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Mature actresses turn the tables on Hollywood

Diane Keaton recalls her skepticism over lunch a few years back with writer-director Nancy Meyers, who was pitching a romantic comedy centered on a woman in her 50s and a man in his 60s.“I just sat there and ate the meal and thought, ‘Good luck,” said Keaton, who figured no studio would back a romance that was not about sweet young 20- or 30-somethings.Yet youth-minded Hollywood has produced
/ Source: The Associated Press

Diane Keaton recalls her skepticism over lunch a few years back with writer-director Nancy Meyers, who was pitching a romantic comedy centered on a woman in her 50s and a man in his 60s.



“I just sat there and ate the meal and thought, ‘Good luck,” said Keaton, who figured no studio would back a romance that was not about sweet young 20- or 30-somethings.



Yet youth-minded Hollywood has produced Meyers’ “Something’s Gotta Give,” starring Keaton as a 55-year-old playwright wooed by both a 63-year-old womanizer (Jack Nicholson) and a doctor in his 30s (Keanu Reeves). It debuted as this past weekend’s No. 1 movie.



The season of the older woman doesn’t end there. Coming Friday is “Calendar Girls,” an ensemble comedy featuring Helen Mirren and Julie Walters in the real-life story of a group of British women in their 40s, 50s and 60s who posed naked for a calendar to raise charity money.

“I think it’s bloody marvelous to have several films come out like that at the same time,” said Walters, 53. “Things evolve. I think things will change. Slowly change.”



The numbers bear Walters out, though it’s still not a pretty picture for actresses, who tend to get relegated to roles as dull moms or kooky aunts as they get into their 40s and 50s.



Short shelf life

Annual surveys by the Screen Actors Guild found that women 40 and older landed 11 percent of all movie and television roles in 2002, a figure that has crept up gradually from about 9 percent in the early 1990s. Men 40 and older grabbed 26 percent of all roles cast in 2002.



Male actors also have a longer shelf life for lead roles. With a few exceptions such as Meryl Streep, who has continued to find meaty leads into her 50s, Hollywood generally confines older actresses to supporting parts.



Meantime, actors such as Nicholson, Robert De Niro, Robert Redford, Clint Eastwood, Dustin Hoffman, Al Pacino, Robert Duvall, Gene Hackman, Michael Caine and Sean Connery have managed to score choice lead parts into their 60s and beyond.



“Men definitely have a longer run. They don’t have an expiration date,” said “Something’s Gotta Give” creator Meyers, who also directed the Mel Gibson-Helen Hunt romance “What Women Want.” “It’s what the movie’s about, this sense that women become invisible or less desirable after a certain age. A big chunk of my movie is saying that’s not true. Take a minute, take a look, and you’ll see a woman who hasn’t lost anything.”



Turning the tables on Hollywood

Meyers’ movie also turns the tables on another aspect of Hollywood ageism — pairing actors in their 50s or 60s romantically with women 20 years or more younger (consider Nicholson and Hunt in “As Good as It Gets”).



In “Something’s Gotta Give,” the 66-year-old Nicholson plays a man who’s never dated a woman older than 30. Not only does he fall for the 57-year-old Keaton’s character, but also he finds himself battling studly young Reeves for her affections.



“I think the movie works on a lot of levels. Not just is it funny and will it be charming, but also, is there a future for all those 30-year-old ambitious women out there forging ahead with their lives and trying to make a mark?” Keaton said.



“It’s hopeful for everyone, and I think men included, because it doesn’t carry that stupid cliché, the idea of older men just wanting (to have sex with) younger women. It’s absurd to put men into some sort of category like that. I don’t think it’s fair to all males.”



While “Something’s Gotta Give” salutes older women, “Calendar Girls” idolizes them. Set in Yorkshire, England, the film’s heart and soul is summed up in an exchange between Walters’ character and her terminally ill husband, who tells her, “The flowers of Yorkshire are like the women of Yorkshire. The last stage of their growth is the most glorious.”



Real-life calendar girl Angela Baker, 58, the basis for Walters’ character, said her late husband, John, often shared a similar sentiment.



“John always used to say to me that I improved with age,” Baker said. “I never told anyone about that, and it was amazing that it turned up in the film.”



Picture perfect

Baker’s pal Tricia Stewart, the basis for Mirren’s character, dreamed up the nude calendar in 1999 to raise money for a local hospital where John Baker died of leukemia. Baker, Stewart and other members of the staid Women’s Institute posed in the buff engaged in such prim and proper pastimes as pressing cider or arranging flowers.



The tasteful photographs strategically placed household props to cover the women’s private parts (“That’s why I got the cider press,” jokes Stewart, 54. “The bigger the girl, the bigger the prop.”).



The women hoped to sell a few thousand calendars. Instead, they became an international sensation, grabbing headlines, landing on “The Tonight Show” and peddling almost 300,000 calendars, raising about $1 million for leukemia research.



“We got lovely letters from women who had cancer and women who had bad body images,” Stewart said. “We didn’t expect to do this, we didn’t expect to change the perception of older women. We didn’t do it because we thought we were gorgeous and everybody wanted to look at us naked. It was the humor in it, the twist in it. So



“Calendar Girls” already is a hit in England. The filmmakers hope success in the United States for that movie and “Something’s Gotta Give” might encourage Hollywood to consider more films about older women.



“We’re sort of the baby boomers, so there’s a lot of us about. There’s a big audience of us that aren’t catered for,” Walters said. “There’s a lot more women now in films, more women writing and producing, so women’s stories are becoming slightly more common. Social change takes a long time, doesn’t it? But I think that is changing.”