The Case of the Missing Actresses

Meryl Streep in “Ricki and the Flash”
© 2015 – Sony Pictures Entertainment

Yesterday’s leading ladies have gone missing from the movies. Should we alert the media?

By Kimberly Gadette (doddleNEWS)

In the run-up to the latest Meryl Streep star vehicle, Ricki and the Flash (releasing August 7), the movie trailer is on display on screens everywhere. As is Ms. Streep. Co-starring her wrinkles. The bags under her eyes. Her crow’s feet, her laugh lines. It appears, quite literally, that the award-laden star of the American cinema is an unapologetic 66-year-old who likes her face just the way it is. When previously asked about plastic surgery, she has said, “I really understand the chagrin that accompanies aging, especially for a woman, but I think people look funny when they freeze their faces.”

But aside from Streep and every mature UK actress who’s ever been celebrated on either side of the pond (e.g., Julie Christie, Judi Dench, Helen Mirren, Vanessa Redgrave, Diana Rigg, Maggie Smith and Emma Thompson), other stars have vanished. Right under our sometimes surgically enhanced noses.

Maybe it’s time to call in Sherlock Holmes. After all, someone’s got to crack the case of the missing leading ladies, those Gone Girls who are fading as fast as the yellowing photos in our beloved, old-timey family albums. Where’s the widescreen presence of such award winning/nominated actresses as Joan Allen, Ellen Barkin, Glenn Close, Geena Davis, Hope Davis, Jane Fonda, Jodie Foster, Felicity Huffman, Holly Hunter, Jessica Lange, Frances McDormand, Mary-Louise Parker, Elizabeth Perkins, Elisabeth Shue, Sissy Spacek, Dianne Wiest and Mare Winningham? Where’s Debra Winger?

Speaking of which, Ms. Winger took a pre-emptive leap and in 1995, at the age of 40, announced that she was quitting the business altogether. Until HBO’s In Treatment … but more on that later.

Not only did Winger’s widely-publicized throwing in of the cinematic towel send ripples throughout the industry, it served as the inspiration for Rosanna Arquette’s 2002 documentary, Searching for Debra Winger. Widely dismissed by male-dominated Hollywood, the documentary was a compendium of interviews with 30 well-known actresses, all discussing how the movie business treats the maturing star. Per Julianna Margulies, “You ask anyone that has been in those [audition] meetings. They say, ‘Yeah that actress is great but would you f*** her?’ And they ask all the men in the room.”

In a recent interview in New York Magazine, Winger said: “Here’s my recipe: Live with fewer mirrors. It’s part of the reason for doing fewer movies, because you have to start every morning with two hours in front of a mirror … I am not saying it’s easy to age. There’s a small club of women who are willing to age.”

These days, women in film actively voice their dissatisfaction with the marginal female representation that continues to occur industry-wide. But we’d like to hope that the mindset has long evolved since 1962, when the fiftysomething, double Oscar winner Bette Davis, struggling to get a job, placed the following ad in Variety:

“Mother of three – 10, 11 & 15 – divorcee. American. Thirty years experience as an actress in motion pictures. Mobile still and more affable than rumor would have it. Wants steady employment in Hollywood. (Has had Broadway.) References upon request.”

Well, she did get work after all. Warner Bros. cast the 54-year-old Davis, as well as the 57-year-old Joan Crawford, and two crones were born in 1962’s What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? Even more disturbing than the fact that the studio moguls considered fiftysomething women to be beyond physical redemption, the movie birthed a horror film sub-genre that earned the names “Hag Horror,” “Hagsploitation” and “Psycho-biddy.”

At least the genre only lasted until the mid-70s.

But it seems that everything old is old again … and the dismissive treatment of the actress whose “sell-by” date has passed the 40-year mark is still as plain as the nose on her less-than-perfect face. It’s no wonder that the underlying fear of unemployment drives her to the nearest cosmetic surgeon. But it’s a gamble. Will she end up with a face too immobile for expression? Features too comical? Or, as in the instance of the now unrecognizable Renée Zellweger, will the doctor confuse a nip and tuck for a full-out redo, as if his patient were entering the witness protection program?

As Rosanna Arquette flatly states in her documentary, “Aging equals career death.”

Yet unlike faltering eyesight and thinning hair, all is not lost. It appears that the small screen, once the domain of the bubble-headed blonde, the big-breasted beach babe, and the hot ménage-a-cop has evolved. Characters such as Three’s Company‘s Chrissy, Baywatch‘s C.J. and Charlie’s Angels‘ angels have decided to share the airwaves with their far more talented older sisters.

And it’s in TV land that the actresses have found a virtual artists colony … on HBO, Showtime, FX, AMC, et al. Even the commercial networks are finally following suit. The screen may be a tad smaller, but the talent’s huge. It turns out that the women weren’t missing after all; not Mss. Allen, Barkin, Close, Davis, Fonda, Foster (directing), Huffman, Hunter, Lange, McDormand, Parker, Perkins, Shue, Spacek, Wiest nor Winningham. Not even Debra Winger.

Television has matured right along with the ladies. Happy ending. Case solved.

About Kimberly Gadette

Film critic Kimberly Gadette, born and raised in movie-centric L.A., believes celluloid may very well be a part of her DNA. Having received her BA and MFA from UCLA's School of Theater, Film & Television, she spent many of her formative years as an actress (film, tv, commercials, stage) before she literally changed perspective, finding a whole new POV from the other side of the camera. You can find her last 500+ reviews on Rotten Tomatoes ( Other than taking the occasional side trip to Cannes or Sundance, you can find her at the movies ... sitting in the dark as usual.


  1. Expecting the studios to change is like trying to build a house of cards in a hurricane. REAL change will come from grass roots – the independents. I’m still not convinced that TV is really committed and not just making a token attempt, and even then, it’s not Broadcast TV leading the way, it’s the cablers.

    I recently cast Katherine Justice in our web series, “The Nevermore Chronicles”. She was was very active from the 60’s to the 90’s and was then put out to pasture when work dried up for mature actresses. The part in my series was written for a much younger woman, but Katherine brought an amazing depth and professionalism and she was a joy to work with. It was a great decision and I’m going to be making more creative casting choices in the future.

    If we want to change the way it works, then every web series, every indie film, every venue where the creators have complete control, need to start a new way of casting and looking at talent.

  2. Susan Lehman says:

    As always, Ms. Gadette offers insightful and witty insight, but, several of the American actresses she mentions as missing, have obviously gone under plenty knife. There is so much “knife wielding” on the small screen that pulled and frozen is the new standard of age.

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