Type Warren Beatty or Faye Dunaway into the Twitter search bar, and Twitter will return a stream of tweets that underscore what a recent report concluded: When it comes to the Oscars, being old marks you.
— Olby Is My Muse (@OlbermannMyMuse) February 27, 2017
This tweet—and all the other “senior moment” tweets like it—was a knee jerk reaction to the mixed-up announcement of the kerfuffle at the recent awards ceremony, when Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway gave the Best Film award to the wrong movie. (The error wasn’t theirs.) The film that actually won Best Film, “Moonlight,” tells the story of a gay African-American kid, and its win represented a victory not just for the team that created it, but also for all the voices that have been pushing back against Hollywood’s apparent racism and sexism—its blindness to great films starring actors and telling stories that fall outside of “straight white male.”
“This goes out to all those black and brown boys and girls and non-gender conforming, who don’t see themselves,” one of “Moonlight’s” producers and the writer of the original stage play said in his acceptance speech. “We’re trying to show you and us.”
Over Sixty, Underestimated
Going back to that recent report about Hollywood and age,”Over Sixty, Underestimated”: In February 2017, shortly before America tuned in to the 2017 Academy Awards ceremony, the report concluded that of the 29 leads driving the action in films nominated for the Best Picture award for three consecutive years, only one character was in their 60s or older.
The only two senior leads across 25 films—in Birdman” and “Spotlight”—were both played Michael Keaton: an older white male.
It’s not just in the bean-counting that older characters are shortchanged in America’s Oscar-nominated films. The report found that it’s also in the diversity of senior characters, or lack of it, along with how the films portray older people and what other characters blithely say about us.
“The extremity of her age belied the delightful liveliness of her personality.” Really?
“Over Sixty, Underestimated” is a joint project of the health insurance company Humana and the University of Southern California’s Annenberg Institute for Communications and Journalism. Subtitled “A Look at Aging on the ‘Silver’ Screen in Best Picture Nominated Films,” it finds that things are only getting worse—especially for older women.
Men counted for almost 80% of the characters age 60-plus in Best Picture nominees from 2014 to 2016. The worst year for older women was 2016, when there were speaking roles for only four senior women in all of the Best Picture nominated films.
In the past couple of years, a chorus of voices has been calling out lack of diversity—sexism (#OscarsSoMale) and racism (#OscarsSoWhite)—as an Oscars issue. Criticism of the Academy made headlines, filled Twitter and started a conversation that may be seeing some results.
This year, the “Over Sixty” report says, “age can no longer be excluded from the conversation about diversity in Academy Award-nominated movies.” That’s because when an industry whose products seep into the minds and hearts of Americans marginalizes and belittles older people, it doesn’t just reflect the culture’s ageism, it also reinforces the attitudes that showed themselves in those tweets about Beatty and Dunaway, as well as in countless news reports that referred to the pair’s “senior moment.” According to the report, six of the 14 films with a leading or supporting senior character—almost half of the movies— featured an ageist comment, some of them made by seniors themselves, and some deeply pessimistic views of what it means to get older.
“The elder community is the only community in which humiliation and jokes can be made, and nobody is standing up and saying that’s wrong,” Actress Frances Fisher says at one point during a panel discussion linked to the report. “You can’t talk to people like that.”
As the report points out, movies may influence our sense of our value as older people, and the way we see ourselves affects us on many levels. Optimism about aging seems to protect us from ill health as we get older. In fact, in earlier research, Humana found that, “Those seniors who felt least valued reported more than twice as many physically unhealthy days and more than three times as many mentally unhealthy days per month as their ‘most valued’ counterparts.”
It’s time to start the #OscarsSoYoung conversation. But that doesn’t mean we leave sexism and racism out of the picture. According to “Over Sixty, Underestimated,” when the industry does present older characters, they’re almost always white. And while older white men may be shown in positions of power, especially in the workplace, older white women are not. In fact, only one older woman was shown in a prestigious position compared to 33 men—and she appeared briefly on screen in archival footage.
Watch the Discussion
To coincide with the release of “Over 60,” a panel discussion on the portrayal of aging in film was held on February 16. The panel included researchers in aging, health and media representation, along with film producer Gary Lucchesi and actress Frances Fisher, who offered a fascinating look at why the movie industry keeps sidelining and demeaning older women in particular (look at who’s writing the scripts and directing) and how to turn it around.
If you want to skip the lengthy introductions, forward to 6:45.
How much does representation in film matter? Please share your thoughts in the comments section below.