On Jessica Chastain, Russell Crowe, and Hollywood’s Female Problem


Jessica Chastain in The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby
Photo: The Weinstein Co.

Yesterday, news spread about an interview Russell Crowe gave weeks ago to The Australian Women’s Weekly, in which he told the magazine the idea there aren’t enough good roles for aging women in Hollywood is, ahem, “bullshit.” In essence, Crowe argues the blame for Hollywood’s female problem rests on the shoulders of the women speaking out about the lack of roles and not on those of the men making movies. Interesting…

“To be honest, I think you’ll find that the woman who is saying that (the roles have dried up) is the woman who at 40, 45, 48, still wants to play the ingénue, and can’t understand why she’s not being cast as the 21-year-old. … Meryl Streep will give you 10,000 examples and arguments as to why that’s bullshit, so will Helen Mirren, or whoever it happens to be. If you are willing to live in your own skin, you can work as an actor. If you are trying to pretend that you’re still the young buck when you’re my age, it just doesn’t work.”

We can talk more about those Meryl Streep and Helen Mirren comments in a second, but first I have to say it is always interesting asserting my opinions about ageism and sexism in Hollywood, as my views of the industry are largely shaped by the movies I see, not what goes on behind the scenes. Fortunately, however, Jessica Chastain came to my rescue, so I don’t have to do all the heavy lifting here, as she agrees with my assessment. Crowe’s comments gave the Oscar-nominated actress a good laugh — at Crowe, not with him — and while she didn’t use the word “bullshit”, she may as well have, as she tossed Crowe’s comments right back at him for being out of touch.

“I think Russell keeps getting his foot stuck in his mouth,” Chastain told Cosmopolitan at the 2014 National Board of Review Awards Gala. “There are some incredible actresses in their 50s and 60s that are not getting opportunities in films, and for someone to say there are plenty of roles for women that age … [that] is not someone who’s going to the movie theater.” Mic drop, anyone?

Now, Crowe chose to name-drop Meryl Streep and Helen Mirren and call it a day, but when Chastain says there are “incredible actresses in their 50s and 60s that are not getting opportunities in films”, I assume she is looking further than the Meryl Streeps and the Helen Mirrens of the acting world, as they seem to be doing fine as Hollywood’s go-tos in their age range. Streep and Mirren have their pick of roles, and you can probably throw Judi Dench into the mix there as well, but when you go to the theater, how many roles do you see filled by women over the age of 50, 60, or 70 that aren’t one of those three? My guess is not many, and if they are, it’s probably not a prominent role in the film.

There simply aren’t a lot of meaty roles for women who can no longer “play the ingénue”, as Crowe says aging women are wont to do. But that’s not even the entirety of the problem I have with his comments. I have another bone to pick, namely with his use of the term “ingénue.” An ingénue, in literature, theater, and film, is traditionally a young, wholesome, naive, and unsophisticated female. Now, perhaps the term has taken on a more generic meaning in recent years, or maybe Crowe just misused it, but if we look solely at the definition, is this the role actresses should be limited to playing? Where are the roles that allow women to play strong, learned, world-worn characters? Certainly some exist, I’m not saying there aren’t any of them, but I wouldn’t exactly call them prominent.

If he needs an evidence point, the last two years have shown us that as a male, whether teenage boy or elderly adult, you can play a person stranded on a raft in the middle of the ocean, a strong character who uses his resources and does his damnedest to survive the harsh conditions of the relentless sea. But if you are a woman, sure you can play a person stranded in space, but you are going to have the soothing voice of George Clooney, real or imagined, to help guide you to safety. As a woman you can be strong, but not too strong, and, oh one more thing, you have to look good in spandex and a tank top, too.

“If you are willing to live in your own skin, you can work as an actor,” Crowe says. “If you are trying to pretend that you’re still the young buck when you’re my age, it just doesn’t work,” he proclaims. Okay, yes, Russell Crowe has figured it out, he is getting older and he isn’t having problems finding work, and that’s great — for him. But this isn’t only the problem of the women in Hollywood, young or old, trying to find work; it is the problem of the people behind the cameras and desks who are getting movies made, people like, well, Russell Crowe. Hollywood, like so many other institutions, is run by men, and if the people with the power to affect change are simply going to shrug off the problem because they don’t see it day in and day out, it’s going to be a long time before we make progress.

After all, as Variety pointed out in late November, it seems an annual awards season ritual for film writers and Oscar bloggers to take a peek at the Oscar hopefuls in all the major categories, assess the likeliest candidates, and then conclude, “You know, that Best Actress field looks pretty weak this year. Best Actor, on the other hand, looks pretty strong!” Like instructions on a shampoo bottle, it’s just lather, rinse, repeat, but at what point will we stop repeating so we can start seeing some results?

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Weekend: Jun. 27, 2019, Jun. 30, 2019

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