The Hollywood Reporter's Tatiana Siegel has written an interesting article where she argues, relatively convincingly, that as the median age of movegoers increases (hello baby boomers!), Hollywood actresses are aging with them and getting better parts (and better pay) out of it. But are they really?
Siegel makes several points: One, that women who were "hot" when they were 30 have been able to maintain that level of popularity. Two, that even if they're not making big money, these are the women winning the awards. Three, they look better so it's easier for them have longevity in an age-obsessed industry. Four, they're taking parts originally written for men. Five, cable television is saving them. And six, they've got high Q scores – the measure of how famous/well-liked an actor is – higher than younger actresses.
There's plenty here that's of interest, but plenty to be skeptical about as well. First off, Siegel's admission that it's only recently that older actresses have started to get attention indicates that this could be an entirely generational thing – and even one that affects men as well. Just remember the Channing Tatum profile in the New York Times from last year that discussed how it's just harder to find leading men that can be depended on to lead the box office:
"The success rate has plummeted. For over a decade now Hollywood has failed to mint a new heavyweight, the kind of actor who can anchor a blockbuster and repeat that feat over a prolonged period. Today’s A list includes Denzel Washington, Brad Pitt, Leonardo DiCaprio and Adam Sandler, all of whom climbed into the cultural firmament 15 or more years ago."
What's happening to men is happening to women as well; one president of a studio tells Siegel "that talent sometimes comes in waves, and with only a few exceptions such as Rachel McAdams and Amy Adams, the next generation hasn't produced as many shining stars."
Additionally, while Siegel argues that women in this over-40 generation are highly paid, that doesn't mean they're consistently making money for the studios. Several of the actresses she mentions, such as Jennifer Aniston, Reese Witherspoon and Renee Zellweger, might be big names but they're considered overpaid within the industry because the films they helm don't actually make big money at the box office. Others, like Nicole Kidman, are notable only because of their awards cachet. That's not a problem specific to women; the aforementioned Denzel Washington, as well as Tom Cruise, are on the list of overpaid actors as well. And though these women may have higher Q scores that comes with this high pay, they've been around longer, have had more time to be liked, and have a generation of women and men interested in them who have been taught to go to movies and pay for them, not stay at home and download them for free.
Siegel's right in that television has become a fantastic place for female actresses, but it's also still hugely male dominated: think of the most highly regarded shows, who they're run by and who stars in them (Mad Men and Breaking Bad are two strong examples). Even on shows that are reviewed horribly or have strong ratings, men out-earn actresses; Two and a Half Men star Ashton Kutcher made $24 million last year, while Modern Family's Sophia Vergara, the highest paid actress on TV, made $19 million.
The anecdote that feels the weakest in Siegel's piece is about the movie Identity Thief, which stars Jason Bateman and Melissa McCarthy; Siegel writes about how McCarthy's role was originally intended to go to a man, but her success in it paid off, given that the movie is "the sixth-highest-grossing film of the year domestically." This one time that a female actress took a part from a male and made it big seems like more of a fluke than anything else, though it's certainly happened at least once before with Angelina Jolie's role in Salt (originally intended for Tom Cruise).
Finally, Siegel points out that not much as changed in the large age discrepancies between leading men and their love interests. Leading men are still being cast opposite much much younger women, while the reverse rarely happens, unless it's the point of the film. And remember, women are still not in the movies as much as their male counterparts, they're still not making movies as much, and when they are, they're still being represented only one way. So before we get all excited and declare the world is Meryl Streep's oyster, remember that it's just Meryl Streep's oyster.