Already past "ingénue" age when I first embarked on pursuing film acting, I heard it said often that the lucky people were those who were those that were younger - the younger the better, and preferably not past their twenties. "Be realistic," I heard, and still hear, again and again, "If you are not young, then you can't entertain hopes of playing lead roles." Or something like that. Or, "You won't get romantic roles." At first it sounded like a sad, sad thing.
Art imitates life. Film is really all about what it means to be human. At every age. It is true that Hollywood has always been enamored of the young ingénues for most leading roles. And that Hollywood has traditionally given less leading roles to women - at any age - than it has to men. But that too, I believe, is changing and will change. The one constant thing is this world is change. Mature women are making their mark in this world in so many areas of life like never before. I am optimistic that this will likely happy in film too - if not Hollywood, then in the burgeoning independent film industry. What is to stop it?
I hear and read about women in Hollywood who reached the A List and have been in lead roles in successful movies in their twenties or younger (such as Sharon Stone, Rosanna Arquette and many others) often complain that they are just not being offered those great roles anymore now that they have hit the dreaded "middle age" - especially after 40. But I wonder. Maybe they are being offered roles, but they are just not the roles they became accustomed to when they were younger. Have they possibly fallen into the old trap of thinking that their highest worth is only as a foxy romantic lead? Not to say that they shouldn't expect to get opportunities to play the older foxy chick too, and no doubt offers along those lines are next to nil. But what about the many other juicy roles I often see women play on the screen? I love watching a good mature actress play the mother, sister, friend or villain too. A clean-minded mother superior? An hysterical murderess? An over-the-hill prostitute? A caring mother? Sure, I'll do it! The possibilities are endless. Shoot, that is one of the main reasons acting continues to interest me - the many varieties of roles that I will get to play, or at least audition for. Why worry about always being the romantic interest? If it's one thing mature women learn, it should be that being a romantic interest - in real life or in film - is not the be all and end all that it's cracked up to be! And we see mature women in film and TV all the time. Oh, maybe not so much in the basic "date movie" Hollywood genre, but still...it is sad to think that even these women who have had some major success in acting should feel so cynical about "life after ingénue." Okay, I know I'm just being an armchair quarterback, but this is what I think.
I mean, who says that acting is all about being a lead role or a romantic role anyhow? Yeah, yeah, I know that's what a lot of the Hollywood formulas prop up as the top goodies, and of course leads get the best pay. But hey, even supporting roles pay damn well. And yeah, yeah, I know it's relative. Once you get used to making cool millions for one role it's easy to get into wildly extravagant spending habits, and I know that it's never easy to lower one's standard of living. But geez, come on. Why are we doing this anyway? In my book, if a person is doing it for fame, adulation, power and mega-millions, they have already lost out on the really good stuff anyway -- that magic that can be found in film acting, that magic of giving a character a platform, a voice and a say and having those moments captured on film. I can't describe it. It's just what I love so much - why I love film acting, and why I love watching good films. I remember my Daddy telling me when I was a kid - because he worked on the lot of Universal Studios - that he didn't want me to ever become an actress because "all their lives are all screwed up." I have thought about that a lot over the years, and I have come to the conclusion that a whole lot of that stems from people getting into acting for the wrong reasons in the first place. There's a whole lot of perks that attract people to film acting, and sadly, true love of acting is often much less of a motivation that desire for that fame or money or power. That's one reason I love living in Austin for doing film. Independent films tend to be low budget and tend to have a high percentage of folks that are really in it for the artistic expression. Jeff Nightbyrd I think said that Austin is the Independent Film Capital of the World. Boy, that title is some nice music to my ears!
From a young age, females are told that their power is in their youth and attractiveness. Whole generations of American women have bought into that and certainly there is some truth to it. But is that really the end of the story? Is life and love really over once a woman hits the "dreaded middle age"? I don't think so. Going through the "change of life" myself now for some years, it has been a real battle. It was a shock to wake up one day and realize that I was no longer "young." All your life you are young, young, young, young, and then it seems like all of a sudden one day you are 30, and then you are and seeing yourself going down some great hill "over on the other side" and away, away, away from the youth that has always been considered of such great value. "Faded youth" is a term used as if youth were the Pinnacle of existence. What hogwash! Does anyone ever stop to think about the fact that people, many people, grow more beautiful with age? Not more beautiful physically, perhaps, but more beautiful in depth, temperament, seasoning and ability to fascinate. There is the old saying that a person begins as a child, goes through adolescence, young adulthood, mature adulthood, and then as one increasing advancing age one becomes once again childlike. What does this tell us about the human condition, and isn't it absolutely fascinating?!
We all know the glories - or supposed glories - of being young, and the further glories of being young, or better yet young and beautiful. But what about the glories of maturity? Now there is where there is plenty to be said, and isn't said or understood enough, especially by those who need to know it most. I still have a lot of learn about the value of being mature, so what I will say here is going to call very short of exhaustive, but I can at least share what I have learned thus far. It is still rather a shock to me the weight that my words carry nowadays in so many areas of my life. That is taking some getting used to in this package deal of maturing age! Sometimes I think I got so used to people not really listening to me when I was younger that I got in a very poor habit of not being careful about what I said. What did it matter? No one seemed to be listening anyway! You know what I mean? Yet over the past number of years I keep getting it thrown back to me: people DO listen now, and I had better realize it if I want that to be a "good" thing!
I remember very well being "young and beautiful." I was a fashion model in my early twenties, and was even invited to join one of the top two modeling agencies in New York when I was 18. I decided against that - mostly due to a lot of fears about moving to New York or Chicago where I didn't know a soul - but did pursue a modeling career for a short time in Denver. Even the amount of money I was told I would make the first year scared the hell out of me. I was used to making minimum wage and the thought of going from there to 1000 times that was something I found paralyzing. I wasn't ready for the hassles of the well-to-do. I hadn't mastered dealing with the hassles of the low income bracket yet. Okay, okay, I know I'm getting no sympathy from you, so I'll move on, haha. Anyhow, during that time that I was modeling in Denver I found out what it was like to have guys ask me out not because they were interested in me but because it was for them a status symbol to have me on their arms - or just because I was a model. Wherever I went, so much of the talk and response I got was about how I looked, and I'll tell, you it was a very empty feeling. Actors are lucky not to have this kind of problem, or at least not so much, because there is a lot more going on in an acting performance than there is on a still life on a page. Native Americans used to believe that taking folks' pictures would steal their souls. I think that might be because when they looked at photographs of people it so often looked like the person had indeed lost their soul! Haha.
Anyhow, the superficialities I came across in the modeling world were something that ultimately turned me off to modeling altogether before more than a year or so had elapsed, and soon I was working lots of secretarial type jobs in various offices, including legal. I remember so very many times giving opinions and the response I would get as if any opinion I had carried about the same weight as if I had been a first grader who knew absolutely nothing at all. And I remember thinking to myself, so many times, "Oh, I can't wait until I get older! When I am in my thirties then people, even men, will listen to what I have to say with at least a modicum of respect!" I wish I had a hundred dollar bill for every time I thought or said that in my twenties. I could have a nice little stack o' dough.
It's been really interesting to remember that. Because I was right. The older I get, the more I find that people not only listen to what I have to say - in business and elsewhere - but actually think about it too, actually consider and respond and even ask questions. Wow. What a difference. And the older I get, the more I find that people call on me for advice. And the older I get, the more (good) advice I have to offer - because I really do have a much more vast fund of knowledge the older I get, and some of the wisdom of maturity is a wonderful reward for so many lessons learned in the school of "learning the hard way," which has been my main mode of education just about all my life.
But you know what is even better than getting more respect from others? It's that I respect myself more too. There is a surety and confidence that comes of advancing age that is truly wonderful. Not that age guarantees any of these good things - but that for a lot of us (not all!) it really does take that long to get some of that good stuff together.
I did not pursue acting much at all in my twenties, but the little that I did, I remember where I was "coming from" when approaching acting roles. Wow, what a difference! I have so much more depth to add to my roles now that it's almost embarrassing to remember back to those days. I remember playing Glinda the Good Witch in a very funny spoof of THE WIZARD OF OZ when I was in my twenties. The play was a hit, and was videotaped when we did our performance to a large audience. I watched that videotape and was mortified. There was no sense of "base" or "weight" to my performance - it looked to me as if I would just float off the stage. A sense of personal power was as yet in my life something I had not at all. Glinda was a role that would have been much better played with a strong sense of personal power, but I could not emulate something I had never even felt. That was a role that I feel I truly got by on my looks. All the comments from fans of the show were things like, "Oh, you looked so beautiful," "You were just perfect as Glinda. That was obvious typecasting!" But not once did someone say that my performance itself was great - except for the comedic lines. (I could project personal power, but I could definitely get the laughs, thank God!) Not to say all or even most young actresses lack a sense of personal power. Emotionally I was a late bloomer, and that's for sure!
As we find ourselves in middle age - and no one is immune to aging except those who die first, plastic surgery notwithstanding - it's a challenge to learn to accept. But hey, what other option is there? It's not like we have a choice in the matter. No matter how young in heart we feel, this does not keep time from taking its toll on our bodies. Wrinkles happen, gravity becomes more apparent in our physiques for all but those who keep up rigorous physical activity, and all types of medical problems begin to multiply for all but those with the best genes and healthiest eating and life habits. In middle age, it's finally time to "pay the piper." We could get away with eating junk food regularly and staying up all night and partying frequently and still could look and feel pretty damn good. It's amazing what the young body can and will tolerate! And of course too we are living with the results of decisions we have made for that many more years. Lots and lots of feedback, lots of lessons.
You know what I love most in movies and what makes a movie really great to me? That's when it is fascinating. Mature actors frequently fascinate me. Yes, I love to look at the young and beautiful folks too. I don't ever get tired of looking at Brad Pitt or Johnny Depp, but I am absolutely fascinated by the men when they get older. One interesting example to me is Christopher Walken. I don't even like him in any of his films before he became middle aged. I might even decide I don't want to watch a movie if I know the young Walken is in it. But tell me about a movie he made in the past ten years, now that he is older, and I will watch anything just because he is in it!
I can't give these kind of examples as easily with women, because there has been a terrible trend in Hollywood for young starlets to be labeled as the "ingénue" and then the "acting ingénue" as if an ingénue did not have the option of becoming a fascinating mature woman. But that is just speaking in generalities, and certainly there are some notable exceptions. Bette Davis was hardly beautiful even when she was young (although she did measure up - or down - to Hollywood-required slimness), but she had great talent and screen presence and "made it" as a young starlet. I often have thought that her lack of great beauty was one of the factors that made it easier for her to continue to get good roles throughout her life, because even as a young thing she was a "character actor." Truly, with few exceptions, the women with longevity in Hollywood that are character actors while still quite young are the ones that have been most likely to continue to get wonderful lead roles in film in their thirties, forties, fifties and beyond.
Then there's women like Kathy Bates. I was surprised to learn recently that she has been around (with smaller roles) in film since she was quite young. For her there was no real stardom in her youth. For her, the opportunities have grown rather than dwindled as she has matured. Ruth Gordon and Angela Lansbury are other examples of women who were getting roles when they were young, but achieved their greatest stardom in much more mature roles. In fact, I can't think of a better role model for mature women, personally, than Ruth Gordon. She had a way of projecting her great life energy in her older roles that was nothing less than absolutely magnificent! Who can ever forget her roles in HAROLD AND MAUDE and ROSEMARY'S BABY? Certainly this is a woman that had zero dependence on youth and glamour. What if she had left acting thinking she was too old or unattractive? What a great loss that would have been for film! Another actor that fascinates me more the older he gets is Jack Nicholson. And Dennis Hopper. And one of my favorites, Gérard Depardieu, the wonderful French actor who seems best suited to roles in French, rather than American, films. His career has spanned decades by now and he started out as a rather attractive guy in his twenties. Now, much more mature and much heavier, he is just as suited even to romantic roles as he ever was. His charisma has only increased over time rather than dwindled.
In the end, beauty and youth are glamorous always, while they last. But character roles are glamorous too. Any women already maturing in age like me who are reading this: think of your own favorite aging male actors. Wouldn't you just love to be cast in a role opposite any of them in a film? I know I can't think of one young pretty boy I'd rather. Yes, men can and do age well in film. And I see no reason women cannot do the same! I am coming to realize more and more that it is my job as an actor not too look as young as possible, but rather to give the most of what I have to offer - me. And thank God acting is not like modeling, where there truly are near-zero opportunities for older women.
I haven't got any crystal ball, but I can see more and more interesting, juicy and even romantic roles coming up for more and more mature women in the future of film. Can't you?
Well, enough of my ramblings for this month. I'm ready to go over that next role to sink my teeth into.
Michele Déradune is a single mom, film actress and voice talent represented by Ciao! Talents. She had a supporting role as Mel in SNAKE TALES (Winner "Best Independent Film Comedy" at the Gene Siskel Film Center, Summer 2001, cable and TV rights subsequently purchased by Time Warner), was chosen and featured in an unscripted movie by actor/director KEVIN SPACEY, and was the voice of Wakana in the English version of the Japanese anime SAKURA WARS 2. You can see Michele's online acting résumé by clicking on the link at http://www.Deradune.com.