and therefore are kind of above our macho bullshit. I mean, maybe Vanessa Redgrave really does have lots of offers to play a maverick cop who plays by her own rules, but just sends them back to her agent with a polite note damp with condescending giggle-tears, but I genuinely don’t think so.

On the other - while women may be more together than men in this area, I don’t know that actresses are. Let’s face it, there’s a reason these people aren’t solving complex physics theories as a rule*. 

On on the other, other hand - I think many, many actresses would love to play in the boys’ sandbox; they’d certainly like to be making action hero money, well into their Grey Panthers days and it seems to me that the money Harrison Ford gets for creakily saddling up to scowl and shoot stuff in Cowboys and Aliens was a lot more than Anjelica Huston gets for playing the lead actor’s overbearing mother in 50/50.  Just a guess.   

(Story note to self: Diane Wiest plays a federal agent going undercover to infiltrate a terrorist splinter faction of the Grey Panthers planning to blow up the Pro Bowl.  Don’t tell Justin.)

*With apologies to former ‘Wonder Years’ dream girl-next-door Danica McKellar (aka Winnie Cooper) who, in fact, does solve complex math problems, quite often. 

Image courtesy of redage

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