Background: Hollywood & the ‘cult of youth’

Historical background and cultural circumstances

Although it can be said that Hollywood in large part is responsible for the “cult of youth” (Addison, 2006) that still dominates the industry today, it did not invent the anti-aging industry. The desire for youth and immortality are not new and can be traced as far back as the 5th Century BCE and the writings of Herodotus who told of a legendary spring or fountain that brought eternal youth to those who drank from it (Peck, 2009). In the early 1500s, explorers such as Ponce de León pursued the mythical Fountain of youth, while alchemists’ interest in creating gold was driven in large part by the belief that gold was an extremely powerful anti-aging element (Olshansky, Hayflick & Carnes, 2002). And aristocrats, such as the Hungarian Countess Elizabeth Bathory, searched for anti-aging remedies in the 17th Century, which included bathing in the blood of young virgins to try and halt the aging process (Bayer, 2005:13). But today, a technological fountain of youth sponsored by the anti-aging industry promises to restore a youthful image through scientific and medical knowledge.

Research into the history of Hollywood establishes that the “cultural imperialism of youth” (Laws, 1995) has its roots in the “cult of youth” that was manufactured in Hollywood in the early 1900s (Addision, 2006). Various scholars have argued that “Hollywood and the Industrial Age became close partners in the creation of a youth-oriented consumer culture” which took place in the early days of Hollywood in the 1910s-1920s and produced the “cult of youth” (Addison, 2006, p. 6) which led to the development of the anti-aging industry. Heather Addison (2006) traces the cult of youth to a number of factors, which include historical trends and specific circumstances that contributed to its formation and growth.

First of all, there were a number of historical trends in the 1910s and 1920s that facilitated its development. Prior to industrialization which had an emphasis on efficiency of production, experience was central to a rural economy. But with industrialization, experience was replaced by a need for strength, endurance and speed, central to a factory-based system that consequently favoured young adults, primarily young men. Industrialization, needing consumers for the vast amount of goods it was producing, turned to the advertising industry to promote its products. And to accommodate the growing need for consumers, ad agencies switched from a product-oriented approach to psychological strategies, targeting young adults who were perceived to be more pliable and receptive to the persuasive power of the advertisers’ mantra of “buy, buy, buy” (Addison, 2006:5). At the same time as the rise of industrialization, old age was medicalized through the social construction of age as a disease, and consequently was designated as a medical problem as defined by the medical establishment (Estes and Binney, 1989).

In addition to the historical context of industrialization and an emerging consumer culture, there were also a number of particular circumstances that drove the creation of the cult of youth. Hollywood became established in the 1910s-1920s as the “manufacturer of dreams” (Addison, 2006). Located on the West Coast far away from the East Coast and the culture of New York allowed Hollywood to develop its own particular culture, which the New York print media characterized as superficial – a town filled with young and beautiful, but lazy and ignorant individuals who were seeking an easy way to achieve fame and fortune, a claim that was perhaps not far from the truth. The creation of the first fan magazine, Motion Picture Story Magazine, in 1911 (Internet archive, 2021) set in motion an industry that focused on youth to foster consumer desire that still thrives today.

Finally, the camera and the cinematography it produced generated anxiety and publicity because of the way in which it had the ability to magnify any facial imperfections or signs of old age. Promoted by the fan magazines, the very young “Baby Stars” with their smooth, unblemished skin were therefore ideal for the camera and the early days of Hollywood. These young starlets fulfilled Hollywood’s image as a ‘dream factory.’ It was understood that the young stars, especially females, had to begin their careers in their teens (age 16 or 17), which was seen as the ideal age, but these young starlets had a very short career of only 5-7 years. The endless marketing opportunities offered through Hollywood’s dream factory were tapped into by the advertising industry. Popular magazines of the 1910s-1920s, and particularly Hollywood fan magazines, promoted youthfulness itself as an advantageous state that could ensure continued health, beauty and employment, while those who fit the negative model of aging (becoming old and frail) were at risk of being left behind by ‘modern’ society. Heather Addison argues that the popular fan magazines of the time may have been even more instrumental than Hollywood in creating the ‘cult of youth’ that generated societal values which reflected the “cultural imperialism of youth.” Ageism became the norm.

Ageism, gender bias and resistance in dominant cinema

Even though the statistics reveal the ongoing ageism within the Hollywood system, resistance has been growing over the past last fifteen years as individual actors and the media have more frequently been challenging ageism in the film industry. Currently, age 40 seems to be the cut-off age for female actors in leading roles. At that age they lose access to 75% of possible film roles for women, while on the other hand age 40 is only the midpoint of careers for male actors (Guo, 2016). The age discrepancy in Hollywood has long been a bitter reality for female actors. For example, in 2015, Maggie Gyllenhaal (at age 37) exposed the ongoing ageism she experienced by revealing that she was turned down for a romantic leading role because she was considered too old to play opposite the leading man who was 55 (Waxman, 2015). What she experienced however was quite common as 30 is the average age of a female in a romantic leading role in Hollywood films, while the age for leading men has a much wider variation – from early 20s to 60s. (Noreiga, et all, 2015). The male/female age discrimination in the film industry has also been addressed by other actors, such as Nicole Kidman, Geena Davis and Dame Judi Dench for many years. (See Overview of gender bias and age discrimination in Hollywood for more details)

In order to eliminate ageism in Hollywood and the additional age discrimination faced by women over 40, women also need to increase their power in the industry by gaining more access behind the camera – specifically in producing, directing and writing. Statistics from the 2020 Annenberg Inclusion Initiative Annual Report point to a lack of representation by women in these positions. “A total of 1,518 individuals worked above the line as directors, writers and producers across the 100 top-grossing films of 2019. Only 22.3% of all these top leadership positions were filled with women… Of the 2019 top grossing 100 films females accounted for only: 10.7% as directors; 19.4% as writers; 24.3% as producers; but 70.4% as editors” (Annenberg Inclusion Initiative, 2020). No statistics were provided for age.  (See STATISTICS: Gender and age statistics in Hollywood film in 2019 for more details)

Other institutions, such as the Institute on Gender in Media (GDIGM), have also examined Hollywood’s gendered ageism. In 2019,the GDIGM conducted a global study in partnership with TENA, analyzing the top 30 grossing films in 2019 from the US, UK, France and Germany in order to examine “representation of older adults, with a specific focus on women ages 50+ in entertainment media”(GDIGM, 2020). They produced a report of their findings which concluded among other things, that only 1 in 4 films passed the Ageless Test by having a non-stereotypical female character age 50+, but 0% of females age 50+ in these films had leading roles. The Ageless Test had two stipulations in order for the films to pass the test. Each film that was analyzed had to have: 1) “At least one female character who was 50+ who mattered and was tied into the plot in such a way that their removal would have significant effect”; and 2) The [female] character had to be presented in humanizing ways and not reduced to ageist stereotypes” (GDIGM, 2020). Other statistics revealed that: 46.8% of films had a stereotyped female character age 50+, while 28.2% had no female character age 50+ at all (GDIGM, 2020). (See STATISTICS: Report: Frail, frumpy and forgotten for more details)

The interconnection between Hollywood and the anti-aging industry

Unfortunately, the cult of youth still prevails as Hollywood’s most dominant discourse, endorsing a pervasive ageism with a strongly gendered bias both on and off screen. In addition to the superhero movies and youth-based dramas or romantic comedies, the theme of youthful immortality is a noticeable element in a number of films that include films in the vampire genre (i.e. the Twilight series [2008-2012]), and to a lesser degree, in certain sci-fi films, such as In Time (2011). During the promotion of this film about a dystopian future in which the poor die at 25 while the wealthy remain 25 forever as long as they have enough money to ‘buy time’ that will extend their lives indefinitely, 25-year-old actor Amanda Seyfried emphasized the importance of being young in Hollywood. The following statement reflects the internalization of the ideology of youth perpetuated in Hollywood that persuades actors to try and maintain a youthful image at all cost:

“Why can’t we all stay 25 forever? That’s exactly what we’re all trying to do in Hollywood, all of us. Some of us have gone under the knife to preserve our youth, some of us just think about it. Some of us are just scared of it. We look at ourselves and go: ‘how do I keep that wrinkle from forming? It can become an obsession’” (Shone, 2011).

There is also an emerging technological trend in Hollywood that may change the future of acting (and actors) and film entertainment itself. Currently, innovations in CGI (computer-generated images) VFX (virtual reality) have developed the very popular effect of de-aging, which is used to de-age actors either to a younger or older version of themselves in post-production, rather than generate the effect though costumes, make-up, camera techniques, or the use of another actor altogether. The first major use of this technology was in “X-Men: The Last Stand,” a superhero film that was released in 2006 (Welk, 2019). Since then, CGI VFX has been applied in a number of Hollywood films, often to create versions of an actor/character’s younger self in flashbacks sequences, but quite recently de-aging technology was applied to characters throughout an entire film in Scorsese’s The Irishman (2019), with some degree of success. Sensing the continuing direction in Hollywood on youth, an earlier version of the recent CGI de-aging trend was utilized by Marlon Brando (1924-2004) toward the end of his career. Having a rather visionary perspective on current film trends, Brando sought out assistance from special effects technicians who were experimenting with early versions of VRX in order to create an animated 3D version of his face for future film use after his death (Ranama, 2019).

In addition to applying CGI de-aging technology for cinematic narrative purposes, it is also used as a cosmetic tool, often referred to in Hollywood as “digital beauty” (Smith, J, 2019). Today, instead of enduring painful facelifts and constant Botox injections to maintain a youthful appearance, de-aging technology can achieve that same, if not better, effect for actors in post-production.  But this advancing technology also raises a number of concerns and ethical issues for actors, their audiences, and society in general. In an article written for the National Post in 2019, Justine Smith points out that: “Attaining perfection has never been so accessible, and a future Hollywood populated only by fresh-faced 25-year-olds seems like an especially strange dystopian possibility.” But what will that future hold for the older adult actor on and off screen? Will there even be a place for older adults at all in this world?

Today, youth remains the focus of Hollywood film with the objective of obscuring the reality of older age and aging. This is also easily achieved by the prevalence of plots and themes that are focused on youth (or to a lesser degree, middle age), which translates into the subsequent lack of older people in any kind of substantial film role. Secondly, casting older actors in auxiliary or supportive film roles that are often humourous, annoying or condescendingly poignant, rather than in non-stereotypical leading roles, continues to remove evidence of age and aging. Finally, having actors play characters 10-15+ years older than their actual age further obscures the reality of aging and old age.

With youth the focus of mainstream narrative films, older actors have found they have limited options for work as they do not fit into the plots that Hollywood has long produced. According to Chivers (2011): “Growing old means one thing in contemporary culture and looking old means another” (p. 8). As a result, with old age interpreted in this way, when Hollywood films depict old age they often utilize illness (frequently dementia), disability or impending death narratives to convey the “social burden of growing old” (Amir Cohen-Shalev, 2009 & 2012), with films such as Head Full of Honey (2018) and The Notebook (2004). However, a number of US, UK and Canada independent films also feature older leading characters in which dementia plays either a central or secondary role, including Still Alice (2014) – US; The Iron Lady (2011) and Iris (2001) – UK; and Still Mine (2012) and Away from Her (2007) – Canada)

As a result, because of the Hollywood perception that looking old means frailty and illness, which then translates into being old (an undesirable trait), actors working in Hollywood are allowed to grow old as long as they manage to disguise evidence of aging. Consequently, there are limited options available to them which vary by gender that include:

  • Trying to hide their age by cosmetic or surgical and non-surgical means (such as Botox, chemical peel, microderabrasion, and collagen injections) is a strategy primarily utilized by females (Gravagne, 2013). But even when actors have youth enhancing cosmetic surgery they often struggle to find any film work at all as they age, especially in romantic leading roles (discussed above). But while the pressure to look young is most strongly exerted on female actors who often resort to cosmetic surgery or Botox to preserve a more youthful image, different options are available for their male counterparts (Chivers, 2011).
  • If actors do not choose surgery, they can play roles that often are usually focused on aging, usually depicting old age as frailty and decline, and often utilizing illness, disability or impending death narratives with films such as Away from Her (2007) and Iris (2001) that have dementia as their theme (Chivers, 2011).
  • “Acting young” is an option that generally applies to males. Male actors often try to emulate youthfulness through action roles that emphasize their physical fitness and strength. For example, a number of older male actors from the 1980s have starred in action film sequels in which they did the majority of the action sequences themselves, reinforcing the “new American myth of super agers” (Rahnama, 2019) and replicating the model of ‘successful aging’ (Rowe & Kahn, 1997). These actors and their films include: Harrison Ford (age 64) in The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008); Sylvester Stallone, (age 73) in Rambo: Last Blood (2019); and Arnold Schwarzenegger (age 72) when he played the lead role in Terminator; Dark Fate. However, the catch to this is that male actors such as Ford (Indiana Jones) are willing to look “old” and reveal their actual age, as long as they appear to act “” (For more detail on Hollywood and aging, refer to: Statistics: Gender and age statistics in Hollywood film in 2019)
  • But “The most successful way to age is to appear not to age at all,” and to do this, actors must turn to the services and products of the anti-aging industry (Chivers, 2011).

By developing and nurturing the image of youth as the ideal both on and off screen, Hollywood has in turn fed the anti-aging industry that includes Botox, cosmeceuticals, and cosmetic surgery and the pharmaceutical industry), as well as the cult of the celebrity. And by positioning older characters in the background of film narratives – in supportive roles or cameo roles, old age slips into invisibility, further reinforcing ageism.

Breaking away from the 'cult of youth' narrative

There are of course exceptions to the ‘cult of youth’ narrative of Hollywood. Pamela Gravagne (2013) suggests that although ageism is represented and nurtured through contemporary popular film, it also has the potential to act as a platform of resistance which can transform societal attitudes as well as our own lived experience of age and aging. Although mainstream and even independent films most often feature older actors in starring roles that specifically deal with aging but often in the context mentioned above of dementia and frailty, even within Hollywood itself there are a limited number of films where the topic of age plays a central role and not as a narrative of decline. For example, in the past decade Hollywood has produced a small number of comedies and dramas, and even romantic dramas and/or comedies with an older cast that appeal to their older audiences. Films such as The Intern (2015) address the value that older workers and the experience they offer in the workplace; The Irishman (2019), with its CGI VFX technology, is a somewhat shallow reflection by a mob hitman about his life and connection with the Teamsters Union; The Book Club (2018) focuses on love and sexuality in the context of a book club of older women. But, as would be expected, the majority of even the more ‘positive’ of these films focus on leading male characters. And too, comedies are easily at risk of falling into ageism, with jokes that are at the expense of the older characters, even in animated films such as The Croods (2013) with stereotypical ageist ‘humour’ that falls on the grandmother of the clan. In addition, although exceptions exist for female actors (e.g. Sally Field was 65 in Lincoln, 2012; Meryl Steep [age 63 and Tommy Lee Jones [age 66] in the romantic comedy, Hope Springs, 2012), the few roles that do exist for female actors as they age usually demand that they play a character much older than their actual age. A typical example is illustrated by Mean Girls (2003) where Amy Poehler (age 32) plays the mother of a 16-year-old daughter, played by Rachael McAdams, whose real-life age at the time was 26.

There are also Canadian examples of independent films that depict a non-stereotypical version of older adults. The film Still Mine (2012) is a very good example. The plot is based on an 89-year-old man (played by 73-year-old James Cromwell) fighting with his municipal bureaucracy over building regulations as he tries to build a new home for himself and his wife (Geneviéve Bujold, who at age 70, plays a woman in her 80s). Although his wife has early-stage dementia, her illness is not at the centre of this film. Instead, the movie is a love story of two people in the last stage of their lives together, within a plot that illustrates the generational conflict between the older man and a young bureaucrat over the new building codes that don’t match the older man’s knowledge and experience.  However, once again because ‘younger’ actors are playing roles of characters 15+ years older than the actual age of the actor, an accurate portrayal of ‘old age’ is not represented on screen.

While dominant cinema still has had a tendency to favour fast-paced physical action over slower paced narratives, there are films outside of that formula that attempt to oppose stereotypes of old age which include: Clint Eastwood’s The Old Man and a Gun (2018) and Gran Torino (2009) (albeit both with a large number of action sequences); Quartet (2012); The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (2012); Hope Springs (2012); Something’s Gotta Give (2003); and About Schmidt (2002). The UK-production, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, presents a cast of older people whose retirement plans have been outsourced to India. In addition to The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, and Calendar Girls (2003), the UK has produced a number of other films with older actors that also defy the stereotypes of older age: The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (2015), (complete with Richard Gere as the ‘silver fox’); Quartet (2012); and Philomena (2013). These films come out of a tradition of “British heritage cinema” and at their core there is a respectful sensitivity towards older age that feature “a genteel aging protagonist” who represents a positive and intelligent vision of female old age (Dolan, 2020).

Additionally, films such as Something’s Gotta Give (2003), Hope Springs (2012), and The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (2012) depict the lives of older adults in a way that challenge social conventions by featuring older adults in intimate relationships, questioning the stereotypical belief that intimacy and sexuality are not part of the lives of older people. However, even though there are stories about aging and old age that are interesting and meaningful, such as Quartet (2012) and The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (2011), it should be pointed out that the majority of these films are either independent productions (not Hollywood) or come from countries other than the US. Finally, films that portray older adults in intimate and/or romantic relationships too often contain covert and overt sexism and ageism, if not outright misogyny, as well as the presence of class and white male entitlement. The above-mentioned About Schmidt and Something’s Gotta Give (where there is a 34-year age difference between Jack Nicholson (63) and Amanda Peet (29), who are engaged in a sexual relationship in the beginning of the film) are prime examples of this.

Hollywood has also continued its long tradition of producing ‘May to December’ romantic comedies and dramas, with age gaps of 20-30+ years the between the leading male actor and the female co-lead. As well as Something’s Gotta Give (2003), further examples are numerous and include: the James Bond franchise, where there has usually been a 10-20+year age gap between the various actors who played Bond and the ‘Bond’ girls; Crazy Heart (2009) a 27-year age gap between Jeff bridges (58) and Maggie Gyllenhaal (31); Magic in the Moonlight (2014) a 28-year age gap between Colin Firth (54) and Emma Stone (26); and Lost in Translation (2003), with its 35-year age gap between Scarlett Johannsen was 17 when she played opposite Bill Murray who was 52.

There are rare exceptions of films that have a reverse age gap, but unlike ‘May-December’ films with the older man/younger women relationship that pass unnoticed and are largely accepted by audiences in general, the reverse age gap films are thematically more complex and often immersed in controversy (i.e. Harold and Maude (1971) with a 52-year age gap between Ruth Gordon [Maude] who was 79 and Bud Cort [Harold] who was in his early 20s); and The Reader (2008) with a 20+ year age gap between Hana (Kate Winslet) whose character is in her mid 30s in and Michael (David Kross) whose character is 15. And too, older males/actors who are in relationships with younger women in romantic comedies or dramas are often portrayed as charming and desirable – ‘silver foxes’ – while there is no equivalent flattering term for an older female actor in a romantic/sexual relationship with a younger man. Instead, ‘cougar’ is the term commonly used, insinuating that the female character is either predatory, humourous and/or pathetic.

Despite those issues, it is still important to recognize the importance of the financial success of these films, as box office returns have a major influence on the types of films that are produced and screened in movie theatres. Profit making films are key in Hollywood. Although blockbuster superhero movies are still popular among young adults, (especially young men), and make large sums of money for the film industry, even prior to the arrival of COVID-19 younger audience attendance at movie theatres had decreased in the last decade, while the older audience of baby-boomers had increased (Dolan, 2020). However, with a few exceptions (such as the action movies and the Clint Eastwood’s films that have been mentioned previously) the marketing possibilities of the emerging ‘silver’ audience have generally been overlooked by Hollywood, revealing in another way the embedded ageist structure of dominant US cinema (Dolan, 2020). Nevertheless, aside from the profitability factor of ‘silver’ audience films for production and distribution companies, movies have the ability to resist the stereotypes of old age, even if the majority of these films are most often produced outside of the boundaries of Hollywood.

Hopefully independent film companies (and Hollywood) will build on their previous successes in the ‘silver’ film world and expand byproducing movies that include interesting and diverse older characters, and not only in films with a thematic focus of older age and aging, but films with a variety of themes and across genres. In order for ageist stereotypes to end, aging has to be realized as a normal part of life, and older adults have to be portrayed, not as ‘old’ people, but as people – individuals with varied interests, desires and capabilities, no different from people from any other generation. Drawing from the ideas and perceptions reflected in the ‘silver’ films of independent film productions, combined with resistance from individuals and institutions alike to the ageism that has been promoted through popular culture, dominant cinema could turn its lens to a representation of older age in more respectful and multidimensional ways in the future and help to eliminate ageism.