It’s a question that older moviegoers ask all the time: why do actresses over the age of 40 thrive in Europe while their American counterparts (with a few exceptions like the one and only Meryl Streep) are tossed on the scrap heap?
Overseas, performers as diverse as Helen Mirren and Isabelle Huppert came into their movie acting prime in their 40s and 50s and continue to find good leading roles on screen.
In this country, the female movie stars of 25 years ago — Jessica Lange, Diane Keaton, Sigourney Weaver, Sissy Spacek, Kathleen Turner, and many others — are now lucky to land mediocre small roles in films. Two-time Oscar winner Lange has only stayed in the game by taking on supporting roles on television, such as her involvement with the F/X shocker, “American Horror Story.”
Part of the problem is the difference between the budgets for Hollywood films and what it costs to produce a film in France or the United Kingdom.
The youth obsession of the United States is also a major factor, of course. Our movies now reflect a culture in which being thin and youthful-looking are two of the most valuable commodities. The older men who run corporations and star in movies seem to believe they can deny their own aging process by hooking up with women 20 or 30 years younger than themselves.
The issues of age and beauty in movies are put into stark relief in a fascinating 2010 documentary, “The Look” about the unorthodox but enduring career of British actress Charlotte Rampling.
Now 65, Rampling was launched in movies 46 years ago as Lynn Redgrave’s bitchy roommate in “Georgy Girl,” but began taking on more daunting roles right away in dark pictures such as Luchino Visconti’s “The Damned” where she was, at first, scared to play a woman ten years older than herself.
Rampling’s nerves were steadied by co-star Dirk Bogarde who just a few years earlier had turned his back on a lucrative career as a matinee idol in cinematic bon bons in favor of much more challenging roles in off-beat pictures like “The Servant” and “Accident.”
The actress has had her ups and downs since then, but gained character and insight by working on a rich off-screen life (in “The Look” we see her with such friends as the Brooklyn novelist Paul Auster and the wildly eccentric German photographer Juergen Teller — below).
Rampling has never tried to avoid looking her age and over the past decade that has brought her wonderful mature roles in films like “Swimming Pool.”
The actress appears to have wasted little time on the PR activities that eat up so much of the lives of her counterparts on this side of the Atlantic. And the quality of the films she works on seems to matter more than the scale of the production (hence her small but juicy role in the 2011 Lars Von Trier film, “Melancholia”).
In “The Look” we see that Rampling’s charisma is more about intelligence and curiosity than rigid standards of screen “beauty.” The things she talks about and asks the (non-show biz) people she encounters in the course of the 90-minute film are as interesting as the way she looks.