Art Imitates Politics

Helen Mirren's Best Actress Oscar this week catapults "mature" female leads to a lofty new perch. Mirren was not the only 50-plus actress to be nominated-Mirren is 61-she was one of three women over 50 among five nominees. The others included 57-year-old Meryl Streep, who played the Cruella De Vil of the fashion industry in The Devil Wears Prada, and Dame Judi Dench, a ripe 72, who played a villainous English schoolteacher in Notes on a Scandal.

Is this the beginning of a trend (in which older actresses get the meaty parts they've been yearning for) or a mere blip on the, er, screen? Movie critics and other media denizens have been debating for weeks now the reason that so many 50-plus actresses are winning starring roles, with most critics agreeing that aside from a flood of new female producers, screenwriters, and studio executives in Hollywood, Broadway also deserves some of the credit. It's sometimes known as "doctor theater":

For stage-honed movie stars, a run in a play in Broadway, in London, or a good regional theater can be as revitalizing as a month at a spa--and as invigorating as a year of hard-core gym visits.

But what about politics as a role model for Hollywood? Mirren and Dench are both English, as was Mirren's director in The Queen. Britain was led by a female prime minister from 1979 to 1990 and has been used to female leadership in the form of royalty for a good part of the past millennium. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was not running the House when Streep's American film was shot. But most likely, the Oscar jurors were awake last November when she took over as the first female speaker.

History shows us something has changed:

In 78 years of Academy Awards, only four women over 50 have won the Best Actress award, including Katharine Hepburn three times. The list of the 10 oldest Best Actress winners includes four women then in their forties. By movie standards, that was old.

(This was written in January, before this week's Academy Awards were announced.)

Why not assume that art is now imitating politics?

By Bonnie Erbe