This story first appeared in the June 14 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
They were looking to cast a man. It was summer 2011, and Jason Bateman and producer Scott Stuber were searching for a co-lead who could play the titular scam artist in their movie Identity Thief. Taking an evening off to attend the premiere of Bridesmaids, Bateman didn't expect to discover the solution to their problem. But then he witnessed Melissa McCarthy's a-comedy-star-is-born performance as a no-nonsense gal who barrels her way through wedding preparations. The next morning, Bateman called Stuber with a bold idea: Overhaul the script and tailor the role of the thief for McCarthy, then 40.
It proved a stroke of casting genius as moviegoers greeted McCarthy's appearance in the movie's first trailers with huge, welcoming laughter. Marketed largely on her raucous comic appeal, the Universal release has become the sixth-highest-grossing film of the year domestically, with a $134.5 million haul as of June 2, outperforming the Tom Cruise sci-fi outing Oblivion and dwarfing the Michael Bay-helmed Mark Wahlberg starrer Pain & Gain.
McCarthy's whirlwind success story suggests, just maybe, that Hollywood's youth-obsessed climate has begun to thaw, paving the way for what would have been impossible only a decade ago — a female film star born after age 40. McCarthy's box-office power will be further tested June 28 when Fox releases The Heat, a mismatched-buddy action comedy in which McCarthy, now 42, plays a Boston cop who teams up with an FBI agent, played by the 48-year-old Sandra Bullock, in pursuit of a drug lord. Expectations for a summer breakout hit are so high that Fox already is prepping a sequel for Bullock, McCarthy and director Paul Feig.
"We could have easily told the story with two 30-year-olds, but it didn't seem to have the resonance that I wanted it to have," says Feig, who also directed Bridesmaids. "The whole reason that Melissa McCarthy and Sandra Bullock are the stars of The Heat is they are the funniest, most awesome women who could play these roles."
Bullock and McCarthy are but two of the over-40 actresses whose careers aren't just thriving but dominating big castings in Hollywood. For decades, middle-aged actresses largely were relegated to the sidelines in studio films, fighting for supporting roles -- figuratively and literally -- as the hero's wife, mother or teacher (who can forget Sally Field's infamous casting, at age 47, as Tom Hanks' mother in 1994's Forrest Gump when he was 37). The longevity of a handful of exceptions such as Meryl Streep, Helen Mirren and Diane Keaton notwithstanding, most starring film roles went to actresses under 40.
Interestingly, many of those actresses who were hot a decade ago as thirtysomethings still sit atop the A-list as fortysomethings. Cameron Diaz of the Shrek franchise was 28 when she first was the voice of Princess Fiona. Now, at 40, she is regarded as the highest-paid actress among the over-40 set. While many actresses might not command the same upfront fees as their male counterparts, Diaz -- who received first-dollar gross on the 2011 comedy Bad Teacher instead of her occasional $15 million fee, despite Sony's reluctance to do such deals -- ended up scoring $42 million after the movie (which cost $20 million to make) grossed $216.2 million worldwide. Her deal for Sony's comedy Sex Tape, in which she and Jason Segel, 33, will play a married couple trying to recover a missing sex tape they made together, is said to be similarly structured.
Of course, Hollywood suddenly isn't socially enlightened. MPAA stats for 2012 cite that more than one-third of all tickets purchased domestically were by those age 40 or over. Furthermore, at 28 percent, baby boomers are the largest segment of the overall population. It also is a demographic that most likes to see movies in a theater -- having developed the habit long ago. "The audience is aging," says a studio chief. "It's no surprise that the stars are as well."
The numbers bear the facts out: Streep, now 63, enjoyed the biggest hit of her career when Mamma Mia!, the highest-grossing movie musical of all time, took in $609.8 million worldwide. Bullock's 2009 drama The Blind Side racked up $309.2 million, while Nancy Meyers' It's Complicated took in $219.1 million globally. Older actresses are front-and-center at awards shows as well: Naomi Watts, 44, was among the most recent crop of best actress Oscar nominees for The Impossible, a sizable indie hit that grossed $172.5 million worldwide. And among the supporting actress nominees, three were over 40: Helen Hunt, who didn't shy away from nude scenes in The Sessions at 49; Jacki Weaver, 66, from Silver Linings Playbook; and Field, 66, who fought to secure her role in Lincoln opposite Daniel Day-Lewis, who's 10 years younger than she. And in the foreign sales arena, age also has its perks, with one agent contending the top female sells abroad are Judi Dench, Nicole Kidman, Mirren and Streep.
"There's a change afoot," says Sean Bailey, head of production at Disney live-action films. "Part of that is attributable to changing audience trends. Women and a broader array of age groups are starting to matter more and more. A lot of these big movies are no longer solely dependent on young men showing up. When you take that in combination with the number of phenomenal actresses in this age range, it adds up to something exciting."
When it comes to salaries, the high-water mark for an actress -- of any age -- is the more than $20 million that Angelina Jolie, 38, commanded for 2010's Salt, in which she played a CIA agent. But that was a straight-up summer action thriller. Those types of movies, and their commensurate paychecks, usually go to men. Actresses, on those occasions when they do find themselves as the top name above the title, are more likely to be in dramas or romantic comedies, which aren't budgeted as lavishly. As a result, confides one exec, actresses' quotes tend to be "schizophrenic."
Still, top film actresses in their 40s now outearn their counterparts in their 30s, say several studio executives. "There are more exceptional [casting] choices in the over-40 range than there are in the 30s range," says Fox 2000 president Elizabeth Gabler. "The 30s range is kind of the tricky zone right now." She explains that talent sometimes comes in waves, and with only a few exceptions such as Rachel McAdams and Amy Adams, the next generation hasn't produced as many shining stars.
Industry sources peg Bullock as among the top tier of actresses over 40 when it comes to salaries. She earned $10 million for Heat. McCarthy, who earned $2.5 million for Heat, quickly has moved into the $3 million-to-$4 million range -- and could be about to jump sharply again. And Streep is said to get about $6 million a movie (though she just agreed to $1.5 million upfront to play the central role of the witch in Rob Marshall's adaptation of Stephen Sondheim's Broadway musical Into the Woods).
No doubt, Hollywood's dearth of new stars, male and female, after a decade of franchises and tentpoles has further empowered older actresses. Planned obsolescence used to be the norm, where fresh young faces eventually obliterate the existing reigning class. But the new premium on concept over casting has upended a nearly 100-year-old star system. The March 2013 Performer Q Study, which measures both how well-known and how well-liked a celebrity is, found Bullock statistically tied with Hanks, 56, for the film star top spot among U.S. survey respondents over 18. "Her movie roles have been so diverse, from comedies to serious, that she's tracking younger and older, male and female. She cuts across the spectrum," says Henry Schafer, exec vp at The Q Scores Co. In fact, the list's top names reveal how decades-long relationships with the public, cultivated in an age when images could be built over years and not through the Internet alone, matter. Bullock, Julia Roberts, 45, and Streep are the three film actresses with the highest Q scores, with Bullock scoring 89 percent in recognition and a 41 Q score. By contrast, though their scores are higher among younger respondents, among all adults over 18, newly minted Oscar winners Anne Hathaway and Jennifer Lawrence rate Q scores of 20 and 15, respectively, while Twilight's Kristen Stewart checks in at just 10. "Unlike Bullock, Roberts and Streep, Lawrence and Stewart have a younger appeal," says Schafer. "Anne Hathaway is the exception [among young actresses]. She has good crossover appeal with all ages."
Even so, the industry still reacts with surprise whenever a female star demonstrates box-office clout. On March 15, The Call, an otherwise routine thriller, opened as that weekend's top new wide release thanks to the presence of Halle Berry, 46. The TriStar film bowed to $17.1 million, trouncing the heavily promoted Steve Carell-Jim Carrey comedy The Incredible Burt Wonderstone (in which Carell, 50, was paired romantically with Olivia Wilde, 29). Female moviegoers made up 56 percent of Call's audience, and 48 percent of the overall audience cited Berry as the reason for turning out.
Making sure older female moviegoers -- in Hollywood's marketing lingo, "older" means those over 25 -- have someone to root for in a movie even can factor into the casting of tentpoles looking to attract all four quadrants. And so, Gwyneth Paltrow, 40, became a key marketing hook for this year's top-performing film to date, Iron Man 3. (It's worth noting that when Marvel and director Jon Favreau were assembling the first Iron Man, they sought McAdams, then 29, for the role of Pepper Potts, which Paltrow eventually made her own.) "Ever since I've turned 40, I feel younger than ever and more energetic," announced Paltrow at the Iron Man 3 premiere in Hollywood. "I'm ready. I'm ready for action now."
There's even talk that Penelope Cruz is being eyed to play a Bond girl in the superspy's next outing, and if it does happen, that would make Cruz, who will turn 40 before production begins, the oldest Bond girl to date (excepting, of course, Judi Dench's M).
Outside of the economics at play here, other factors seem to be at work in the embrace of the over-40 actress. For starters, TV paved the way: Kyra Sedgwick, 47, was one of the first to inaugurate what would become a trend when she stepped into TNT's The Closer in 2005. Soon the basic cable landscape seemed to become the province of smart, take-charge women, with Glenn Close, 66, appearing first on FX's The Shield and then FX's Damages, and Holly Hunter, 55, starring on TNT's Saving Grace. "In TV, it's better now than it ever has been. Great, wonderful cable shows and even network shows are being built around female leads," says Leslie Siebert, senior managing partner at the Gersh Agency. "But even TV now has become so competitive because of people like Robin Wright or Laura Linney. The women who are going after these roles, it's crazy. But at least the product is there."
And there also is no ignoring the simple fact that older women just look better these days. It might be the wonder of dermatology, colorists and trainers, but women over 40 no longer are expected to look matronly -- rather, it's presumed that they'll go toe-to-toe on the red carpet with their younger peers. At 67, Mirren -- caught sunning in a bikini in a paparazzi shot that went viral in 2011 -- might be an extreme example. But she's hardly alone. Julianne Moore, 52, moonlights as a model, appearing in ads for Bulgari and Revlon. "There's a real sexiness, appeal and allure to these women because they are seasoned professionals, and they know exactly how to look and how to walk on a red carpet," says New York premiere guru Andrew Saffir, citing Sarah Jessica Parker, Sofia Vergara, Paltrow, Susan Sarandon, Jane Fonda and Moore among his favorites. "A red-carpet photo of Sarah Jessica Parker is prized. Nicole Kidman never disappoints on the red carpet: statuesque, beyond chic, takes fashion chances, and she is confident. And it's actually confidence that a lot of these women have in common, and it's that confidence that truly radiates."
Fox 2000's Gabler traces the current wave of films featuring actresses over 40 to the 2006 comedy The Devil Wears Prada, starring Streep, who was 57 when the movie was released. Hathaway, then 23, might have played the movie's new girl in the big city, but it was Streep, as fearsome magazine editor Miranda Priestly, who got the lion's share of the credit when the $35 million movie collected $326.6 million worldwide.
"I think Prada was one of the benchmarks of the trend because it was this iconic role with this brilliant actress in Streep that was hugely successful," says Gabler. "To see her in a role that was identifiable to both men and women was key to opening people's eyes that this works. I think it started this surge of terrific performances from actresses over 40 that we're seeing now. It's not just a young person's market anymore."
In 2011, DreamWorks' The Help further underscored the appeal of female-driven ensemble movies as the modestly budgeted $25 million drama pulled in $211.6 million worldwide. Although it featured relative newcomers such as Emma Stone and Jessica Chastain, it also leaned heavily on the appeal of such veteran performers as Allison Janney, 53, Viola Davis, 47, and, most especially, Octavia Spencer, 43, who would go on to win the best supporting actress Oscar.
"These types of dramas were out for a while, and now they seem to be back in," contends DreamWorks president of production Holly Bario. "And they tend to offer juicy parts for women over 40."
Older actresses also are beginning to make inroads by capturing roles that just as easily could have gone to a man. McCarthy's casting in Identity Thief wasn't some comic fluke: According to one top dealmaker, another high-profile comedy role originally written for a man is being recrafted for McCarthy. And when DreamWorks brass was looking to fill the critical role of a crusading State Department staffer for its upcoming WikiLeaks project The Fifth Estate, they looked no further than 49-year-old Linney, who in the past decade has moved deftly between Oscar-bait films including The Savages and Kinsey and star vehicles on cable TV like Showtime's The Big C and HBO's John Adams.
"We needed someone with some real gravitas who you would take seriously in the part," says Bario. "You need someone with real credibility. Ten years ago, the role would have simply been cast as a man. But we wanted to work with her."
But while more opportunities are there, navigating a successful film career is tricky -- for actresses of any age.
Serving as something of a doorkeeper for many of the hottest actresses in the over-40 demo is CAA's Kevin Huvane. He has cornered the market with a roster that includes Bullock, McCarthy, Streep, Davis, Berry, Jennifer Aniston, Kidman, Jennifer Lopez, Moore, Wright, Renee Zellweger, Parker, Close and Annette Bening. However, rival agents snicker at the downside of Huvane's stacked list. "When a hot script comes in, is Aniston the sixth person to see it?" asks a rival agent. While CAA insists many of those on Huvane's list have happily been with him for years, Huvane declined comment.
To maintain a career -- and to ensure its momentum -- actresses, and their teams, actively have to be involved in nurturing it: taking on a variety of roles, looking to image-enhancing jobs in indie films and TV. To some observers, for example, Aniston has been in one too many romantic comedies. "She's played the damsel in distress too often, and so hasn't really shown her range," says one.
Instead, better to mix it up. Consider Vera Farmiga, who turns 40 this summer: She recently landed the female lead in Warner Bros.' The Judge opposite Robert Downey Jr. -- like Paltrow, she'll be playing an age-appropriate love interest for the 48-year-old Downey.
"We still see scripts where it says the male lead is 38, but we know he's going to be played by a guy who's 45, and the female lead is written as 28, 29," notes Farmiga's manager, Jon Rubinstein. "But things are changing. It's not like they're putting Demi Lovato opposite Downey."
Farmiga's career arc mirrors that of many of her contemporaries whose stock remains in demand even when they no longer can play the ingenue. She hasn't just sat around waiting to be invited to the party. Instead, after earning a best supporting actress Oscar nomination for 2009's Up in the Air, in which she more than held her own as a tough-as-nails road warrior opposite George Clooney, the actress chose to use the moment to direct the drama Higher Ground, which Sony Pictures Classics released in 2011. Similarly, in-demand stars from Jolie (In the Land of Blood and Honey) to Drew Barrymore (Whip It) temporarily have put their lucrative acting careers on hold in their mid-30s to direct feature films.
Farmiga then made the once-taboo decision to dabble in TV at the height of her big-screen career, taking a starring role on A&E's Bates Motel as Norma Bates, domineering mother to psycho-in-training Norman Bates. The move has paid off -- the unstable Norma has been a real showcase, allowing the actress to whipsaw between flirtatiousness one moment and murderous rage the next -- and the series has been picked up for a second season.
"I advise any actor to take control of your career," says Feig. "Start doing stand-up. Start writing roles for yourself. When you're sitting around waiting for the town to have an epiphany, you're going to sit forever. Look for the parts, chase the parts, but at the same time, seize control."
Kristen Wiig did just that when she co-wrote and starred in Feig's Bridesmaids. She finds herself among the town's most in-demand despite being on the precipice of 40 (she turns 40 this summer). "She's definitely someone who can get a movie made on her name alone," notes Gabler.
Cable TV continues to be a mainstay for actresses looking to challenge any preconceptions about them. "People who weren't getting great movie roles went where the great roles were," says HBO programming president Michael Lombardo of the move to TV. "The journey from TV back to movies became a much more fluid, accepted and easy journey for women of a certain age than the traditional 35-year-old female movie star."
He credits Elizabeth I, the 2005 HBO miniseries starring Mirren as the fabled queen, for reigniting that actress' career because it "helped audiences rediscover this incredibly vital, sexy, powerful woman over 40. It helped her build a successful and exciting career as a woman over 40."
Mirren's counterparts taking advantage of the HBO route include Cate Blanchett, 44, who is developing the memoir Cancer Vixen at HBO about cartoonist Marisa Acocella Marchetto's battle with breast cancer; and Kidman, 45, who starred in HBO's Hemingway & Gellhorn and is developing the best-seller Reconstructing Amelia.
And streaming services like Netflix also promise to be welcoming. Wright, 47, has earned some of the best reviews of the year for the Netflix series House of Cards, playing a modern-day Lady Macbeth to Kevin Spacey's scheming congressman. That move, which at one time might have looked risky, has done nothing to hurt her big-screen opportunities. She stars in a pair of upcoming films: the Anton Corbijn-helmed thriller A Most Wanted Man opposite McAdams and Philip Seymour Hoffman, and the sexy drama Adore with Watts. And she's even grappled with the plight of aging actresses in Ari Folman's animated The Congress, which just debuted at the Cannes Film Festival.
"Cable television has become the savior for women over 40," says Feig. "That's where all these strong, interesting female roles are happening now -- Weeds, The Big C. It used to be if you're on a TV show, you're dead in movies. Now a great TV show is the road to becoming a movie star."
Laura Dern, 46, has become the envy of many over-40 actresses with her self-developed starring vehicle Enlightened on HBO, which ran for two seasons before being canceled. Lucy Liu, 44, who launched her career on the Fox series Ally McBeal, made the move back to the small screen, first with the police drama Southland and now with the CBS hit Elementary. Salma Hayek, 46, has been producing (Ugly Betty), directing (The Maldonado Miracle) and acting (30 Rock) on TV for years. Other fortysomething film stars making inroads in TV include Paltrow (with guest spots on Glee and The New Normal) and Helena Bonham Carter, 47, who will play Elizabeth Taylor in an upcoming BBC movie about Taylor's relationship with Richard Burton.
And Roberts, who between 1990's Pretty Woman and 2000's Erin Brockovich reigned as the top female film star of the '90s, is just taking on her first major TV role. The 45-year-old actress will play a wheelchair-bound physician who is one of the first to recognize the developing AIDS crisis in HBO's The Normal Heart, an adaptation of Larry Kramer's autobiographical play. (Ellen Barkin won a Tony for her performance in the same role when the 1985 play arrived on Broadway two years ago.) Not that Roberts can be accused of slumming. The blue-chip production, which HBO hopes to air in May, is being directed by Ryan Murphy (who helmed Roberts' 2010 feature Eat Pray Love), and Brad Pitt's Plan B is producing.
Still, not every actress is enamored with the medium. When Berry made the switch from ICM to CAA, Huvane began putting her up for TV projects. But Berry balked, deeming it beneath her. Still, scoffs one industryite, "Please, Halle Berry reinvented her career after winning an Emmy for Introducing Dorothy Dandridge."
Bullock and Watts also won't do TV. And though Rachel Weisz starred in the British TV movie Page Eight, she has yet to take the plunge into U.S. television. "If you can make several million dollars for four weeks of work on a studio film versus less money for 10 months on a TV show, why would you do TV?" asks a rep of one of the most in-demand female stars of the 40-to-49 set.
But not all the news is encouraging. A recent USC study tracked characters appearing in the 500 top-grossing films from 2007 to 2012 and found that the percentage of females between the ages of 40 and 64 has not changed meaningfully over time. The majority of all female characters onscreen in the 100 most popular films in 2012 were between ages 21 and 39. And, among characters in the 40- to 64-year-old range, males outnumbered female characters by nearly 4-to-1.
And for all the evidence that suggests that, cast in the right vehicle, older actresses can triumph, it's not clear that everyone in Hollywood has received the message -- particularly at those studios where male execs dominate.
Bullock, for example, didn't immediately percolate to the top of Warners' wish list when it was casting Alfonso Cuaron's upcoming space thriller Gravity -- despite her status as one of the studio's most dependable earners with such hits over the course of her career as Miss Congeniality, Two Weeks Notice and Blind Side. First, Marion Cotillard tested for the lead. Later, Scarlett Johansson and Blake Lively were in the running. Eventually, Natalie Portman was offered the part without a screen test. It was only after Portman passed that Warners finally approached Bullock.
Her co-star Clooney? He's 52.