A New Film Explores the Hollywood Horror Story for Women Over 40
The movie star Gena Rowlands once said, “The thing about acting is you don’t want to let on how enjoyable it is, or then everybody would want to become an actress.”
Rowland’s daughter, the film director Zoe Cassavetes, might disagree. At the Sunday-night world premiere of her second feature, Day Out of Days, the 44-year-old filmmaker joked that she’d considered titling the cautionary tale Don’t Be an Actress. After watching the dark drama about an aging Hollywood starlet attempting to survive in an industry that overwhelmingly values unrealistic ideals of youth and beauty, it’s easy to see where Cassavetes gets her cynicism. In Day Out of Days, she depicts the movie industry at its most horrendously superficial: a place where the women who manage to find success in their 20s and 30s will inevitably lose it all—replaced by younger, more attractive ingenues—by the time they’re 40.
“You can’t make up these stories,” Cassavetes, in a black blazer and square-rimmed glasses, told a packed theater at the L.A. Film Festival. “They all come from some seed of reality.” Having grown up in the film industry—her father was John Cassavetes, who directed Rowlands in 1970s classics like A Woman Under the Influence, and both her siblings are also directors—Cassavetes has lots of experience to draw from. (Her first acting gig came in 1971, when she appeared as a baby in her parents’ film Minnie and Moskowitz.)
Rowlands, now 84, has enjoyed an extraordinarily prolific and enduring acting career—including more recent roles in son Nick Cassavetes’ The Notebook in 2004 and Zoe’s Broken English three years later—but her longevity is not the norm for women in Hollywood. “I mean, who represents 40-something-year-old women?” Cassavetes says, speaking by phone with an admittedly scratchy voice the morning after her film premiere. “There need to be stories for everyone.”
Research shows that female characters are consistently younger than their male counterparts, and film history provides a lengthy list of examples, from 44-year-old Woody Allen paired with a teenage Mariel Hemingway in Manhattan to just about any modern-day Scarlett Johansson or Jennifer Lawrence movie. Just 30 percent of female roles were written for characters age 40 and older, whereas the rate of male roles for characters over the age of 40 was nearly double, according to a San Diego State University study of the top 100 grossing films in 2014. Similarly, the percentage of male characters in movies increased between the ages of 30 and 40, while it had the opposite effect for female characters within that same age range.
Day Out of Days follows 40-year-old Mia Roarke (played by Alexia Landeau, who cowrote the script with Cassavetes), once an A-list celebrity with a picture-perfect marriage to Hollywood royalty. But just 10 years later, Roarke is divorced and alone, running out of money, and faced with perpetual harassment from smarmy directors who won’t even cast her in stereotypically bad TV sitcom roles.
One of the movie’s most poignant scenes takes place in a restaurant bathroom, where Roarke runs into the woman who played her mother in her major breakout film a decade earlier. The older actor, with bleached hair and a low-cut top, barely remembers Roarke. She’s moved on and accepted her fate, auditioning for less-than-stellar, sexed-up roles. Laurene Landon, the actor who plays her, is no stranger to the industry. She built a career playing blonde bombshells—including characters named simply “Blondie” or “Yellow Hair”—in 1980s comedies like Airplane II: The Sequel.
“Sadly, producers, writers, and directors who create content don’t seem to find women over 40 appealing, attractive, or interesting. We are essentially fossils,” Landon, now 58, said via email. “It’s as though the door that was once wide open slowly closes and eventually slams shut. At this point—I kick the damn door open.”
The narrative of the washed-up, aging starlet is nearly as old as film history itself. Former silent film star Gloria Swanson practically pioneered the archetypal tragic character in Billy Wilder’s 1950 classic Sunset Boulevard, in which she played Norma Desmond, a long-forgotten, suicidal movie star preparing to make a big comeback. More than a decade later, in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, Bette Davis portrayed the title character, an elderly, fame-obsessed former child star who still competes to one-up her sister long after their movie careers have ended.
In Day Out of Days, Roarke is portrayed as seemingly more mentally stable and far less grotesque than Norma Desmond or Baby Jane, who come off at times as villains rather than victims. But Cassavetes’ film carries a modern urgency and a heightened layer of self-awareness that seems to comment directly on today’s celebrity fixation. “It’s this whole social media world and this disconnection from the [real] world and looking at celebrities and [comparing ourselves],” Cassavetes says. “At the same time I think it’s alienating us from what certain truths are.”
The movie comes as issues of age and gender bias in the industry have been brought to the forefront by actors from Meryl Streep and Jane Fonda to Jessica Chastain and Maggie Gyllenhaal—who recently said she was turned down for a role because producers thought she was too old to play opposite a love interest eight years her senior.
Still, Cassavetes says most of the hubbub over allegations of ageism and sexism in the industry is just that: gossip. “There’s so much talk about how women don’t get hired or whatever, and believe me, I’m one of them. It’s just chitter-chatter, and there’s nothing really being done so much about it,” she says. While Cassavetes downplays the suggestion that her film has a feminist slant, she’s perhaps doing more to advance the cause by virtue of hiring a predominantly female crew, including producers Gina Kwon and Kate Roughan and director of photography Denise Milford.
Last month, the ACLU urged state and federal agencies to investigate potentially discriminatory hiring practices against women directors, but it remains to be seen whether those agencies will spring into action. “It’s not about men or women. It’s about who’s got the quality work,” Cassavetes says. “I don’t know why women [in the industry] are suddenly being treated like weird aliens or something,” she jokes. “It’s all cool, dude.”
Ultimately, Cassavetes says, Day Out of Days is about much more than the problems facing women in Hollywood. She acknowledges that the film uses celebrity culture as a metaphor for society’s fixation on perfection and superficial beauty, but she says the underlying, universal message is about not letting your career define your happiness.
“For me it was interesting because of course it was about the struggle and about age, but being also this age myself, it was like, what was it?” she told audiences at the premiere. “You have all these expectations about life in your 20s—I’m going to be a star and have a mansion and be married to a movie star—and by the time you’re 40, you have to step back.”
Maybe Day Out of Days won’t stop women from becoming actors, as Cassavetes had joked—but that’s, of course, not the point. She says, “You have to pull back and reassess and see what the second half of your life will be.”