1996’s The First Wives Club is unlikely to be remembered as one of the great films of our time, but it is remembered for one of the great quotes. From Goldie Hawn’s character, aging actress Elise, “There are only three ages for women in Hollywood. Babe, District Attorney, and Driving Ms Daisy.”
Looking at the last of those ages, the lack of interesting lead roles for older women actors is still noticeable. We have ever reliable performers, but they frequently end up playing caricatures. Want an irascible old harridan? That’ll be Maggie Smith then. A dignified widow? Judi Dench. When we do see older women on screen living more interesting lives, it often tends to be in situations played for cheap laughs.
More complex roles for older actresses are harder to find, it’s an area where independent filmmakers often better the larger studios. Recent years have seen several films with great roles for older women. Grandma from 2015, starred 75 year old Lily Tomlin playing a freewheeling widowed poet, never once resorting to stereotype, Tomlin deservedly earned some of the best reviews of her career for this funny and moving indie drama. Also earning great reviews after a mere 50 years in the business was Charlotte Rampling, for 45 Years, also from 2015. She gives a subtle and touching performance as a wife examining her marriage on the eve of her 45th wedding anniversary.
Possibly outshining these 2 relative youngsters is 87 year old Lois Smith, not only did she have a minor role in the Oscar nominated Lady Bird, she also won worldwide acclaim as the widow fighting dementia in last year’s Marjorie Prime. Smith made her debut back in 1955 alongside James Dean in East of Eden, she was 25. In an industry that worships youth, she started long ago, but has yet to finish, here’s hoping her best is yet to come.
By Michael Hudson
From our weekly column in the Oswestry Advertizer, published on 17th April 2018.