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AL MARTINEZ

Waking Up Old in Hollywood

October 23, 1998|AL MARTINEZ

There's a line in the play "Magpie's Tea Room" in which one of the characters asks disdainfully, "How long can you feel the pain of someone else's acting career?" It was the only time I felt like clapping.

Not that there isn't validity to the anguish a woman must feel in not being able to find work because she's past 40. I'm just tired of hearing about it.

People in show biz are not high on my list of Those Who Suffer Most. Because of the nature of their calling, they are simply able to dramatize their plight more effectively than, say, a packaging clerk or an ad taker.

The list of those who find themselves out of work due to downsizing is growing longer every day, but they struggle in dark anonymity while the world focuses on the damage done by the youth cult in Hollywood.

Hardly anyone is going to pay a lot of attention to some poor slob in the unemployment line when an actress with dazzling stage presence dances by.

Several things bring this to mind, not the least of which is the case of Riley Weston, that 32-year-old who passed herself off as 19 to win our praise, our condemnation and a six-figure deal with Disney.

Old-lady Weston simply proved that lying still works in show biz. It's a tradition that dates back to the Roman tragedian Seneca who discovered the female lead in "Octavia" was really XXXVI and not XXI as claimed.

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The play "Magpie's Tea Room" was sponsored by Actresses @ Work, an organization dedicated to calling attention to the plight of, well, actresses not @ work, and was performed in one of those stuffy little Equity-waiver theaters in the Valley.

It made the point in no uncertain terms how cocky, insensitive young women with great bodies and nose rings are muscling out more talented but wrinkly older women for roles in movies and television.

"They're looking for character," cries Clarissa, the older woman, at one point. "They're looking for boobs," says the younger woman, Lauren, in response.

Facing that reality, Clarissa ends up leaving show biz for teaching, which is what she probably should have done near the middle of Act One, thereby saving us all a lot of time and grief.

"Magpie's Tea Room" is not exactly "Death of a Salesman" and I never expected it to be, but its overriding theme smashes you in the face with such force that you're physically exhausted at its conclusion.

I know that Hollywood is not the place in which one ought to grow old. Age in Miami or retire in Phoenix but don't keep chasing the star of a show biz career in a town that eats its old. I know.

For about the past 20 years I've written movies and pilots for television and have heard the laments of male writers who can't get script assignments because of their age.

They dye their hair, get face lifts, wear "hip" clothes and even send their sons in to network pitch meetings in an effort to get work, forced to humiliate themselves and their craft in a desperate effort to survive.

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Athletes who can no longer run, jump or smash each other effectively due to their age pursue other careers without a lot of whining. If they have any sense at all, they realize at the outset that someday they're going to grow physically incapable of doing what they're doing and must consider another line of work. The articulate ones do "color." The less gifted sell cars.

Women in the entertainment industry generally face no such physical barriers to performing. There are good roles for mothers, grandmothers, bag ladies and others in the higher age groups that young women can't play.

Neither Nicole Kidman nor Kate Winslet, for instance, even bothered trying out for the title role in "Driving Miss Daisy."

Figures released by the Screen Actors Guild support the contention of Women @ Work that their earning power declines steadily after age 40, but then so does the earning power of men.

I'm not trying to turn this into a gender war, but it seems to me the primary thrust of women in acting is an eternal desire to play the ingenue. "First, Act!" a publication of Actresses @ Work, celebrates 61-year-old Dyan Cannon's role in the movie "Out to Sea," observing how she "struts about in a bikini."

I'm not sure that ought to be the goal of actresses who will never see 39 again, but if it is they've got a long way to go.

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Al Martinez's column appears on Tuesdays and Fridays. He can be reached online at al.martinez@latimes.com

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