Powerful Performances by Older Women in Film

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Paul Weitz’s Grandma opened in theaters this week. Starring esteemed comedienne Lily Tomlin in her first leading role in 27 years, the actress plays a grandmother who just broke up with her long-term girlfriend and comes to the aid of her newly pregnant granddaughter.

Our own Jason Bailey writes: “[Weitz] writes a leading role for Tomlin that’s worthy of her considerable talents. She’s a hellraiser, fiercely protective and tough as nails, yet never reduced to merely that (and she doesn’t always win her battles, sometimes to great comic effect). Her dialogue is sharp and quotable without feeling ‘written’ (as it might coming out of the mouth of a lesser actor), because Tomlin so effortlessly projects bristling intelligence. It’s a wonderfully, wickedly funny performance.”

As Tomlin reminded audiences during her recent appearance at New York’s Film Society of Lincoln Center, roles for older actresses aren’t exactly plentiful: “I’m of an age where I might get an offer to do a supporting role or something, and even then it might not be a bona fide offer.”

While the statistics about roles for women over 40 are dismal at best, cinema has featured some unconventional, intelligent, and downright badass parts for world-wise women in film. Here are just a few.

Harold and Maude

It’s not every day that a septuagenarian steals trees to replant them in the forest (while evading police), lives in a railroad car, and attends funerals for fun. Ruth Gordon’s Maude believes in living life to the fullest each day. She takes baby-faced Harold (Bud Cort) under her wing, which opens his eyes to the true meaning of living. A love grows between them that would have been regarded as more heroic had Maude been a man, argues Aging Heroes: Growing Old in Popular Culture .

Red

“Red,” or “Retired and Extremely Dangerous,” takes on a unique resonance when it comes to Helen Mirren’s Victoria Winslow in the action series. The 70-year-old actress, who has been rather outspoken about the lack of support for older women in Hollywood, plays a heartbreaker and former agent who looks like she was born with a machine gun in her hands. “I guess the movie’s moral is, these old people are still tougher than the young ones,” Roger Ebert wrote in his review. “You want tough? I’ll show you tough. In one scene, Helen Mirren is gut-shot and a blood stain spreads on her white dress. In a closing scene not a day later, she’s perfectly chipper and has had time to send the dress out to the cleaners.”

Only God Forgives

Some mothers in nature eat their young — and Kristin Scott Thomas’ Crystal, the domineering and cruel matriarch of Ryan Gosling’s Julian in Nicolas Winding Refn’s Only God Forgives, is starved for flesh. She sacrifices her own child in an attempt to save herself and to avenge the death of her favorite (dead) son. The ice queen is cartoonishly callous, but played by another actress, we would have simply laughed it off. Instead, we fear and despise Crystal by the end of the film.

Amour

Sensitive toward its subjects, but never mawkish, and unflinching in its realism, Michael Haneke’s Amour features a powerful performance by Emmanuelle Riva in a late-life romantic drama that mirrors her appearance in early films such as 1959’s Hiroshima mon amour. “Some critics have understood her descent into gibberish as dementia, but a scene in which she furiously refuses to eat or drink suggests that there is a mind trapped within the body, one which knows refusal is the only form of control left to it,” writes Catherine Wheatley.

Death on the Nile

Maggie Smith and Bette Davis trade barb-tongued banter (while Davis’ klepto dowager swipes jewels from those around her) in John Guillermin’s adaptation of Agatha Christie’s novel of the same name. The roles are laugh-out-loud funny, not demeaning, and delight in each character’s eccentricities.

Another Woman

“In her desire for a controlled existence, she has evaded the emotional truth about relationships with her best friend, brother and husband,” wrote Time Out of Gena Rowlands role in Woody Allen’s 1988 drama — in which the star’s aging professor embarks on a journey of self-discovery. “The film shows a refinement and development of recurrent Allen themes, particularly in the characterisation of what is arguably his most complex female character to date.”

The Butler

The Village Voice’s Melissa Anderson spoke for many when she discussed the lack of strong film roles offered to Jane Fonda over the years, pointing out how the film Peace, Love & Misunderstanding did not serve her talents:

How much longer must we wait for a vehicle worthy of Fonda, whose past few roles are just shy of elder abuse? This is the lioness’s fourth film since re-emerging after a 16-year hiatus with Monster-in-Law (2005), in which she played a shrill grotesque who at least got to mix it up with Wanda Sykes. Fonda’s next vehicle, Garry Marshall’s abysmal Georgia Rule (2007), generated some interest whenever her strict grandmother (essentially the antithesis of PL&M’s Grace) squared off against the unraveling—both on- and off-camera—Lindsay Lohan. Although matched with the gifted Keener and Olsen, Fonda and her distaff co-stars are simply undone by PL&M’s baggy script and Beresford’s awkward transitions. But there’s hope: Lee Daniels has cast Fonda as Nancy Reagan in his upcoming biopic The Butler—which should allow her to cut loose in a project sure to bear the director’s floridly insane signature.

And Fonda’s performance in The Butler was praised, with Stephanie Zacharek calling the actress a “tiny powerhouse.”

The James Bond Films

Judi Dench’s M, head of the MI6 in the James Bond series, isn’t afraid to give Bond the business when it comes to his sexist overtures. She’s tough as nails and revered by her peers, but M is forced to fight for her position of control in Skyfall, where she offers a defiant recitation of Tennyson’s “Ulysses.”