"Ageism is the granddaddy of all diversity issues," asserts actor Susan Davis, and addressing it is an idea whose time has come. While male actors also face age discrimination, she says, the problem is much more pronounced for women. Mature women lack visibility, and the visibility they do have is frequently less than flattering or not representative of their experience.
The stereotypical lonely empty-nester, for example, is certainly not common among the women in Davis' crowd, she says. "The women I know whose children have left the nest have never felt happier or freer to be themselves—if they have their health and a few bucks." These women's stories are not being told, she says, and that's odd in light of their buying power.
"Women over 40 control 60 percent of the wealth and influence 80 percent of the purchasing, yet only 27 percent of the roles in film and TV are written for women over 40," she reports. In an effort to raise awareness of this emotionally charged topic, Davis co-produced the short documentary "Invisible Women," which she hopes will find an audience at colleges, film festivals, and on the Internet.
"Ideally, I'd like to see it on PBS," she says. On Mon., April 17, at 7 p.m., the affirmative action/diversity department and the New York women's committee of the Screen Actors Guild and the New York Coalition of Professional Women in the Arts and Media will present a screening of the film at New World Stages (340 W. 50th St.), followed by a panel discussion moderated by author Gail Sheehy. (For information, call 212-592-4511 or go to www.nycwam.org.)
The documentary features interviews with actresses—including Davis, Susan Sarandon, Christine Lahti, Julie Carmen, Michele Richards, and Deborah Harmon—with significant film and television careers but whose opportunities eroded when they reached their mid-to-late 40s.
Davis, for example, says she was steadily employed as an actor for 30 years. "I was the queen of Procter & Gamble and the queen of B-movies," she recalls. "I was the nymph nurse in Barney Miller, Matthew Broderick's mother in WarGames, and did 100 segments of Sesame Street." Today, she has created her own one-woman show and she continues to do voiceover work, but even there, she says, the job offers are not as forthcoming as they once were. Along with sexism and ageism, Davis reports, "we now have to compete with stars who are doing eight lines on sitcoms and the voiceover work for animated cartoons.
"What a lot of people don't understand," she adds, "is how an actor can lose everything—not just the salary, but pension and health insurance—within one year of not working."
Deborah Pratt, who is now writing, directing, and producing, had an extensive acting career, especially on television. But anticipating fewer parts, she decided to move on and explore behind-the-scenes work, which had always interested her anyway, she says.
Yet her experience behind the camera turned out to be more disappointing than her experience in front of it. "Whenever it was down to the wire and the producer had to choose a director—me or a man—the man would always get it," she says. "And it wasn't lack of experience. In some instances I had far more experience than the man. It's a comfort-level issue. The same is true when producers hire writers: They hire male writers because they're comfortable with them."
Still, Pratt has managed to accumulate some decent production credits. She developed, produced, and wrote the TV series The Net, directed the film Girlfriends, and has scripted episodes of several series she appeared in as an actor, including Quantum Leap, Airwolf, and Magnum, P.I.
But there were roadblocks. "Whenever I wrote a film with a superhero who was a woman, I was inevitably told, 'That's terrific, but where's the man who saves her?' " she recalls. "And on the TV show, The Net, I gave the lead a child…. The producers said, 'She can't have a child. A woman with a child isn't sexy.' All they wanted her to do was to be laid."
One of Pratt's goals is to increase the visibility of mature women. While unkind and inaccurate stereotypes may persist, she says, it's largely a numbers game: As more older women become visible, the public's view of them is likely to become more balanced.
The industry insiders interviewed for this article cite a number of films they believe are on the right track: Open Range, with Kevin Costner and Annette Bening; Shall We Dance?, with Richard Gere and Susan Sarandon; The Upside of Anger, with Costner and Joan Allen; and the new film Boynton Beach Club, directed by Susan Seidelman and featuring Brenda Vaccaro and Sally Kellerman. Boston Legal earns high marks on television, but the so-called "women's" cable channels, such as Lifetime and WE, do not.
"Most of the shows [on those channels] are written and directed by men" and are not authentic portraits of older women, says Adriana Shaw, who is promoting and distributing "Invisible Women." She contends there were more films written by women in the 1930s and '40s than there are now: "Movies like Mildred Pierce were the backbone of Hollywood. I'm not saying women would want to see Mildred Pierce today, but they would like to see empowered women, the kind of characters that Katharine Hepburn played."
Shaw admits that the leading actresses onscreen in those days were generally "young and beautiful. It's true that older women onscreen were frumpy." But she argues that the scenario for women in Hollywood today is far worse: "If a woman director does not have a successful film, it's very difficult for her to get the next assignment. That's not true for male directors. And there's very limited shelf space for DVDs that tell women's stories. You cannot, for example, find My Brilliant Career on the shelves…. It's extremely hard to get films about women distributed."
Part of the problem is economics. Moviemaking is a high-stakes gamble, and nothing is more important to Hollywood bottom-liners than a film's opening weekend. "That's always been a consideration, but over the past 10 years it's become increasingly important," Shaw says. "If it doesn't do terrifically well that first weekend, it's yanked, especially at the large chains." This is a particular problem for films that appeal to an older audience: