Women have a shelf-life in movies and TV. Female actors in their 20s are allowed to play romantic roles, even if their male co-stars are decades older. Occasionally a 30-year-old woman might get a romantic lead, but by 50, she’s playing the desexualized mother, aunt, friend, or neighbor of the star. This unfortunate trend is summed up hilariously in a not-work-safe comedy sketch on Inside Amy Schumer:
The entertainment industry just doesn’t let women age, gracefully or otherwise, not if an actress wants to keep getting starring roles. Nicole Kidman turned 50 this year, but as we’ve pointed out in certain reviews, she’s a fan of the age-defying botox look. Compare with our beloved Helena Bonham Carter, who is just a year older and doesn’t seem to mind taking roles that make her look a little weird or ugly on occasion — but she’s not considered as a much of a big, bankable star. Then there’s Emma Thompson, who was 36 when she starred in Sense and Sensibility and got flack for being “too old” to be a love interest for Hugh Grant, then age 35. UGH.
The situation feels worse in historical costume movies and TV shows. Women over 50 tend to get cast in small parts as someone important’s mother or aunt, wearing layers of caps and bonnets, sitting in the back of the room, dishing out a one or two bon mots per hour of a series or film. They’re the biddies, the spinsters, the old bats, good for a laugh or a haughty reprimand, hardly anything more.
As the elder stateswoman of Frock Flicks with my fifth decade on the horizon, this all pisses me off. Dried-up old hags, we are not! Even historically, it’s not an overwhelming fact that fascinating women are all young. According to the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine, the average life expectancy of women ranged from 48-years-old in 1480 to 62-years-old in 1901, and we know that specific historical women lived much longer. For example, Queen Elizabeth I died at age 70, and her compatriot Bess of Hardwick died at 81. Catherine the Great lived to 67, and we know she had plenty of lovers her whole life — no shriveled-up virgin there!
So I want to spotlight a few actress over age 50 who are currently working in historical costume movies or TV, with specific productions in the past decade, where they play something other than the second fiddle, ye olde biddy in the corner. Roles where they have a love interest or at least look sexy and show some kind of agency that advances the plot in an interesting way. I may do a part two of the top five older women in historical costume movies and TV before the 21st century!
Maggie Smith as Constance, Countess of Trentham, in Gosford Park (2001)
Bet you were expecting the Dowager Countess in Downton Abbey? Well, she did have the best zingers in the entire series, but she was also the cliche old biddy too. I picked this role because Dame Maggie looks glam while delivering her witticisms, showing that style and substance are possible over age 50.
Helen Mirren as Queen Elizabeth I in Elizabeth I (2005)
We’ve discussed the idea of “old Elizabeth” on film before, and Mirren’s version (filmed when she was around 60) is full of sexual potency and political fire. Not to mention historical accuracy. This is the real deal, and we need more of it on screen.
Miranda Richardson as Marquise d’Urfé in Casanova (2015)
She’s the baby of the group here, and yeah, I picked an obscure role in this Amazon TV pilot that wasn’t extended to a full series. I could have selected one of the murder-mysteries she’s done as well, but I love this role as an 18th-century salon hostess who brings together a volatile assortment of characters for a memorable dinner.
Meryl Streep as Florence Foster Jenkins in Florence Foster Jenkins (2016)
The most Oscar-nominated actress of all time also does a fair number of historical roles, and she carries this film as a woman so self-assured that she doesn’t notice how terrible her own singing voice is. That is some serious self-confidence. Also, Streep has a younger man as her love interest in this film — she was 67 at the premiere, while Hugh Grant was 56. Now, that’s a turnaround!
Judi Dench as Princess Dragomiroff in Murder on the Orient Express (2017)
Probably better known for playing Queen Victoria twice, it’s nice to see Dench as an over-the-top glamorous murder suspect as well. She gets a faaaaabulous wardrobe, excellent makeup, and sneers imperiously, which is pretty much my goal for the rest of my life, plus something I want to see more of from older women on film.
What older women do you admire in historical costume movies and TV? Bonus points for juicy roles!
Does Kristin Scott Thomas count? She was excellent in Bel Ami.
And I loved your choices. Thompson, Streep, Bonham Carter, Mirren, Dench are who I want to be when I grow up. Well, I’m an adult, but I admire them immensely. But what about iconic actresses of past years? Katherine Hepburn, Ingrid Bergman, Audrey Hepburn, Claudia Cardinale are a few that comes to mind.
Definitely Kate Hepburn in The Lion in Winter. Older than O’Toole—as Eleanor was older than Henry—she comes off sexy, potent, and not the least biddy-fied.
Yep, as I wrote, I may do a part 2 with actresses before the 21st century :)
Oh & Kristin Scott Thomas is in Darkest Hour, out right now!
Please do. And Darkest Hour is on my to see list. It’s just too busy at work to do anything else afterwards but recuperate at home with a glass or two of wine.
I agree that Katherine Hepburn’s Eleanor of Aquitaine oosed power & sex.
But what about Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? I felt that her portrayal of a successful wife, mother & business woman was what women strove for in their lives in the decades following.
true. But it’s not a costume flick.
Can I juat say, that if you’re in your 40s [I have no clue -but assuming you weren’t a child when you met your husband] then you’re already in your 5th decade. Just to make you miserable lol
I did like Julie Walters in Indian Summer, but I can’t think of any other historical movies/shows she’s done. Though I’m sure there must be some.
What about Greta Scacchi? She is a very good actress (this could be seen e. g. in her supporting roles in “War and Peace” and “Versailles”). Plus, she is ageing gracefully, naturally, without the doubtful help of Botox, fillers and lifftings that make look one’s face like a immovable wax mask. Besides, such look is not appropriate in period films …
I would like to add an apology: I should have read your article thoroughly first, before mentioning Greta Scacchi in “War and Peace” and “Versailles”, because in these two productions she has played the role of mothers … BIG FACEPALM. Well, when it comes to actresses over forty portraying sexy, seductive characters in period films Amira Casar as beautiful “Beatrice” in “Versailles” comes to my mind.
There are several great Chinese actresses just now in their early 50s – Gong Li, Michelle Yeoh, and Maggie Cheung. I don’t think any of them have done historicals since turning 50 but several did great ones in their 40s and all are still active, so I have high hopes for something good there.
Don’t forget almost the entire cast of Cranford!
How about Fanny Ardant as Mary of Guise in Elizabeth (1998 version) She is strong and glamourous and so appealing in that movie.