Oscar: Ageism and Oscar Nominations

Is the Oscar Award a young actor’s game How old are the Oscar players when they are first nominated Do older Actors have a chance

Not many Best Actresses are older than forty at their first nomination. Joan Crawford (Mildred Pierce) was the only actress of this age category in the 1940s, and in the 1950s, there were only two, Shirley Booth (Come Back, Little Sheba) and Anna Magnani (The Rose Tattoo).

Jessica Tandy, who at eighty-one became the oldest actress to be nominated for (and win) Best Actress (for “Driving Miss Daisy”), is the exception.

Actresses rightly complain that once they reach the age of forty they either have to switch to supporting roles or to retire because of the dearth of scripts with middle-aged heroines as the central roles. Leading ladies in American films are typically young and attractive. Sadly, chances are rather slim to get Oscar recognition if actresses don’t receive a nomination by the age of thirty.

The position of middle-aged actresses in the film industry began to change in the 1970s. Slowly reflecting these changes, over the past two decades the Academy has cited more middleaged actresses than ever before. Gena Rowlands (A Woman Under the Influence, Gloria), Ellen Burstyn (Same Time Next Year, Resurrection), Mary Tyler Moore (Ordinary People), and Sissy Spacek (In the Bedroom) were all mature actresses playing mature women.

Another encouraging development is the nomination of elderly actresses for lead roles, such as Katharine Hepburn (On Golden Pond), Geraldine Page (The Trip to Bountiful), Jessica Tandy (Driving Miss Daisy), and Ellen Burstyn (Requiem for a Dream). In the past, elderly actresses were mostly nominated in the supporting categories.

Nominating older players has also characterized the male categories over the last two decades. In the 1950s, only two supporting actors (Eric von Stroheim in Sunset Boulevard and Sessue Hayakawa in The Bridge on the River Kwai) were in their sixties.

But since the 1970s, a substantial cohort belongs to this age group, including John Mills (Ryan’s Daughter), Lee Strasberg (The Godfather, Part II), Burgess Meredith (Rocky), Robert Preston (Victor/Victoria), Denholm Elliott (A Room With a View), and Armin Mueller-Stahl (Shine).

Hollywood has finally caught up with the growing awareness of ageism in American society. Though not enough, more screenplays and more movies about elderly protagonists are being produced. The Academy has expressed its concern for elderly players with a larger number of nominations.

Richard Fransworth

Richard Farnsworth’s career shows that it is possible to get a Best Actor nomination at an old age. More than half a century ago, Farnsworth swore off speaking roles after his first crack in a Roy Rogers Western. The director wanted the then stuntman to say a few lines, but every time Farnsworth tried, he broke out in giggles. Eventually, the director gave up, and Farnsworth promised himself, never again. Decades later, Farnsworth was persuaded to give acting another shot by Alan J. Pakula in the Western, “Comes a Horseman,” for which he was rewarded with a 1978 supporting nod.

In the twilight of a career, which began with playing a Mongol horseman in 1938’s The Adventures of Marco Polo, Farnsworth found himself nominated for a powerful performance in David Lynch’s “The Straight Story,” as the real-life, stubborn Alvin Straight, who insisted on driving a lawnmower hundreds of miles to visit his ailing brother. “I’m pretty limited in a lot of ways,” Farnsworth told Entertainment Weekly. “But if I feel the character, it’s damn easy to do.” In truth, it hurt to connect with Straight: Bum hips were killing the actor during the driving scenes, and then there was the agony of recounting Straight’s World War II memories–a vet himself, Farnsworth won’t talk about his war experience.

Oldest Nominees in Acting Categories

Best Actor

Richard Farnsworth (The Straight Story) 78
George Arliss (Disraeli) 63
Art Carney (Harry and Tonto) 57

Supporting Actor

George Burns (The Sunshine Boys) 80
Don Ameche (Cocoon) 77

Best Actress

Dame May Robson (Lady for a Night) 76
Ida Kaminska (The Shop on Main Street) 68

Supporting Actress

Gloria Stuart (Titanic) 87
Jessica Tandy (Fried Green Tomatoes) 82
Eva Le Galienne (Resurrection) 80
Dame Edith Evans (Tom Jones) 76
Lauren Bacall (The Mirror Has Two Faces) 72.

In the supporting categories, it is possible to receive a nomination at any age. The supporting nominees’ age has ranged from eight (Justin Henry) to eighty (George Burns) among the men, and from ten (Quinn Cummings) to eighty’seven (Gloria Stuart) among the women.

In each category, however, one age group is dominant. The lead leagues are more rigid concerning age: Most Best Actresses were in their late twenties, and most Best Actors in their late thirties, at their first nomination. A decade difference is significant in performers’ careers, buit it may reflect the double standards in American society regarding ageism and gender.