“Americans can be strange about aging,” said French actress Jeanne Moreau, in a brief interview she gave me back in 2005. She was then at the tail end of her 70s and had just co-starred with French heartthrob Melvil Poupaud in “Le Temps Qui Reste,” as his sympathetic but alluring grandmother. As the interview went on, the whole room went quiet and the other women stopped what they were doing to listen to Moreau.
“Americans think aging is something to be pitied, or ignored,” she continued. “The French know that the good things in life get better with age!”
Moreau, now 86 — still playing the femme fatale — must be feeling some competition from the very country she once accused of strangeness. Surely she got a kick out of Cate Blanchett’s recent Oscar-acceptance speech (for best actress in Woody Allen’s “Blue Jasmine”), in which Blanchett challenged “those of us in the industry who are still foolishly clinging to the idea that female films, with women at the center, are niche experiences.” She continued: “They are not. Audiences want to see them and, in fact, they earn money.”
Blanchett also cited older brand-name actresses in Hollywood, among them Meryl Streep and Judi Dench, and said their performances blew her mind. Blanchett herself is 45 and one of the most visually powerful female performers working in cinema today.
Michika Ishikawa, who authors and illustrates books about Hollywood films and is a leading authority on everything pertaining to Hollywood actors and actresses, said in an interview with The Japan Times: “American cinema is definitely loosening up in terms of deploying women and telling stories that feature women in a big way. I’ve certainly noticed that older, established actresses are playing parts that showcase them as sexy or desirable.”
Ishikawa adds that: “Not everyone is good at jumping the hurdle of age. As the years go by, the bar keeps getting higher. And the ones that remain are the ones who are brilliant, intuitive performers, as well as being sexy and beautiful, like Cate Blanchett, Emma Thompson, Meryl Streep … they’ll be doing films at 90, in challenging, thought-provoking roles, because they’re so good at what they do.”
In an aside, Ishikawa said that many Hollywood actresses have marched along with the times; as American society changed and it became a matter of course for women to join the workforce, actresses were called upon to play roles that depicted women’s lives in all their variety, diversity and depth.
“So many things happen to a strong, smart woman once she goes out of the home and into the world,” said Ishikawa. “Naturally, the world of movies has to keep up with her, and pick up stories that resonate with female audiences.”
In Japan, however, it’s a different story. According to Ishikawa, “The Japanese movie industry seems very conservative, still. TV is different — it’s become much more open and diverse in terms of depicting women. But looking at the Japanese movie industry from a global standpoint, it caters mainly to a very young audience and the contents are often childish.
Most of (these films) seem to be about young people trying to find themselves. It’s like the only time a person feels excited, or happy, or passionate is when they’re young. The rest of life is just drab.
“There are no Japanese movies that a middle-aged woman can go to by herself, to take in a story that really speaks to her. There are simply no adult-oriented movies because the whole industry seems uninterested in life after youth.”
Having said that, Ishikawa says Hollywood is not an ideal environment for women either, and she finds that many actresses are struggling.
“The ones that tend to sink are those who were gorgeous sex symbols in their youth, and who try to stick to that paradigm. Cameron Diaz and Gwyneth Paltrow come to mind. They were never really good actresses, but they have charisma and, of course, great physical beauty, which they’ve maintained over the years. But there’s no denying it gets harder with age.
“In my view, Sharon Stone has managed to make the shift from sex goddess to queen bitch. She no longer has to shed her clothes to broadcast her presence. She can walk onto a scene and own it. She doesn’t care how old she looks, either. Watching her as Amanda Seyfried’s mother in ‘Lovelace’ — she was scintillating.”
Among the actresses she mentioned, Ishikawa commended Naomi Watts and Robin Wright for rising to the challenge of aging on screen by playing new, quirky roles and “trying different things,” but she reserved her judgment regarding the upcoming “Adore” (previously called “Two Mothers”; Japan title: “Utsukushi e no Hokai”), which features Watts and Wright in the throes of a passionate sexual affair with each others’ sons.
A member of the film sales staff at Kadokawa — a movie production and publishing company based in Tokyo — who chose to withhold her name said, “It is, of course, a wonderful premise. I think most of the Japanese women working in the industry would agree that it’s the sort of story we would love to see, in terms of giving us hope and courage to keep working. But at the same time, it’s a little painful to watch, not just because of the older-woman-with-young-man sexual taboo, but because Watts and Wright make it all look so beautiful. They can pull it off, yes, but I get the feeling the average female viewer would feel a little inferior.”
Feeling inferior seems vastly preferable to feeling downright ignored, which used to be the norm for older women viewers sitting in a movie theater.
“Niche” or not, Hollywood is generating more stories about women than ever — some might not be nice, or palatable, but it seems like a good omen.