Friday 22 September 2017

This week Maggie Smith lashed Hollywood for discarding older actresses. But some stars sail on until their 60s and 70s ...

Maggie Smith went into battle last week to publicly berate Hollywood for its attitude to older people. The 77-year-old, who's just won an Emmy for her hilarious portrayal of the curmudgeonly Dowager Countess of Grantham in Downton Abbey, accused the major studios of treating audiences "as if they were five-year-olds".

"I don't think films about elderly people have been made very much," she said. "But I think of films like Cocoon and Driving Miss Daisy and they always seem to be fairly successful.

"It seems there's a change in what audiences want to see. I can only hope that's correct, because there's an awful lot of people of my age around now and we outnumber the others."

There might be a lot of people of her age, but there are very few A-List actresses in their 70s who are still at the top of their game. And though Smith did not directly refer to it, she might also have lambasted the studios for their attitude to older women.

Terms and conditions have improved greatly for actresses in Hollywood in recent years, but the double standard persists when it comes to men and women growing older.

While male actors such as Harrison Ford and Michael Douglas expect to be taken seriously as action heroes and screen lovers well into their 60s, most movie actresses' careers hit the skids once they reach 40.

This is partly due to a lack of roles for more mature women, and partly to an ingrained and very Californian distaste for female ageing.

Messrs Ford and Douglas are usually paired with actresses half their age, while female stars of a similar vintage such as Sharon Stone and Melanie Griffith are dropped once the bloom is off the rose.

Little wonder that so many Hollywood women opt for the surgical route in a desperate attempt to stay young -- and employed.

Only the best and most charismatic female stars manage to survive the transition from leading lady to mature character actor, and Maggie Smith is one of them. Her recent credits include the Harry Potter films, Downton Abbey and a starring role in the hit romantic comedy Best Exotic Marigold Hotel.

And she has just finished filming a comedy called Quartet that's set in a retirement home and directed by Dustin Hoffman, who's 75.

Like her near contemporaries Judi Dench and Helen Mirren, Smith has done some of her best work in later life. Here are some of the actresses who continued to excel in their 50s, 60s, 70s and beyond.

Gloria Swanson

One of the biggest stars of the silent era, Gloria Swanson's career collapsed with the arrival of sound. She turned to painting and journalism and seemed to be all washed-up until she landed a career-defining role at the age of 51.

Mae West, Mary Pickford and Pola Negri had all turned down the part of washed-up silent star Norma Desmond in Billy Wilder's fierce satire Sunset Boulevard because they considered the role unflattering. But Swanson was game, and is unforgettable as faded screen idol Norma Desmond, a shrewish diva who can't accept that she's been forgotten by the world.

Bette Davis

The 1930s and 1940s was a particularly brutal time for Hollywood actresses, and even as big a star as Bette Davis was dropped by her studio when they decided she was past it.

Out of contract by the time she was 40, Davis struggled through the 1950s and ended up doing B-movies and guest spots on hack TV shows.

But Davis wasn't the kind of woman to go quietly, and in 1962 she accepted a role in a bizarre psychological horror film called Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? in which she played a former child star called Baby Jane Hudson who lives with her crippled sister, Blanche.

Davis's character was a spiteful, vicious monster and the producers livened things up by casting Davis's great enemy, Joan Crawford, as her sister. The result was electrifying.

Katharine Hepburn

By the late 1950s, and after a string of high-profile flops, Katharine Hepburn was considered yesterday's woman in Hollywood, and at over 50 began getting turned down for big parts.

She retreated to the stage to play Shakespeare, and spent much of the 60s looking after her ailing lover, Spencer Tracy. But after his death, an older and wiser Hepburn staged a remarkable screen comeback.

She was tremendous as the combative Eleanor of Aquitaine opposite Peter O'Toole's Henry II in the 1968 historical drama The Lion In Winter, and proved a most effective foil for John Wayne in the 1975 comedy western Rooster Cogburn.

But her most touching late-life performance of all was an Oscar-winning turn as an elderly woman in the 1981 family saga On Golden Pond with Henry and Jane Fonda.

Jessica Tandy

In movie terms, British-born actress Jessica Tandy must surely be the queen of late bloomers.

She made her acting debut on the London stage in the late 1920s, and went on to star in productions of Hamlet and Henry V opposite John Gielgud and Laurence Olivier.

Although she moved to America in the 1940s and landed supporting roles in a string of minor Hollywood films, she remained primarily a stage actress and comparatively little-known.

She appeared in only two films between 1963 and 1980, but made an unexpected breakthrough in the late 1980s when cast in Bruce Beresford's comic drama Driving Miss Daisy. Tandy won an Oscar for her portrayal of a rich and bigoted old Jewish widow who locks horns with her black driver, played by Morgan Freeman. At the tender age of 80, Jessica Tandy became a movie star.

Judi Dench

Judi Dench was known mainly for her TV and theatre work until well into her 50s, but in the past 20 years she has blossomed as a screen actress. In 1997 she was cast as an elderly Queen Victoria in the romantic drama Mrs Brown, and her performance earned an Oscar nomination.

A few years earlier she'd appeared as M in the Bond film GoldenEye. She's since made the role her own and is currently starring opposite Daniel Craig in Skyfall.

For her brief but memorable turn as Queen Elizabeth I in Shakespeare In Love she won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar in 1999, and her film work since then has been even more impressive, culminating in her brilliant portrayal of sociopathic spinster Barbara Covett in Richard Eyre's Notes On A Scandal (2006) alongside Cate Blanchett.

Meryl Streep

A distinguished and glamorous Hollywood leading lady through the 1980s, Meryl Streep has sustained her later film career more effectively than any other actress. She's now in her 60s, but that doesn't stop her starring in romantic comedies such as Mamma Mia! and It's Complicated.

In the past decade she's moved between broad comedies such as The Devil Wears Prada and heavyweight dramas like the clerical sex abuse drama Doubt.

Her portrayal of Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady was uncanny, and deserved a better film; she was brilliant as legendary American TV chef Julia Childs in Julie & Julia; and her most recent hit is as Tommy Lee Jones' embattled wife in the comedy Hope Springs.

Diane Keaton

Now a remarkably well-preserved 66, Diane Keaton was one of the biggest stars of the 1970s, muse of Warren Beatty and Woody Allen, and her credits include everything from The Godfather and Reds to Annie Hall.

She was known for her elfin beauty, and could easily have run into trouble once the years began to catch up on her. However, despite a brief career slump in the 1980s, she's managed to keep working and remain a bankable star.

Her recent hits include the clever 2005 drama The Family Stone and the 2010 romantic comedy Morning Glory. But she scored one of her biggest commercial successes ever in 2003, at the age of 57, playing Jack Nicholson's love interest in Nancy Meyers' comedy Something's Gotta Give.

pwhitington@independent.ie

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