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Explained: What Frances McDormand’s Oscars triumph reveals — and conceals — about older women characters in Hollywood

Ageism persists in Hollywood. Visibility of prominent actors like McDormand may skew perceptions of other women and female characters over 40

Written by Kabir Firaque , Edited by Explained Desk | New Delhi |
Updated: April 27, 2021 9:52:25 am
Frances McDormand accepts the Oscar for Actress in a Leading Role during the live ABC Telecast of The 93rd Oscars in Los Angeles, California. AMPAS/Reuters

Frances McDormand was 63 years and 306 days old on Sunday (Monday morning in India) when she won the Academy Award for Best Actress in a Leading Role, for her performance in Nomadland. Of the four other nominees, Viola Davis was 55, and the other three below 40.

It was the 94th Best Actress award at the Oscars, counting joint winners and repeat winners as all separate. Only on 10 of these 94 occasions has the winner been above the age of 60 — including McDormand twice — and only on 18 occasions has the winner been aged between 40 and 59.

That last bracket of 40-59 just excludes McDormand, who was three months short of her 40th birthday in 1997 when she won the first of her three Oscars. Her award for Fargo (1996) is just one of 66 — 70% of 94 — that have gone to women in their 20s and 30s at the time they received these awards.

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Ageism in Hollywood

In a way, the predominance of younger Oscar winners for Best Actress underlines the ageism that exists in Hollywood. Put another way, the visibility of seasoned actresses such as McDormand tends to obscure the same trend.

“The more mature actresses, including Frances McDormand and Viola Davis, tend to get more substantial roles and so become more prominent during awards season. However, the visibility of these women can skew our perceptions of how female characters over 40 are faring overall,” Dr Martha Lauzen, founder and executive director of the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State University, told The Indian Express, by email.

“Since they receive a great deal of attention after being nominated, we assume that more actresses over 40 are working and that ageism has diminished in film. However, we have to remember that the success of just a few actresses does not reflect the state of employment for the majority of these women,” she said.

The big picture

The 2021 Oscars recognised films released in 2020. And films released last year broadly continued the trend of older women getting fewer roles than younger women — and older men. This is one of several aspects covered in a report, authored by Dr Lauzen and published by her Center, on the portrayals of female characters in the top-grossing US films of 2020. Among the findings:

* Female characters remained younger than their male counterparts. The majority of female characters were in their 20s (24%) and 30s (29%). The majority of male characters were in their 30s (31%) and 40s (28%).

* Males 40 and over accounted for 52% of all male characters. Females 40 and over comprised 32% of all female characters.

* There were almost twice as many male characters as female characters aged 60 and over: 6% of female and 10% of male characters were in this age group.

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The age of Oscar winners

The average age of the 94 Best Actress winners (at the time of winning) is 37.3 years. The oldest winner so far is the late Jessica Tandy at age 80 in 1990, for Driving Miss Daisy (1989). Katharine Hepburn won the last of her four Best Actress Oscars at age 74 (she also won twice in her 60s).

Six of the ten 60-plus winners feature in the last 10 years alone, including McDormand at ages 60 and 63, and Meryl Streep at age 62.

In contrast to two-thirds of Best Actress winners, just over one-third —33 of 94 — Best Actor winners have been under age 40.

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