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09 March 2018

More Complex Roles for Older Women? Yes Please.

“Women who are over 50 or 40 – or whatever that magic number is – we’re not invisible. We get to fall in love,” says Barbara Broccoli, producer of Film Stars Don’t Die In Liverpool, a UK/Hollywood biopic that marks a real sea change in filmed entertainment. While focussing on actor Peter Turner’s real life relationship with Oscar-winner Gloria Grahame, the film is a massive step in the evolution of realistic female characterisations.

Based on the true story of Grahame, who came to live with Turner in his Liverpool family home after collapsing during a UK stage tour in the twilight of her career, Film Stars Don’t Die In Liverpool pivots on four-time Oscar nominee Annette Bening. Although it may seem obvious to have a Hollywood legend playing a Hollywood legend, the one-two punch of Bening-as-Grahame says what we’ve been longing to hear: that ‘women of a certain age’ are vibrant individuals with endless possibilities. “When Grahame says she wants to play Juliet in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet,” Broccoli adds, “that says to me that when any woman falls in love, we all feel like Juliet. We all feel like we’re 16. We feel that frisson.” Annette Bening plays Grahame as an older woman who is desirable and fun, despite fear of losing her looks, work and health. She’s a sexy woman – yet her age is never mentioned.

Before #metoo and #timesup, there had been a groundswell in material for older women – and one might ask ‘older than what’, as if even that sentence implies women are only valuable when young. However, Bening’s star turn as Grahame shows that you don’t need to be young to be sexy, you don’t need to be beautiful to be relevant and you don’t need to give up being yourself.

This flies in the face of the old regime. Unless you were Meryl Streep, female performers were typically cast as sex objects, wife material, mother, prostitute or sad old biddy. Once past her 20s, an actress’s world was expected to shrink, finding fewer opportunities at a time when many felt they were just hitting their stride. There were few places to go, few stages upon which to hone their craft and fewer lenses to capture their breathtaking skill. Some women turned to producing and writing their own material just to work, and funding and support were equally hard to find.

Only a few years ago, one look at the headlines of any newspaper told a depressing tale of talented actors not finding roles that suited them – or any roles for that matter. In one UK broadsheet alone the headlines read “Zoe Wanamaker bemoans shortage of TV roles for older women (2013)”, “Actor Juliet Stevenson criticises lack of roles for women in their 50s (2014)” and “BBC falling short on reflecting older women (2016)”. Oscar nominee Leslie Manville commented this year that she has seen a change in attitude to older women. “You can have a lover at 60. You don’t have to be shoved in a corner in a cardigan doing knitting…That’s because film and television-makers realise that there is a huge audience of women who want to go to the cinema or turn on the telly and see stuff that doesn’t alienate them, that embraces them, that isn’t just about gorgeous 20- or 30-somethings, that represents their lives.” Notably, not one women nominated in the Best Supporting Actress category at this year’s Oscars was under the age of 40.

The role of Annette Bening as Gloria Grahame in Film Stars Don’t Die In Liverpool is a home truth. Bening dares to look like a real woman in every single scene. Thanks to the cinematography of Ula Pontikos, there’s no younging-up here. As one of the longtime producers of the James Bond franchise, Broccoli has an eye for what works and she always wanted Bening to play this role. “The role is also a real testament to Annette. She’s an actress who is interested in the truth. There is no artifice to her as a human being, no vanity. She’s very comfortable with herself ageing, and so she’s a hero to me in that respect,” says the producer. Film Stars is that rare movie that shows a woman as a real person, despite the fact she’s a Hollywood star. “Women should be multidimensional. To have an actress of Annette’s calibre playing Gloria, it’s really important. We’re portrayed as one-dimensional often on the screen when in fact we’re complicated.”

Films like Film Stars Don’t Die In Liverpool show that powerhouse roles fit female performers of all ages and creeds. We no longer need to apologise for not being young, beautiful, fertile, available or compliant. We’re here – more skilled, more interesting and more engaging than ever before. More importantly, our stories are damn good.

Article written by Karen Krizanovich.