Until 45 I can play a woman in love. After 55 I can play grandmothers. But between those ten years, it is difficult for an actress. / Ingrid Bergman
It is the conceit of Hollywood, and cinema in general, that age does not factor for the male actor on screen (someone like 74 year old Harrison Ford is still considered leading man material), whereas the female actor falls into the trap as legend Ingrid Bergman describes. It is a double standard and grossly unfair. The ratio between leading roles for men and for women over a certain age is so lopsided that we find ourselves celebrating ecstatically for the few female actors that manage to score important complex roles in major films these days. Then you run those numbers across ethnicity and it becomes even more lopsided, but that is a whole other discussion altogether.
Mature women on screen seem to be a rarity, but when given that time, so remarkably memorable. There are several examples, which will be displayed here, which argue for more actors of experience that can open all new avenues of stories and experiences. Speaking as a male, I refuse to believe I am the only one that wants more than just a Barbie doll representation of womanhood in cinema. There is a beauty that goes beyond surface aesthetic and a strength beyond superhero fighting skills. Where are these women that take risks with themselves and with their material? These are roles that go beyond a wife, a mother, a lover, a mistress, to an idea which transcends these boring mass audience boundaries and gives us real flawed human beings.
The first actor that comes to mind is Isabelle Huppert. French born and with over one hundred films to her credit, Huppert lately continues to surprise and stretch herself in cinema. Most recently, her performance in director Paul Verhoeven’s “Elle” is as complex and daring as anything out there. “Things To Come” was another tour de force that demonstrated Huppert’s range and skill. These roles are not women hanging on the arms of some male hero. These are flesh and blood characters engaging in a wide spectrum of emotions and able to act out, sometimes violently, their inner demons. Huppert is unique in projecting a distant light, but quickly cuts herself to the bone exposing that raw beating heart. There is no other female actor quite like her.
The career of Catherine Deneuve spans a lifetime of risk and glorious successes in cinema. French born as well (do you detect a pattern here?), Deneuve has memorably gone against the glamour of her looks with roles which metaphorically take apart what it is to be a woman. Look no further than Roman Polanski”s “Repulsion”, Luis Bunuel’s “Belle de Jour”, Andre Techine’s “In The Name Of My Daughter”, Francois Truffaut’s “The Last Metro”, and one of my recent favorites as the returning matriarch in Arnaud Desplechin’s “A Christmas Tale”. Deneuve exudes an icy coldness, but with a fierce intelligence unmatched with her male co-stars.
We now arrive at the last example and my personal favorite who continues to bring such intelligence and unsurpassed openness in her performances, Juliette Binoche. Once again, French born (okay, so there is clearly a pattern here) and has more than sixty films to her credit internationally. You may recall her face in Anthony Minghella’s “The English Patient” or more memorably as the sweet photojournalist in Philip Kaufman’s “The Unbearable Lightness Of Being”. Both Hollywood productions which splashed her name to American audiences. Binoche brings such humanity with the inner beauty which is sometimes not illustrated within women, which is in part why she continues to fascinate and amaze me as a favorite of mine. Her career is filled with intriguing performances such as Olivier Assayas’ “The Clouds Of Sils Maria” and “Summertime”, Michael Haneke’s “Code Unknown” and “Cache”, Bruno Dumont’s “Camille, Claudel 1915”, among others.
Two crowning achievements for me materialize in the form of Krzysztof Kieslowski’s “Blue” and Abbas Kiarostami’s “Certified Copy”. The grief stricken Julie is a monumental performance in “Blue” that exemplifies everything possible in a three dimensional character. Binoche also brings such insight and intelligence to “Certified Copy” as Elle in a shape shifting examination of relationships. It is both exciting and fun to see her tackle such a broad range in Kiarostami’s off-kilter synthesis of the beginning and end and beginning of a lasting relationship. Binoche is both fetching and raw in this role. Both films are endlessly watchable because of her richly detailed performances.
These are but three examples that readily come to my mind. There are, of course, many others I could have listed (Tilda Swinton may merit her own piece of my writing) that include actors such as Annette Bening, Natascha McElhone, Emma Thompson, and of course Meryl Streep. Many others could be listed as well. All have their strengths and their weaknesses.
I am not really being fair by only detailing the three French actors that stand out in my mind, but fairness is not the point. I wish to gain more support for women tackling larger roles in current cinema. There is simply a large gap in this area and is inexcusable. We all can learn so much from characters in which women can bring different perspectives and thoughts. Cinema itself could use it so much more and I believe audiences would respond in kind. Complexity and nuance are just the tip of the iceberg for what accomplished female actors can bring (such as the ones I illustrated here). There is so much more to mine from these actors in stories that matter.
It is time to shift the paradigm.