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The stars who defy the old, old story

In a forthcoming comedy called Cedar Rapids that's been getting good reviews in America, Sigourney Weaver plays an older woman who's having a relationship with a much younger man.

Ms Weaver, who's 61, plays a smalltown schoolteacher who seduces a 35-year-old former pupil, played by Ed Helms.

It's a plot reminiscent of The Graduate, but, in fact, the older woman/younger man scenario is extremely rare in an industry that operates an egregious double standard when it comes to ageing stars.

If a male star is big enough, the women he's cast opposite keep getting younger as he knocks on, but when it comes to actresses an entirely different approach is adopted.

Those female film stars lucky enough not to get thrown on the scrapheap once they hit 40 or 50 survive by taking parts as mothers or prissy teachers or bitter older ladies. And, with very few exceptions, romantic roles are not on the cards for women past their physical prime.

A new British survey suggests that cinemagoers are getting pretty tired of this double standard. More than 60pc of those canvassed by the UK Film Council felt that older women were not portrayed as having sexual needs or desires, and seven out of 10 felt that Hollywood was obsessed with glamourising younger women and under-represented older ones.

There are rare exceptions to this rule, of course, and the example that springs instantly to mind is Helen Mirren. And although her career has blossomed as she's gotten older, Ms Mirren is an outspoken critic of Hollywood's attitude to older women.

In a spirited speech given at a Hollywood awards ceremony before Christmas, Mirren castigated an industry that "continues to worship at the altar of the 18 to 25-year-old male and his penis". She said that she resented "the survival of some very mediocre male actors and the professional demise of some very brilliant ones".

"We have to let go of this crap," she continued. "It creates even more pressure on women and I certainly don't want to be a part of that. I'm not beautiful. I clean up nice -- but the fact that I look good at the age I am is bloody irrelevant."

Perhaps Ms Mirren meant her enduring glamour should be irrelevant, because the few female stars who continue to land romantic roles into their 50s and 60s are invariably extremely-well preserved.

Ms Mirren regularly tops lists of the most attractive older women, and although Sigourney Weaver is 61, she's still considered a very striking woman. As are Meryl Streep (61) and Diane Keaton (65), both of whom have recently starred in hit romantic comedies.

But these women are very much the exceptions that prove the rule, and most film actresses -- even big ones -- are quickly forgotten by a fickle industry once they pass a certain age. Take the 1980s for instance: if you look down a list of who was big in that decade and who's still working, the attrition rate among the women is far higher.

Meg Ryan was a huge star and an American sex symbol for much of the 1980s and 1990s thanks to hit films like Sleepless in Seattle and When Harry Met Sally. But at 49 she's no longer a big star, and desperate cosmetic attempts to retain her youthful allure have not exactly helped matters.

Melanie Griffith, who's now 53, has grown older a bit more gracefully. But where once she starred in huge films like Working Girl and Bonfire of the Vanities, she now appears in TV dramas and does voiceovers for animations.

Demi Moore has retained a high profile, but only by going to great lengths to retain her beauty, and even she is now struggling to land big roles.

Even as big a star as Michelle Pfeiffer has become peripheral in her early 50s, though she might argue this was partly her own doing as she stopped acting for a number of years in order to devote time to her children.

Eighties siren Kathleen Turner has returned to the stage, and Kim Basinger now plays lead characters' mothers. If you compare that list with some of the big male stars of the same period, the contrast could hardly be greater.

Kim Basinger's ex-husband Alec Baldwin has never been bigger thanks to a starring role in the hit sitcom 30 Rock. Although he's struggled to find a hit film of late, Tom Cruise is still a huge star. Michael Douglas recently battled throat cancer, but at 66 he's still landing big roles and was nominated for a Golden Globe for his portrayal of Gordon Gekko in Wall Street 2.

Harrison Ford is 68 but still going strong, and still a major box office draw. And although Mel Gibson's well-publicised personal problems have threatened to overwhelm him, he remains a big Hollywood player.

Perhaps coincidentally, Cruise, Douglas and Ford are all romantically involved with women many years their junior.

There's nothing new about this deep-seated double standard. Jack Nicholson's female counterparts in the 1970s like Faye Dunaway and Sally Field have largely fallen by the wayside, while he has played the grinning romantic lead into his 70s.

Things were even worse in the early days of Hollywood, when female stars were considered past it at 30, and only the most determined and talented women survived. Mary Pickford was one of the biggest female film stars of them all. Nicknamed "the girl with the curls", the Canadian-born actress became a huge star in the silent era, with sufficient clout to set up the United Artists studio with Charlie Chaplin and Douglas Fairbanks.

But by the time sound came along, Pickford was considered too old to play the perky heroines that had made her famous -- she was in her mid-30s. She retired from acting altogether in 1933.

Equally high-profile early female stars like Louise Brooks and Gloria Swanson suffered similar fates, and Swanson memorably dramatised the plight of the forgotten actress in Billy Wilder's Sunset Boulevard (1950). She played Norma Desmond, a faded silent star who had been driven mad by the fact that she'd been forgotten by an industry that once worshipped at her feet.

And in one of the film's most famous lines, Norma summed up the plight of the faded film actress. "I am big," she insisted. "It's the pictures that got small."

When Greta Garbo retired from the business in 1941 at the age of just 36, she may just have been stealing a march on an industry that might not have tolerated the passing of her beauty. Marilyn Monroe was the same age when she died alone in mysterious circumstances, but it's hard to imagine that a woman so defined by her glamour would have found a way of surviving in fickle Hollywood.

As long as Hollywood concentrates most of its energies on the lucrative teenage market, female stars are going to find the work drying up as they get older. But women like Helen Mirren, Meryl Streep and Diane Keaton do offer a ray of hope.

Mirren continues to defy the years or any hint of gender stereotyping. Keaton was in her late-50s when she starred (opposite Jack Nicholson) in Nancy Meyers' hit romantic comedy Something's Gotta Give (2003). And Meyers was the creative force behind Meryl Streep's recent rom com success in It's Complicated (2009), which again dared to depict an older woman with a sex life.

None of this should be remarkable, but in an industry obsessed by extreme youth, it is.

Indo Review