What’s Her Age Again?: Why A-List Hollywood Actresses Are Getting Younger Every Decade

The other day while I was watching the American Film Institute’s 2012 Lifetime Achievement Award tribute to Shirley MacLaine, I couldn’t get a certain number out of my head.

78!

No, that’s not the number of times the Universal Channel will probably air the show in Bangkok before finally giving it a rest. It’s the number I came up with when a voice over revealed MacLaine’s birthday (April 24, 1934) early in the show, and I did the math. How could she possibly be only 78?

It’s not that she looks older, and the year of her film debut (1955, in Alfred Hitchcock’s The Trouble with Harry) would certainly put her in that chronological vicinity, but wasn’t she already middle-aged, like, a lifetime ago? Did we all rejoin her in one of her next lives, already in progress?

The first time I ever saw MacLaine, playing an ex-ballerina stage mom in 1977’s The Turning Point, which I watched on HBO in 1978, she was already middle-aged. At the time of the film’s release, she was 43, the age Jennifer Aniston is now, but could anyone imagine Jenn (who, by the way, played MacLaine’s granddaughter in 2005’s Rumor Has It…) as the mother of an actress the same age, 20, that Leslie Browne (who played MacLaine’s daughter in The Turning Point and earned a Best Supporting Actress nomination) was then?

MacLaine was on the cusp of turning 35 when Sweet Charity was released in 1969, and just eight years later, she was already typecast as mom, a role for which she would finally win an Oscar six years later, at age 49, playing the mother of Debra Winger, then 28, in Terms of Endearment. Does anyone think that by 2019, Reese Witherspoon, now 36, will be playing the mother of a 20ish actress?

Years ago, when I first watched the Katharine Hepburn movie Summertime, which was released in 1955 when Hepburn was 48, I remember feeling a twinge of pity for Hepburn’s character, because, well, who wants to be almost 50 and all alone in the city of love? It gave the film a certain pathos that I don’t think director David Lean necessarily intended it to have. (What did I know? The closer I get to being 48 myself, the less I focus on her age and the more I think, Lucky girl! She’s in Venice!)

If Julianne Moore were to be cast in a similar role today, anyone who doesn’t know her age (51) could conceivably peg her as 35, the age she played eight years ago in Laws of Attraction. Men have always gone for leading ladies who are young enough to be their daughters, which might be why it was such a shocker to recently see Robert DeNiro, 68, in bed with Jacki Weaver, who’s 65 and looks it, in the trailer for The Silver Linings Playbook. Now the leading ladies are going younger, too.

In 2009’s The Proposal, Sandra Bullock, then 45, fell for Ryan Reynolds, then 33, and their age difference wasn’t even written into the script. Interestingly, that same year she played the foster/adoptive mother of a high school football star and won an Oscar for her efforts. But would anyone cast her as the mother of Carey Mulligan, who, at 27, is certainly young enough to be her daughter? They’d probably give that role to Melissa Leo, 51 — who already won her Oscar for being mom to Mark Wahlberg, 41, and Christian Bale, 38 — or some other actress who doesn’t have an eternally youthful image to uphold (see Hollywood’s B-to-Z list).

Actresses have long complained about how few roles there are for women over 40, but I’d say that part of it might be because so few of them are passing for women over 40. You can pin some of the blame on changing fashion, too much plastic surgery, too much Botox, and too many yoga and Pilates sessions. But I’d put even more of it on the unwillingness of many A-list actresses of a certain caliber to go gently into that good dusk, the golden middle age — especially when grown children are involved.

It might be fashionable today to play the cougar, the older woman bedding the younger guy — a role assumed in recent years by the likes of Cate Blanchett (in Notes on a Scandal), Uma Thurman (in Prime), Kate Winslet (in The Reader), Catherine Zeta-Jones (in The Rebound) and Michelle Williams (in My Week with Marilyn) — but the actress who is robbing the cradle, so to speak, is generally perceived as being hot enough to land a guy any age, and if she’s playing a character with kids, they’re usually well under driving age.

When French actress Simone Signoret fell for younger guy Laurence Harvey in 1959’s Room at the Top (winning a well-deserved Oscar in the process), not only was she presented as being kind of over the hill and desperate, a thoroughly tragic figure, but at 38, she was only some seven years older than Laurence! Would any director today dream of casting Oscar winner Marion Cotillard, 36, and Ryan Gosling, 31, in a remake? Would Cotillard take the “older-woman” role opposite an actor so close to her age? If Steven Soderbergh were directing, probably, but would anyone buy it?

Later this year, Kristin Scott Thomas, 51, whose 2012 leading men have included Robert Pattinson, 26, and Ewan McGregor, 41, will add Gosling to her list in Only God Forgives, Gosling’s reunion with Drive director Nicolas Winding Refn. “At my ripe old age, I’m getting these fantastic leading men,” Scott Thomas told me earlier this year when I interviewed her in Bangkok, where the film was shot. But, she added, “I am playing his mother.” Hopefully, she’ll be handsomely rewarded — with an Oscar nomination? — for acting her age.

Charlize Theron, 36, won plaudits (but no Oscar nod) for acting her age last year in Young Adult. Well, kind of. Although her character, Mavis Gary was 37 years old and competing with a grown woman (played by Elizabeth Reaser, 37) for the attention of her college boyfriend, Mavis was a childless former beauty queen who could have passed for 29 even if she hadn’t been acting more like 19. This year, in Snow White and the Huntsmen (which could almost be seen as an allegory for aging in Holllywood), Theron’s onscreen competition is Kristen Stewart, 22.

Sarah Jessica Parker did entire episodes of Sex and the City about competing with twentysomething women, but she’s still acting like she’s not that much older than one. Over the course of six seasons on Sex and the City, she proved herself capable of playing more than light romantic comedy, yet she can’t seem to get out of the city and out of her thirties. She’s 47 now. It’s time for her to stretch. She’ll never be Meryl Streep, but I’d hate to see her turn into Meg Ryan, evidence of the damage that trying to be forever young can do to a career — and a face.

Even Ponce de Leon never found the Fountain of Youth. Instead he stumbled upon Florida, a state now best known for being the final resting place for retirees. Draw your own conclusions.

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