In an interview in the latest issue of the Radio Times, Emma Thompson was asked how she felt about playing a woman of 77 in her latest film, The Legend of Barney Thompson, a woman more than 20 years her senior. She acknowledged that it was “a bit ageist” saying
“It would be really nice to get a woman of 77 to play her but it’s a wildly comic role and I couldn’t resist”. This isn’t the first time this has happened. Thompson recently played P.L. Travers the author of Mary Poppins in the film Saving Mr. Banks. That film is set in 1964 when P.L. Travers was 65 years old. At the time of filming Thompson was 53. I can’t help but think it’s a worrying phenomenon for younger women to constantly play older in movies. There should be more visibility of older people in movies and they shouldn’t be playing by people 20 years their junior. It’s as if there’s a such distaste for showing women in their 70s on screen that they have to soften the blow by pretending they actually look like women in their 50s, and by doing this I think they’re conversely implying that women in their 50s are “old looking”. I’m not blaming Thompson for this, I’m sure she just takes the best roles she’s offered, but then why isn’t she playing more women in their fifties. Presumably this is because there just aren’t that many good roles for women that age.
Recently the Hollywood actor Russell Crowe said that the idea that there are no good roles for older women is a myth. He said
“To be honest, I think you’ll find that the woman who is saying that [the roles have dried up] is the woman who at 40, 45, 48, still wants to play the ingénue, and can’t understand why she’s not being cast as the 21 year old.”
He implied that it’s no different for Hollywood men and that at 50 years old he would never have been cast in Gladiator today. He says
“If you are trying to pretend that you’re still the young buck when you’re my age, it just doesn’t work.” This statement understandably upset a lot people. I think people thought it was a bizarre and weird thing for anyone to say, especially someone like Russell Crowe. I mean no one even asked his opinion. His views on older women in Hollywood were ventured forth, unwarranted in the same, unwelcome way that a cab driver might venture their opinion on immigrants. I think it was controversial because some people felt that maybe, he wasn’t in the right position to make a statement like this. I think the 50 year old Famke Janssen nailed it when she responded by saying
“That’s interesting. I don’t remember him being female”. At first I thought that she’d slammed him but then I realised what she really meant by this and and suddenly I also realised why Russell Crowe felt that he had the right to say what he said. Russell Crowe must see himself as a woman. When you think about it, it all starts to make sense. You see for Russell Crowe, speaking as a female actor in Hollywood, he’s had a brilliant career. For years he’s been the one woman in mainstream movies who’s been able to play male roles, even leading men. No wonder he thinks there are loads of great roles for women, it’s just in his mind that just means playing men. From Russell Crowe’s point of view he’s the only woman in Hollywood to have to have won an Oscar for Best Actor.
Maybe I’m being unfair on Russell Crowe? He also singled out Helen Mirren for praise as an actor who does play parts her own age, like in The Queen when a Helen Mirren in her late 50s plays the Queen her 70s. So I can’t help but think that despite Russell Crowe saying that women in their 40s and 50s are all trying to play women in their 20s, that not only is that not true but in fact Hollywood are so scared of ageing women that women in their 40s and 50s too often have to play women in their 60s and 70s. It’s almost as if when you’re too old to play the wife or girlfriend of the leading man in Hollywood, you just skip the part when you play women in your 40s and 50s and go straight to playing old lady parts.
Of course there’s been endless examples of actors playing older throughout the years and I’m not blaming Thompson. I think she’s brilliant, but I would like to use her career as an example. Thompson is by anyone’s reckoning a successful actor. She’s won two Academy Awards and been nominated for five, for both her writing and her acting. To be fair she was lucky enough, or sucessful enough to rarely play the wife or girlfriend role even when she was younger. In 1998, then aged 39 in Primary Colours she played a character based on the 45 year old Hilary Clinton. In 2005, aged 46 she played the elderly Nanny McPhee in the film of the same name. At 53 in the 2012 film Men In Black 3, she played Agent O, the new chief of the Men in Black. In the film she is the love interest of the then 67 year old Tommy Lee Jones. During the film Will Smith travels back to 1969 and teams up with a young Tommy Lee Jones played by Josh Brolin. In 1969 the Emma Thompson character is played by the 30 year old actress Alice Eve. Remember this takes place in 1969. That’s 46 years ago. If we assume that Alice Eve’s character is around Eve’s own in 1969, then we have to assume that the then 53 year old Thompson is playing a woman in her mid 70s. Women in their mid 70s do not look like Emma Thompson does now. That’s ridiculous. However for the sake of balance let’s assume that in Men In Black 3, Emma Thompson is actually playing a woman in her early 50s, just like was in real life, then that means that in 1969, Alice Eve is playing a ten year old, which means that Josh Brolin’s love interest in Men in Black 3 is a little girl. Let’s not forget that Josh Brolin grows up to be the Tommy Lee Jones character, and I for one can’t help but think that this scandalous revelation means that those movies now take on a very sinister dimension that we were unaware of at the time. It’s very much like watching those old episodes of Top of the Pops on BBC4. It’s even creepier when we remember he’s got also got one of those pens that wipes peoples memories.
I’m not saying that Tommy Lee Jones definitely plays a paedophile in the Men in Black franchise, but if he doesn’t then we have to assume that Russell Crowe is definitely talking out of his arse. Twenty years from now I’d like to see Emma Thompson playing characters in their 70s and if they’re all being played by Alice Eve, then the whole worlds gone to hell.