When a 35-year-old actress is the mother of a 25-year-old: How Hollywood pushes out older women

The decision to cast Emmy Rossum as Tom Holland’s mom in ‘The Crowded Room,’ even though the actor is just 10 years her junior, has reopened debate about sexism in the film industry

Sally Field and Tom Hanks (left) in a scene from 'Punch Line' and Tom Holland with Emmy Rossum.
Sally Field and Tom Hanks (left) in a scene from 'Punch Line' and Tom Holland with Emmy Rossum.Cordon / Getty / Pepa Ortiz (Collage)

“I Iike Emmy Rossum, but why cast a 35-year-old woman to play the mother of a 25-year-old? Why not cast an older actress?” That’s just one of the messages that have been circulating on social media after it was revealed that Rossum would play the mother of Tom Holland, who is just 10 years her junior, in the new Apple TV+ show The Crowded Room. Although Carina Adly Mackenzie, the screenwriter and producer of the show, explained that Rossum’s character would mostly appear in flashbacks, when Holland’s character is a child, the news has reopened the debate about Hollywood’s sexist typecasting of older women. In 2015, a study in Time magazine revealed that while actors reach the peak of their career at age 46, actresses reach this point at age 30.

Sociocultural anthropologist Úrsula Borrega, who is a specialist in gender equality policies, points out that actresses are cast as mothers, despite the impossible age differences, but have fewer career opportunities once they are mothers themselves in real life. “Except for figures with a certain status, such as Helen Mirren or Glenn Close, many actresses are not allowed to be seen aging in movies. The beauty canon that has been imposed on us means that we always have to be beautiful, slim and young. It’s a bane on women’s lives and it’s perfectly reflected in cinema,” she tells EL PAÍS.

This same sexist vision also applies when it comes to onscreen couples. For example, Tom Cruise has only ever had one romantic interest over the age of 35: Cameron Diaz in Knight and Day, who was 38 when the film was released, while Cruise was 48. The Hollywood star is now 59 years old and is set to appear later this year in Top Gun: Maverick. But his romantic interest from the 1986 original movie, Kelly McGillis, 64, said no one contacted her about reprising the role. “Men even gain something with age, they have more authority and confidence. Women, however, are only left with scary roles, such as the grandmother, witches or mothers-in-law,” says Borrego, who adds that the sexual life of older women is also largely taboo in the film industry.

In the selection below, we have looked at how this sexist vision persists in Hollywood, be it with actresses who go from love interests to mothers (sometimes with the very same actor playing the son/boyfriend), to women who are cast as the attractive older lady when they are just a few years older than their male counterparts.

Tom Hanks and Sally Field in the 1988 comedy 'Punchline.'
Tom Hanks and Sally Field in the 1988 comedy 'Punchline.'IFA Film (United Archives / Cordon Press)

Sally Field and Tom Hanks in Forrest Gump: age difference of 10 years

Sally Field was Tom Hanks’s love interest in Punchline in 1989, but just five years later, she was cast as his mother in Forrest Gump. At the time, she was 47 years old, just 10 years older than Hank. As with the case of Emmy Rossum and Tom Holland, the decision was justified on the basis that she mostly appeared in scenes in which Hanks’s character was still a child. When both actors do appear on screen together, Field is suitably aged to look like an older woman.

Anne Bancroft and Katherine Ross in The Graduate: age difference of eight years

In the 1967 movie The Graduate, Dustin Hoffman plays a character who is seduced by an older woman played by actress Anne Bancroft. But Bancroft is only six years older than Hoffman. What’s more, actress Katherine Ross was cast to play Bancroft’s daughter, even though she was only eight years her junior.

Angelina Jolie and Colin Farrell in 'Alexander.'
Angelina Jolie and Colin Farrell in 'Alexander.'

Angelina Jolie and Colin Farrell in Alexander: age difference of one year

One of the most controversial casting decisions of 21st-century cinema was made by director Oliver Stone, who chose a 29-year-old Angelina Jolie to play the mother of Colin Farrell, then 28, in the movie Alexander. “The common belief that one dog year is equal to seven human years could just as easily be applied to female actors as Alsatians. It must be down to the Californian water, but something seems to happen to the women in LA so that they speed through the years at a far swifter rate than that of their male contemporaries,” journalist Hadley Freeman wrote in The Guardian about what she called a “bizarre casting decision.”

Glenn Close and Mel Gibson in Hamlet: age difference of nine years

In the 1990 movie Hamlet, Mel Gibson plays the starring role, while Glenn Close, just nine years his senior, is cast as his mother, Gertrude. Hamlet’s potential wife, Ophelia, meanwhile, is played by Helena Bonham Carter, who is 10 years younger than Gibson.

The Australian actor was embroiled in a similar controversy with his film The Passion of the Christ, which stars Maia Morgenstern as the Virgin Mary, even though she is just six years older than Jim Caviezel, who was cast as Jesus. Incidentally, Gibson’s current partner, Rosalind Ross, is 34 years younger than him.

Christine Baranski, Judy Craymer, Cher, Jessica Keenan Wynn, Alexa Davies, Meryl Streep, Amanda Seyfried and Lily James at the premiere of 'Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again'
Christine Baranski, Judy Craymer, Cher, Jessica Keenan Wynn, Alexa Davies, Meryl Streep, Amanda Seyfried and Lily James at the premiere of 'Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again'

Cher and Meryl Streep in Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again: age difference of four years

In Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again, singer and actress Cher is cast as the mother of Meryl Streep, who is just four years younger than her. Cher, 79, however, has been able to overcome the typecasting of older women. In the 1987 film Moonstruck, for example, she played the love interest of Nicolas Cage, who is 17 years her junior.

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