Suck a Lemon, Don! For these Actresses, Prime Never Ends

If you think there's no place in Hollywood for Prime Women, you're wrong! Let's take a look at leading ladies that are as vibrant as ever.
Aging actresses

It’s a funny time for Don Lemon to say, “a woman is considered to be in her prime in her 20s and 30s and maybe 40s,” as he famously did on CNN, adding, for good measure, “Don’t shoot the messenger, I’m just saying what the facts are.” That little sally earned him a swift kick in the can.

When I was asked to do this story, I was living in the dark ages of actress gripes, believing that there are no great parts for women over fifty. Bring on the granny pants. And then I started counting:  Jamie Lee Curtis (64), Meryl Streep (73),  Bette Midler (77),  Jennifer Aniston (54), Angela Bassett (64), Sandra Bullock (58), Halle Berry (56), Nicole Kidman (55), Viola Davis (57),  Robin Wright (57),  Julia Roberts (55), Frances McDormand (65), Jennifer Coolidge (61), Cate Blanchett (53) …

Not in their prime? Please.

What a spectacular lot of actresses are out there doing stellar work long after what used to be known as their “sell-by date” – or, if you please, their “Last F***able Day,” a hysterically depressing sketch delivered by Amy Schumer that features Julia Louis Dreyfus (62), Patricia Arquette (55), and Tina Fey (52). *Note the skit includes some crass language, so please proceed with caution.

That gem was released in 2016. My, my, how things have changed in a handful of years.

Last day 2 - Amy Schumer Show screenshot
Image from the Amy Schumer Show on Comedy Central.

Back to the Beginning

You might also say they’ve gone back to La La Land’s infancy when women ruled Hollywood. In the beginning, they were actresses, screenwriters, costumers, stunt women, directors, and producers. The gamut. “Hollywood was built by women and Jews—but those were people not allowed in respectable professions,” said Hollywood historian Cari Beauchamp in a 2016 Vanity Fair article. “It was not taken seriously as a business, so women and Jews could get into it.

“In 1928, the year that the Oscars were born, John Gilbert was the highest-paid actor in Hollywood; Greta Garbo, the top MGM star of 1928, was not far behind and would soon eclipse her romantic lead, lover, and mentor, commanding an unprecedented $270,000 per picture [roughly four and a half mil in today’s dollars,] plus creative control over her films.”

Sensing bucks to be made, the men tromped in, and – long story very short – the casting couch was born.

How did women turn this around, with stars still gleaming well into their third acts?

Gwen Hiller, casting director, actress, and hoofer extraordinaire, is in her early 70s and still acting and dancing up a storm (oh, those legs!). A true Broadway Baby, she went from the original cast of “No, No, Nanette” to one of the dancing “bubbies” in the musical finale of the Netflix show “Transparent” — and has two films in production.

“I think there has been a gradual increase in roles as women have gotten more power behind the scenes,” she told me. “It’s our generation really – the “women’s movement,”  all that jazz.  So, women who were script girls and assistants who were already running the show stepped up and got hired as producers and directors. And the leading ladies got more power, too. The creatives- female writers, directors, and actresses – are driving the change, and there is an audience for good storytelling. The audiences – us- wanted to see better scripts and stories about people our age, too. 

Pay those writers!

Julia Louis-Dreyfus Wiser than Me Podcast
Photo: Ryan Pfluger and August Image

As part of this resurgence, actresses are doing a lot less tampering with their faces than in eras past. Magnificent women had major work done to look youthful for as long as possible. Great beauties who didn’t, like Greta Garbo, retired early and became recluses, hiding their aging faces from the world. “Yet,” says superstar Jane Fonda, “the guys go with jowls hanging, and nobody cares.”

Fonda, 85, was recently interviewed by Julia Louis-Dreyfus on her new podcast, “Wiser Than Me,” a series of talks with older women who have accomplished much. Fonda regrets the plastic surgery she’s had, and she’s had plenty. “I wish that I could have grown old with my face. I can’t do anything about it now.”

That’s not to say that there aren’t lotions and potions at play – think Botox and fillers instead of full facelifts. But many are actually having procedures reversed, like 58-year-old Courtney Cox, who had so much filler she didn’t recognize herself. Now she said she’s “embracing aging.”

And working.

“We also just look better as we age, not in the least like our mothers. There’s surgery, yes – but even without,” said Susan Baronoff, who recently opined on fashion for another column of mine. The Emmy Award-winning screenwriter, actress, and chanteuse said, “We’re healthy — and, at least out here in L.A. – we’re fit! (Within an inch of our lives…). Diane Keaton, at 77, is still doing romantic comedies!”

Isn’t it rather refreshing to see a few wrinkles, bumps, and sags?

“Dame Judy Dench in the Marigold Hotel movies [is a prime example,]”  said actress  Maree Cheatham. “We needn’t be overly made up and stomach-girdled to be delightfully appealing women.”

(Those Marigold Hotel movies also star a fabulously grumpy Maggie Smith (88), sex bomb Celia Imrie (70), and lovelorn Penelope Wilson (76).)

Cheatham (82) is one of those faces you’ve seen a million times on TV, film, and stage. A list too long to recite that goes from Emmy-nominated roles on soaps to “Gunsmoke,” “Beetlejuice,” “Mr. and Mrs. Smith,” “Monk,” and “Hart of Dixie.”

She’s still having a great time. “I’ve waited all my life to play these character roles; they’re much more fun and much more challenging. My early roles were just cannon fodder, ‘Plug in the young pretty thing.’ A mature woman doing unusual things is a lot more fun to play.”

And there are plenty more roles like that out there, thanks in great part to streaming platforms like Amazon, Netflix, and Apple TV. Their deep pockets and freedom to take more risks than traditional movie studios mean they’ve become a hotbed of films and series produced, directed, and starring women. 

“I’m playing the range of women who raised me. The most fun is playing the ones who were not so nice to me growing up. It’s my secret revenge,” Cheatham said with a laugh. “Having a difficult childhood was great training!”

But the greatest reward for the aging actress? “Not having to wear high heels!”

Dropping the Stigma

That there is no longer a stigma about film actors making the move to television also adds to the megawatt talent pool on screens big and small. Take prolific powerhouse, Helen Mirren. Stunning at 77 (what a shame it would be to see her trussed and glued,) she totes a rifle alongside Harrison Ford in the new Amazon series “1923.” This is fresh off playing the demi-god Hesperia on the big screen in Shazam II – in gilded body armor, of course.

Meanwhile, Jane Fonda, Sally Field, Candice Bergen, and Mary Steenburgen are releasing a reboot of their hit movie, “The Book Club,” called “The Book Club, The Next Chapter.” Glorious Catherine Zeta-Jones, 53, is Morticia Addams in Netflix’s “Wednesday.” In the latest installment of the “Magic Mike” series, Salma Hayak commands the adulation (and undulations) of leading man Channing Tatum, 43. Viola Davis, 57, is The Woman King, Emma Thompson, 64, bares it all in “Good Luck to You, Leo Grande,” and Michelle Yeoh, at 60, just snagged her first Oscar for “Everything Everywhere All at Once.”

As audiences push for more diversity and inclusion – of body types, sexual orientation, gender identity, skin tone, and, yes, age, there are no more excuses for leaving these ladies out of the conversation.

Why is this happening now?  “Well, one obvious answer is that the Baby Boomers still rule – and we want to see ourselves,” said Baronoff. “Just like we always did.”

Uma Thurman, Octavia Spencer, Helena Bonham Carter, Sharon Stone, Goldie Hawn, Laura Linney, Andie MacDowell, Joan Allen, Geena Davis, Rene Russo, Oprah Winfrey, Sigourney Weaver, Jessica Lange, Edie Falco, Glenn Close, Jennifer Lopez, Ann Margaret, Pamela Anderson, Jean Smart….

More… more…? Sheryl Lee Ralph, Taraji P. Henson, Jean Smart, Jennifer Lopez, Rachel Weisz, Queen Latifah, Holly Hunter, Michelle Pfeiffer, Julianne Moore, Jodie Foster

…all fabulous, all 50-plus, all working. *

*Look up their ages yourself, please; spare my fingers.

Read Next:

Michelle Yeoh: Making History and Shattering Glass Ceilings

Featured Women: Jamie Lee Curtis

Getting Wise with Julia Louis-Dreyfus


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