National Edition

Oscars illustrate Hollywood’s gender age gap

Published: Thursday, Feb. 28 2013 3:25 p.m. MST

Jennifer Lawrence, with her award for best actress in a leading role for "Silver Linings Playbook," and Anne Hathaway with her award for best actress in a supporting role for "Les Miserables."

John Shearer, AP

The 2013 Oscars added to a long-term trend.

This year's Best Actress, Jennifer Lawrence (“Silver Linings Playbook”), is 22. The Best Supporting Actress, Anne Hathaway (“Les Miserables”), is 30.

The two men who carted home acting Oscars on Feb. 24 are significantly longer in the tooth than Lawrence and Hathaway — at 56, Daniel Day-Lewis won his record-tying third Best Actor Oscar for his portrayal of the eponymous U.S. president in “Lincoln,” while Christoph Waltz, 55, is the year's Best Supporting Actor for playing a loquacious, multilingual bounty hunter in “Django Unchained."

This group constitutes too small a sample size to arrive at any meaningful conclusions, but the age disparity between this year’s Oscar-winning actresses and actors is nothing new. Perhaps it’s attributable to the fact women typically launch acting careers at younger ages than their male counterparts or maybe it's because blatant sexism effectively shuts women out of desirable roles once they reach middle age. Many actresses certainly believe the latter.

Regardless, Hollywood’s awards season has a long and documentable history of feting movie actors who are several years older than the actresses receiving equivalent recognition.

Dozen years of data

From 2002-13, the average age of the 120 women nominated for either Best Actress or Best Supporting Actress was 40 years old. The same number of nominees for Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor, however, averaged 48 years of age at the time their nominations were announced.

By way of illustration, consider the 74th Academy Awards on March 24, 2002. Denzel Washington (“Training Day”) won Best Actor at age 47, while a 35-year-old Halle Berry (“Monster’s Ball”) claimed Best Actress. The pairing of Washington and Berry atop the acting world made huge headlines due to the fact Berry was the first African-American to win Best Actress, and she had done so when a fellow African-American won Best Actor. But in retrospect, the way in which their careers evolved since 2002 lends powerful (if anecdotal) credence to the idea that Hollywood’s notion of “middle age” is much kinder to actors than actresses.

Since “Training Day,” Washington has starred in 14 films — and in each of those movies he received top billing. The 14 films with his name atop the marquee have netted $1.05 billion at the domestic box office. To cap off this successful 12-year run, Washington, now 58, received his sixth Oscar nomination this year for “Flight.” Conversely, Berry has received top billing in only six of the 12 movies she has starred in since “Monster’s Ball” — and those half-dozen “Halle Berry vehicles” grossed an average of only $26 million apiece. At 46 years old, her career looks like it has officially hit the skids. According to the entertainment news website Box Office Mojo, the last two movies Berry headlined, “Frankie & Alice” and “Dark Tide,” played in a grand total of 18 U.S. movie theaters — combined — before moving overseas or onto DVD.

A different theory

As for the gender-based data from all the Oscar ceremonies that occurred prior to 2002, nearly a decade ago Rice University sociologist Anne Lincoln tallied the ages for 73 years’ worth of Oscar-nominated actors and actresses, beginning with the first Oscars in 1929 and going all the way until 2001. She published her results in the October 2004 issue of the journal Psychological Reports.

“Research has found significant age differences between male and female Academy Award nominees and winners,” Lincoln wrote. “However, this discrepancy may result from gender differences in actors’ ages when they first begin their acting careers.”

Lincoln’s research showed that, from 1975-2001, Oscar-nominated actresses began their film careers at the average age of 24.1 years, while actors who received Oscar nods had gotten their first movie gigs at around 26.7 years of age. The research, however, did not address why the vast majority of middle-aged actresses not named Meryl Streep tend to see increasingly fewer Oscar nominations as they age than their male cohorts.

“Is there a Hollywood bias toward younger women? That could be part of it,” Lincoln wrote. “… But the point of my research is that their early start often accounts for why female Academy Award nominees are often younger than the male nominees.”

Ten days before the Oscars, actress Jennifer Love Hewitt talked with USA Today about getting in shape for a recent cover she did for a magazine. She said, "I feel like in Hollywood sometimes when you're an actress and you're 34, it's like, you should just pack your bags."

Jamshid Ghazi Askar is a graduate of BYU's J. Reuben Clark Law School and member of the Utah State Bar. Contact him at jaskar@desnews.com or 801-236-6051.

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