Hollywood often works hard to convince us that older women aren’t appealing, that they are boring, and worse, they don’t really exist.
But that might be changing.
In 2018, 11 of the 100 top-grossing movies starred or co-starred women who were 45 or older, according to a recent University of Southern California study. In 2017, it was just five movies. Even measured against an already low bar in the movie industry — where female-led films about women’s lives often struggle to get off the ground — this signals progress.
What’s more, at a time when there are more American women over 50 alive today than at any point in history, several movies this year zeroed in on their experiences.
There were releases that appealed to a mainstream audience like “Otherhood,” “Juanita” and the unfortunate example of what not to do with such women, “Poms.” These middle-of-the-road titles tended to attack society’s long-standing indifference toward older women, sometimes overdoing it with an obvious rush to hook the audience.
But there were also indie films like “Clemency,” “Gloria Bell,” “Frankie,” “And the Birds Rained Down” and “Diane” that found room for bolder storytelling that was as subtle as it was confident.
Some of these films even found large audiences. Netflix reported that its original comedy “Otherhood” was streamed by 29 million accounts in its first month, making it among the service’s most popular movies of 2019.
When their grown sons drop the ball on Mother’s Day, a trio of mothers (Angela Bassett, Patricia Arquette and Felicity Huffman) takes a road trip to New York City to rebuke them. The movie is both heartwarming and grating in its clichés. But it’s also an earnest look at a story we rarely see: how mothers can reinvent themselves and their relationships with their adult children for the better.
“Juanita” is another Netflix movie that told an older woman’s reinvention story. It’s basically a black, working-class version of “Eat, Pray, Love,” but it has a larger message for viewers past midlife.
Burned out on a dead-end hospital job and her grown but needy live-in children, Alfre Woodard’s title character sets off on a journey that randomly ends in Paper Moon, Montana, where she gets to know Jess (Adam Beach), a Blackfoot chef and Desert Storm veteran with a passion for French cuisine. He hires her as a cook in his restaurant and she begins to take stock of her life and where she wants to go.
“Juanita” (directed by Clark Johnson) shows that although it’s not easy, it also isn’t impossible for a woman in the second half of her life to make a big life change.
And then there was “Poms,” directed by Zara Hayes, a story of a terminally ill former schoolteacher (Diane Keaton, who is 73) who fulfills a lifelong dream when she starts a cheerleading club in her new retirement community. The movie frustratingly failed to harness a talented ensemble that included Pam Grier, Rhea Perlman and Jacki Weaver. Instead it reduced them to a snoozefest of one-dimensional caricatures, forcing ill-fitting set pieces (a car chase, bad viral videos) on veteran actresses who deserve far better.
Other tales of 50-plus women this year pushed past our societal tendency to ignore the sensuality of aging female bodies. In director Sebastián Lelio’s exuberant “Gloria Bell,” Julianne Moore’s title character has a one-night stand that eventually becomes something more after meeting a fellow divorcée at a dance club.
A bona fide breakout, the film is a free-spirited portrait of an empty nester in her sexual prime who at the same time finds herself falling prey to the kind of archetypal train wreck of a boyfriend often reserved for ingénues in breakup movies. Moore’s appearance certainly epitomizes Hollywood beauty standards, but her character’s utter lack of body shyness, quirky solo dancing and all, lands as a radical rebuttal to what movies have historically taught us about the lives of such women.
Writer-director Louise Archambault’s “And the Birds Rained Down” does this too for women even older. The film features a pair of 70-something hermits, Gertrude (Andrée Lachapelle) and Charlie (Gilbert Sicotte), who meet at a recluse community in the woods and unexpectedly fall for each other. There’s an emotional love scene in which Archambault shows Gertrude’s bare chest and belly without a trace of pity or discomfort. And the scene packs as much heat as it does whimsy.
Isabelle Huppert, who is 66, is topless too in “Frankie,” making a statement straightaway in the movie’s opening teaser. On a family vacation in Portugal, she nonchalantly removes her fuchsia bikini top and dives into the hotel pool in front of her embarrassed granddaughter. Playing artfully yet strategically with scale, director Ira Sachs and his cinematographer, Rui Poças, capture a wide shot that is far enough away not to ogle Frankie but close enough to take in her figure and say: This is a powerful woman who isn’t afraid to take risks.
Frankie, Gloria Bell, Diane, Juanita. That so many of these stories pull their titles from the names of their middle-aged protagonists communicates a simple but important message: These movies are about these women, not anyone else. And while systemic change proceeds at a snail’s pace in Hollywood, that films about women we’ve too often ignored are getting made and finding audiences is no small matter.