In A Film Industry Focused On Youth, Older Characters Are Tough To Find | KERA News

In A Film Industry Focused On Youth, Older Characters Are Tough To Find

Feb 21, 2017
Originally published on February 21, 2017 8:09 pm

When the Academy Award nominations were announced in 2015 — and again in 2016 — there was swift backlash against the Academy for the lack of racial diversity among the nominees. Now, a new study of Best Picture nominees has revealed yet another demographic that's been chronically underrepresented in Hollywood — older people.

In the 25 films nominated for Best Picture Oscars over the past three years, less than 12 percent of the characters were people over the age of 60. Of those, very few were women or minorities. This is according to a new study by Stacy Smith, who directs the Media, Diversity and Social Change initiative at the University of Southern California.

Smith had previously looked at the age of characters in popular films, and was curious to see if critically acclaimed, Best Picture nominees might have a different proportion of older characters.

Turns out, they don't.

Even when there are older characters, Smith found they rarely drive the plot. In the 25 best picture nominees she examined, she found only two examples of an actor over 60 who was essential to the story. Both of those characters were played by Michael Keaton. (He played the title role in Birdman in 2014 and a Boston Globe editor in Spotlight in 2015.)

Arguably, there was a third character over 60 integral to the plot in one of 2017's Best Picture nominees — Jeff Bridges played a Texas ranger in pursuit of bank robbers in Hell or High Water. Then again, he had to put up with dialogue like this from his deputy: "You wanna hear about these bank robberies or just sit there at let Alzheimer's run its course?"

"For those films that had leading or supporting characters that were 60 or above, over 40 percent had ageist comments within them," Smith says.

Concern over portraying older people as infirm or feeble-minded isn't just about protecting hurt feelings. Studies show that embracing negative stereotypes about age can lead to poor health and even a shorter lifespan. This is why Humana, the health insurance giant, funded Smith's study. Dr. Yogi Hernandez Suarez, chief medical officer for a division of Humana, says that movies can reinforce negative stereotypes.

"If I don't see myself in the movies, what does that say about me?" Suarez asks. "Am I not a valued person? Should I be preparing for a future, or will I just sort of disappear at a certain time?"

The AARP has actually been looking at this issue since 2001. Movies made that year were the first to be recognized with the organization's Movies for Grownups Awards, which honor films and actors portraying characters 50 and older.

Bill Newcott, who founded the program, says he's seen some progress — when the awards began back in 2001, just seven of the top 100 box office movies featured a character 50 or older in a central role. In 2016 that number had jumped to 26. Why's that?

"111 million people in the U.S. are over 50," Newcott says. "They buy 25 percent of movie tickets and that number's rising."

So if we see an increase in older characters on the big screen in coming years, it'll likely be because Hollywood does what it's always done — focus on the bottom line.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

The Academy Awards have been criticized for a lack of diversity. Last year, it was the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite. This year's nominees include more people of color. A new study shows, though, that the academy has a long way to go when it comes to honoring films with older actors. NPR's Ina Jaffe, who covers aging, has this report.

INA JAFFE, BYLINE: Maybe there should be a new hashtag - #OscarsSoYoung. In the 25 films nominated for Best Picture Oscars over the past three years, less than 12 percent of the characters were people 60 or older, and very few of those were women or minorities. This is according to a new study by Stacy Smith who directs the Media Diversity and Social Change Initiative at the University of Southern California. She said she examined just Best Picture nominees because she wanted to see...

STACY SMITH: Whether critically acclaimed movies might portray groups a little bit differently from the popular film sample that we looked at in the past.

JAFFE: And the answer is, no, they don't. Even when there are older characters, Smith found they rarely drive the plot. In fact, she found only two examples of an actor over 60 who was essential to the story, and they were both played by this guy.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "BIRDMAN'")

MICHAEL KEATON: (As Riggan, squawking).

JAFFE: That's Michael Keaton in "Birdman," which won best picture in 2015. The next year, he played a Boston Globe editor in the Best Picture winner "Spotlight," the story of the investigation that broke the priest sex abuse scandal.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "SPOTLIGHT")

KEATON: (As Robby) Hey, I want to expand the investigation.

LIEV SCHREIBER: (As Marty) Why?

KEATON: (As Robby) We've got a fourth priest.

JAFFE: Arguably, there was a third character over 60 integral to the plot in one of this year's Best Picture nominees. That was Jeff Bridges as the Texas Ranger in pursuit of bank robbers in "Hell Or High Water." Then again, he had to put up with comments like this one from his deputy.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "HELL OR HIGH WATER")

JACKAMOE BUZZELL: (As the Deputy) Do you want to hear about bank robberies, or you'll just sit there and let Alzheimer's run its course?

JEFF BRIDGES: (As Marcus) Where are they at?

JAFFE: It seems that having older characters often means having dialogue that insults them, says Smith.

SMITH: For those films that had leading or supporting characters that were 60 or above, over 40 percent had ageist comments within them.

JAFFE: Comments that portrayed older people as infirm or feeble-minded. Studies show that embracing negative stereotypes about age can lead to poor health and even a shorter lifespan. This is why Humana, the health insurance giant, funded Smith's study. Dr. Yogi Hernandez Suarez is the chief medical officer for a division of Humana, and she says that movies can reinforce negative stereotypes.

YOGI HERNANDEZ SUAREZ: So if I don't see myself in the movies, what does that say about me? Am I not a valued person? Should I be preparing for a future, or will I just sort of disappear at a certain time?

JAFFE: The AARP has actually been looking at this issue since 2001. Movies made that year were the first to be recognized with the organization's Movies for Grownups Awards. Those honor films and actors portraying characters 50 and over. Bill Newcott founded the program.

BILL NEWCOTT: This last year, 2016, of the top 100 box office movies, 26 of them featured characters who were 50 and over in central roles. When we started these awards in 2001, seven movies did.

JAFFE: So things are getting better, says Newcott, but not because filmmakers have been shamed into including older people.

NEWCOTT: One-hundred-eleven million people in the U.S. are over 50. They buy 25 percent of movie tickets, and that number is rising.

JAFFE: So if we see more older characters on the big screen in coming years, it'll likely be because Hollywood does what it's always done - focus on the bottom line. Ina Jaffe, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE APPLES IN STEREO SONG, "PINE AWAY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.