While the idea that movies generally tend to pair older leading men with younger actresses is hardly headline news, every once in a while something comes along to highlight the ludicrousness of the logic behind the habit. It seems that Maggie Gyllenhaal recently experienced such a moment, as the 37 year-old Oscar-nominated actress was told she was too old to play the love interest of a 55 year-old man.
In an interview with The Wrap, Maggie Gyllenhaal candidly discusses an experience that could be considered a shining example of the often-insane logic of Hollywood. It seems that one role in particular in a film project she declined to identify would slip through her fingers, due to a rather bizarre reason relating to her age. According to Gyllenhaal:
I’m 37 and I was told recently I was too old to play the lover of a man who was 55. It was astonishing to me. It made me feel bad, and then it made me feel angry, and then it made me laugh.
This is clearly a story that’s packed with powder keg implications. By any conventional standard, the notion that a 37 year-old woman was somehow "too old" for a 55 year-old man seems to further the narrative that seems to be currently gaining much momentum regarding rampant sexism in Hollywood. It suggests that a woman can only bring a particular kind of appeal related to her fleeting youth and innocence and that her shelf-life as an actor is significantly shorter than that of a man. While Hollywood bigwigs rarely provide insight into their methodology, the results do speak for themselves on a large scale.
This was recently highlighted in a study conducted by San Diego State University that examined the demographic disparity between men to women as the age of featured actors advanced in films released in 2014. One notable statistic revealed that the number of identifiable female "speaking characters" in films takes a dramatic dip from actresses in their 30’s (30%) to ones in their 40’s (17%); a phenomenon that Gyllenhaal’s discussed dilemma seems to appropriately highlight. In fact, that same study concluded that the same 30’s to 40’s statistic for male actors actually saw a bump from 27% to 28% as they crossed that age threshold. While the reason why so many Hollywood projects take shape in quite this way is worthy of separate studies, it does seem clear that female actors are seeing their options narrow significantly more, despite being still relatively young.
The incident that Gyllenhaal describes is unquestionably absurd and understandably insulting. However, not knowing the nature of the film in question or the identity of the mysterious 55 year-old leading man, it probably wouldn’t be responsible to come to a definitive conclusion on what occurred with this particular casting process. For all we know, the idea of the older leading man's character being the kind of person who seeks the company of a significantly younger women might have been an integral concept to the film's plot.
Regardless of the reasons why Gyllenhaal’s would-be film project found itself falling into patterns that validate ageism and sexism in Hollywood, it seems to find itself there nonetheless. It also does nothing to disprove the notion recently brought up by an array of actresses like Carey Mulligan, Kristen Stewart and Meryl Streep regarding the disappointing number of poignant roles for women in Hollywood. Thus, it will be interesting to see if more details emerge on Gyllenhaal’s unrealized film project to possibly shed some light on the incident.