Perhaps Elise Elliot, the aging actress played so indelibly by Goldie Hawn in the film The First Wives Club, put it best when describing how roles had dried up over the years: "There are only three ages for women in Hollywood: babe, district attorney, and Driving Miss Daisy." Lest anyone think this is just a cheap punch line, consider the recent choice by ER producers not to renew star Alex Kingston's contract. The stunning 41-year-old told Radio Times Magazine, "Apparently I, according to the producers and the writers, am part of the old fogeys who are no longer interesting."
It might not always be fair to blame ageism, but it seems to be the primary focus when roles for talented and popular women start to dry up. Indeed it seems the most sought-after roles tend to go to women under age 40. Where are the stars of yesteryear—the women who amazed and enchanted us with complex characterizations, who didn't always have to get the guy in the end or even be all that likeable? As a child of the 1970s, I grew up in a time when women such as Jill Clayburgh, Faye Dunaway, and Glenda Jackson ruled the silver screen—strong female role models who weren't afraid to match wits (or frequently outwit) their male counterparts. Forget Hannibal Lecter; has there ever been a more chilling villain than Louise Fletcher's Nurse Ratched, the only character capable of pushing Jack Nicholson to self-destruction? How Fletcher went from her frighteningly real Oscar-winning role in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest to camp classics Flowers in the Attic and Invaders from Mars is anyone's guess.
Not every woman from this fine decade of bell-bottoms, disco, and 8-tracks has faded from the silver screen. Meryl Streep seems to be doing just fine. And Diane Keaton, who probably best epitomized the '70s single gal in films such as Looking for Mr. Goodbar and Annie Hall, won raves and an Oscar nomination for embracing middle age in last year's Something's Gotta Give. Of course Keaton was blessed with two prominent writer/directors who wrote roles specifically for her: Give scribe Nancy Meyers, and former paramour Woody Allen. Meyers had previously written roles for Keaton in two of her biggest hits, Baby Boom and Father of the Bride, both of which were directed by Meyers' partner and then-husband, Charles Shyer. Meyers went to bat for Keaton for the Give role when studio executives balked at casting her. "My argument was easy and simple, really," she once said. "When they didn't immediately want Diane, I said, 'Well what 55-year-old woman is going to make them line up around the corner for this movie?'" Having friends in high places certainly doesn't hurt. But Keaton rewarded Meyers' faith with a beautiful, nuanced portrayal that reminded audiences why they first fell in love with her. A throwback to her work in films such as Manhattan, Keaton made neurosis oddly attractive and showed how smart women could make bad choices.
The same characteristics could be used to describe Marsha Mason, another actor who flourished when roles were written for her, specifically by her then-husband Neil Simon. Mason appeared in six of Simon's works, beginning with her indelible performance in The Goodbye Girl. Richard Dreyfuss may have won the Oscar, but Mason made the tightly wound Paula McFadden so lovable. Her Paula, burned by love, ricochets from mistrust to a deep affection for Dreyfuss' character, a sweet actor who becomes her unwilling roommate. When he leaves town to shoot a movie, her obvious belief that he will not return to her is written all over her face. And when he convinces her he is coming back—simply by leaving his guitar behind—her cries of elation will make even the toughest cynic swoon. Mason shone again in 1979's Chapter Two, adapted from the Simon play that was based on their courtship. But after their marriage ended, in 1981, Mason was relegated to supporting player in films such as Heartbreak Ridge and Nick of Time. She worked with Simon again, this time in the 1983 film Max Dugan Returns, but neither writer nor actor would go on to have the same success they'd enjoyed together.
Mason ended up doing some of her best work on television, as Martin Crane's tough-talking, no-nonsense girlfriend on Frasier. Indeed television is where many of the best actresses of the '70s have found rewarding work. Perhaps no one better exemplifies this than Candice Bergen, who excelled at playing the icy blonde object of affection in films such as Carnal Knowledge and Oliver's Story. It was her turn as Burt Reynolds' ex-wife in the 1979 film Starting Over that showed the world her true potential, and she was rewarded with an Oscar nomination. But TV would bring Bergin her greatest recognition, as the complex and caustic Murphy Brown. Bergin's Brown was unlike most women on television; she was frequently snide, stubborn, and didn't do much to ingratiate herself to her friends and family. And audiences loved her. Since scoring four Emmys for the role, Bergin has flourished on the big screen. She's frequently been the best part of toothless comedies such as Miss Congeniality and Sweet Home Alabama, and it's rumored she's being pursued to join the new Law & Order spinoff in the fall.
Bergin's Starting Over co-star, Clayburgh, has also been faring well in television. Few were as popular and revered as Clayburgh, who was on a hot streak in the '70s with films such as An Unmarried Woman and Silver Streak. Her parts in recent years have been less than inspiring; Clayburgh has been relegated to dreck, such as playing Kitty Menendez in a Fox TV movie. Her recent arc as an overbearing mother on the David E. Kelley series The Practice was a sharp reminder of what a clever actor she is and how much she is missed. The same could be said of blonde bombshell Dyan Cannon, whose sexpot image played well in her Oscar-nominated roles in Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice and Heaven Can Wait. Her best role in recent years was as the frisky judge "Whipper" on another Kelley series, Ally McBeal. Whipper was brought on as a love interest for the much younger character of Richard Fish, and Cannon and Kelley proved sexiness had little do with age. Indeed, Kelley excels at writing parts for mature women that showcase their sexuality and intelligence. On Picket Fences, the town mayor, played by Leigh Taylor-Young, also pursued an affair with a decades-younger man. Taylor-Young's outstanding work ended up earning her an Emmy Award and legion admirers of all ages.
But television isn't always a sure bet. Just ask Dunaway, probably the hottest actress of the '70s. Anyone would kill to have a Chinatown or a Network or a Bonnie and Clyde to her credit—Dunaway had them all in the space of a few years. Though the quality of her performances remained high—say what you want about Mommie Dearest, her Joan Crawford is burned in our memories for a reason—the quality of the roles did not. Bombs such as The Wicked Lady and Supergirl took the shine off her career, as did her apparent insistence on surgically altering her appearance. In 1993 she attempted to enter the sitcom world with It Had to Be You, a show as generic as its title, which paired her with Robert Urich. It lasted only four episodes. Dunaway still works regularly, and occasionally a role worthy of her talents comes her way. She gave a beautifully tender and overlooked performance in Don Juan DeMarco as the long-suffering wife of Marlon Brando's character. Watch the scene in which Brando asks her what her dreams are and she chokes back tears to say, "I thought you'd never ask." It's a wonderful reminder of Dunaway's charisma and power. If her material in recent years has disappointed, she likely has little say in the matter. And she's still hard at work: This year alone she has six projects slated for release.
Of course some actors leave the business willingly. Few embodied strength of will as did Jackson, the British thespian who won Best Actress Oscars in 1971 and 1974 (and was nominated in the category in 1972 and 1976). Her cool intelligence was frequently balanced with a hidden longing for affection, such as in her Oscar-winning role in Women in Love. Her wistful gaze as she murmured that she wouldn't mind finding love remains ingrained in minds more than 35 years after it was released in theatres. Jackson last appeared in the TV movie The Secret Life of Arnold Bax, in 1992, the same year in which she successfully ran for Parliament as a member of the Labour Party. Her life has been dedicated to public service ever since. Part of her reasoning, she explained in an interview, was the lack of roles coming her way. "An actor can do Hamlet right through to Lear, men of every age and every step of spiritual development," she said. "Where's the equivalent for women? I don't fancy hanging around to play Nurse in Romeo and Juliet. Life's too short."
And there's Jane Fonda, who retired after marrying media mogul Ted Turner. While Fonda was a controversial figure during her heyday for her politics, she still managed to win two Oscars for remarkably diverse roles: the original hooker with a heart of gold in Klute, and a sensitive hospital volunteer who falls for a paralyzed veteran in Coming Home. Not seen on-screen since 1990's Stanley and Iris, Fonda is set to appear in next year's comedy Monster-in-Law opposite Jennifer Lopez. It should be a welcome homecoming for an actor who proved she could play anything from high drama to klutzy comedy—frequently back-to-back as she did in 1980's On Golden Pond and 1981's 9 to 5. I, for one, look forward to the pairing of J.Lo and J.Fo. If anyone can steal the screen from today's most notorious diva, it's the smart and steely Fonda. She and her fellow stars of the 1970s have been missed. BSW