A Country for Old Men and The Academy Awards: A Study In Age and Sex



Shortly after the Cannes Film Festival came to a close, I had a conversation with Joey via Facebook about the chances that Bruce Dern (Nebraska) might now be campaigned for Supporting Actor rather than Lead. At first I was a bit surprised by the rumor – having not yet seen the film, we could only go on the plot synopsis and the reaction out of Cannes. However, after a moment it made perfect sense. Supporting Actor is, after all, the category that has long been thought of as the one where old men go to get their career recognition. The idea of there being a category for old men made me curious. I mean, you hear about it all the time, but is there really that big of a discrepancy in ages between Supporting Actor and the other three acting fields? Is there a category where this occurs for women as well? And so curiosity led me down the rabbit hole that is the Academy archives, dating all the way back to 1927 when this whole madness began. In the process, I discovered something rather shocking that I wasn’t even looking for.

My mission was to see how much older the men who won Oscars for Best Supporting Actor were than the people who won for Lead Actor, Lead Actress, and Supporting Actress. To come to the best conclusion, I used the official Academy Awards database to establish the year the actor’s winning film came out, along with IMDB to determine the actor’s age at the time of the film’s release. Now, you might ask why didn’t I just look to see how old each actor was when they actually won the award? Well there have been 85 Academy Award ceremonies and they don’t fall on the same day every year (regardless how many of us consider it our Christmas Day). In that time there have been 326 acting Oscars handed out. It became too great a task to discover their actual age when winning, and the separation in age is all I’m really looking for here. So I just used the age of the actor in the year their film was released as a simpler means to an end, a method that brings us to the same conclusion anyway.

As I mentioned in the beginning, if you are a fan of Oscar then you are probably well aware of the fact that they love their men old and their women young.  But even if you are knowledgeable with Oscar history, I think the results will come off a bit shocking. At least they were for me, and I consider myself to be an Oscar geek. The stat guy.

Here is the breakdown on the average age each actor was during the year the film they won for was released:

Supporting Actor Lead Actor Supporting Actress Lead Actress
49.96 42.67 39.95 35.83

As you can see, there is more than a 10 year difference in age between the average Supporting Actor winners and Supporting Actress winners. That is really an enormous gap when you think about it. Now consider the 14-plus year difference between Supporting Actor winners and their Lead Actress companions. Astounding. So to quote Coach Dennis Green, they are who we thought they were. The old men rule the Supporting Actor category.

But then I realized that the second oldest field belonged to Lead Actor, with an almost seven year spread between them and their Lead Actress counterpart. So this got me thinking in reverse terms, wondering just how many of the awards in each category went to people under the age of 30.

This is where my eyes popped.

  Supporting Actor Lead Actor Supporting Lead Actress
<30 4 1 16 30
>60 20 7 9 8

The top row lists the amount of Oscar winners per category who were under 30 years old the year that their film was released, while the bottom shows the amount of winners aged greater than 60. And as you can see, the sexes are almost mirror images of each other. You can even stick an asterisk by the eight Lead Actress winners over 60, since three of them were Katharine Hepburn. The most alarming stat would obviously be the under 30 winners in the two Lead fields.

It would seem that Hollywood loves to reward men for their career, while rewarding women for being the next hot piece of ass. So who’s to blame for this apparent misogyny? Most people love to point the finger at AMPAS when it comes to the lack of racial diversity in their winners, so naturally the majority will probably look to the fact that the Academy is mostly made up of old, white males patting each other on the backs for their careers while smacking the next “It Girl” on their bottoms. But as a fan of Oscar, I tend to give them more of a pass than most when it comes to these issues. I may be naive to think this, but it seems like the problems the film industry has when it comes to the issue of creating better roles for women and minorities stems in the Hollywood system itself. I mean, how can AMPAS nominate or reward something that isn’t there? If Hollywood producers don’t make films that feature strong, mature female characters – other than the ones they cast Meryl Streep in – then how is AMPAS supposed to react?

Maybe you and I are to blame?  If the movie-going public only attends the Silver Linings Playbooks of the world while turning their backs to something like Amour, what type of movie do you think the studios are going to crank out? Now, I’m not suggesting boycotting young actresses in films, but I am pointing out that it all might stem from the box office. In the end, it is money that makes the world go ’round, isn’t it? So if people start seeing “better” films and demanding roles for older women, maybe the studios will greenlight more movies that feature female characters aged 40 and over, and then, quite possibly then, the Academy will be able to balance the scales of age between the sexes.

Maybe the change has already begun, as this Hollywood Reporter piece might suggest, though I think it’s pretty obvious that the Melissa McCarthy example is more an exception than the rule at this stage. However, it does look like 2013 could be the year of strong performances from women in their 40s and beyond. Some possible contenders for Oscar’s Lead Actress statuette this year include Naomi Watts (45 in the year of the film’s release) in Diana, Meryl Streep (64) in August: Osage County, Sandra Bullock (49) in Gravity, Cate Blanchett (44) in Blue Jasmine, Nicole Kidman (46) in Grace of Monaco, Emma Thompson (54) in Saving Mr. Banks, Julie Delpy (44) in Before Midnight, Robin Wright (47) in A Most Wanted Man, Laura Linney (49) in The Fifth Estate, Michelle Pfeifer (55) in The Family, and Annette Bening (55) in The Look of Love, to name more than a few. Perhaps these ladies represent more than just a trend and are representative of a more permanent shift.  Maybe the change has already begun after all. I hope so, at least. It’s more than about time.

In the meantime, we surely can’t ask AMPAS to nominate one actress over another because they are older, can we? Is it the responsibility of AMPAS to send a message to the studios while snubbing, perhaps, a more deserving winner just because they are younger? I don’t know. I don’t think so. But what else is going to change the current climate of Older Men/Younger Women that plays out like cheap porn in the Hollywood system?