The Sandra Bullock Phenomenon: Why Hollywood is Finally Giving Older Women Sexy Roles

"Forty is the new dead." So proclaimed film critic A.O. Scott in a recent New York Times piece on the dumbing-down of cinema, which he blamed in part on a lack of middle-aged stars with fan bases large enough to convince studios to fund movies made with grown-ups in mind.

Don't tell that to Sandra Bullock, who at age 45 is currently enjoying the biggest hit of her career with The Proposal, the first of three Bullock pictures to hit theaters this year (All About Steve comes out September 4, followed by The Blind Side in November). Bullock’s first romantic comedy in seven years (she told iVillage in 2006 that she wanted to "go in a different direction"), The Proposal just passed Sex and the City to become the sixth highest grossing romantic comedy in three decades. Its success is all the more remarkable when you consider that Bullock, at an age when many actresses have historically already transitioned into matron roles, plays a romantic lead opposite an actor a dozen years her junior. And its not an attempt to cash in on the "cougar" trend -- the film references Bullock’s character’s age in just one joke, and never turns it into a major issue.

Bullock is not the only actress for whom middle-age has not only not brought a death sentence, but a new lease on professional life. "Forty isn't dead, just overlooked by most of Hollywood," says Molly Haskell, film critic and author of "From Reverence to Rape: The Treatment of Women in the Movies." Haskell points out that television is currently full of female actresses hitting the peak of their careers in their 40s -- look at Holly Hunter in "Saving Grace" (which was only recently canceled), Edie Falco in "Nurse Jackie", Kyra Sedgwick in "The Closer" and Jane Adams in "Hung." Meryl Streep is another notable example of an actress who seems to be getting more popular with age. Julie and Julia is her third hit summer comedy in three consecutive years, after The Devil Wears Prada and Mamma Mia. In two of those films Streep, who just turned 60, played women with vibrant romantic lives.

But Streep's mid-life career swerve may in part have been possible because the actress was never, as Haskell puts it, “a glamorous or pin-up type of star to begin with.” Haskell says it’s a harder road for women to age in Hollywood when they “have to do battle with our image of a gorgeous younger self.” Many female stars become physically unrecognizable to fans as they mature, either thanks to the natural effects of aging or because of surgical procedures designed to mask it. At that point, fans may start to lose interest.

One reason why Sandra Bullock is increasingly successful at a time when the bulk of popular culture is aimed at adolescent males, is that as she’s aged her image and persona have remained consistent from film to film. "She’s beautiful in a way that's 'real' and 'natural,' nerdy and tough all at the same time,"Haskell says. "She plays damsels in distress who often save themselves." Sandra Bullock sends a message to "normal" women that they can triumph in work and in relationships without compromising who they are or relying on help from a man, or anyone else. Kyra Sedgwick is similar to Streep in that her earlier career wasn’t based on sex appeal, but in her post-40 TV stardom she seems to be taking a page from the Sandra Bullock playbook. "Sedgwick's police chief has some of the same qualities as Sandra Bullock, that combination of social awkwardness and professional toughness," Haskell notes.

Still, one reason why these projects fronted by 40-something females may be doing so well is because Hollywood keeps the audience starving for them. "'Women's films' don't have sex appeal in the My-opener-is-bigger-than-yours male calculus of Hollywood," Haskell laments. "There are a lot of people who want to go to grown-up movies featuring attractive, womanly females, [who] come out when given a reason." Here’s hoping we'll see a few more reasons soon enough.

 

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