"When I first went into the movies Lionel Barrymore played my grandfather. Later he played my father, and finally he played my husband. If he had lived I'm sure I would have played his mother. That's the way it is in Hollywood. The men get younger and the women get older." - Lillian Gish
Ageism in Hollywood: Changing the Story One Story at a Time
In 2009, I found myself in Ellen Burstyn's quiet backyard in Nayak, New York having a sometimes deep but always enthusiastic discussion of how she would play the great French Actress Sarah Bernhard in "Beloved Monster", the screenplay I was writing for her. Would she use a French accent? (Probably not). Would she recreate Sarah's distinctive way of speaking? Absolutely. Most importantly: How "young" a version of Sarah could she get away with playing before a younger actor would have to play the step in and play the part? The answer to this would dictate the story I would tell, which wound up being the story of an aging actress struggling to remain relevant in a world that was changing under her feet and before her eyes.
Privately, though, friends and colleagues pulled me aside and asked me why I was working so hard and so long on something which would never get made. I spent an entire month in Paris, combing through archives and visiting the Cinémathèque Française. A the time, I didn't worry too much; I thought: If it's good, it'll find daylight. But that wasn't to be. Whether it was good or not I'll never know because the project never moved forward (not with me, anyway) and so I began work on something else: "The Lullaby League". The themes were similar to "Beloved Monster" and because I'm a glutton for punishment, it was once more about older women, but this would be a comedy. Because, well, you have to laugh.
I wrote the pilot rather quickly and Michael Lindsay-Hogg quickly came on board to direct; I organized a stage reading of the script at the Strasberg Theater in LA with a wonderful cast. From a writer's point of view, its was a huge success. The audience laughed when they were supposed to, cried when they were meant to and there was flattering, hopeful feedback at the end. Except for the feedback from the Money Men, one of whom pulled me aside and actually said, out loud: "Yeah, it's very good, David, but I have to be honest: No one wants to watch a story about a bunch of old people. Especially a bunch of old ladies." And so there I had it, in all its gory glory – a story about a group of actors relegated to the periphery of the business and the town because of their age was actually relegated to the periphery of the business and the town because of the protagonists' age.
"The Lullaby League" is about a group of older actresses whose lives are upended when a young, fame-obsessed reality star sensation is forced to perform community service in the home shared by our women. Clash of generations, Old Hollywood Meets New Hollywood, common ground and blah, blah, blah. "Blah, blah, blah," because in the end it didn't really matter; the rampant sexism and ageism was everywhere, a wall, a fume, a wall of fumes. Whatever it was, it was an obstacle.
Even after I wrote "Tinsel's Town", half prequel, half Trojan horse for "The Lullaby League", there was pushback. Tinsel Townsend, the world-famous reality star from "The Lullaby League" is the titular character in "Tinsel's Town", a young woman more concerned with fame than talent. The clock was rewound here to explore who she was before she was (in)famous. The answer: A Youtuber. A young one, too. But even the "young" part didn't make too big a difference because it was overshadowed by the "woman" part. The feedback I got on this was: "There are already enough shows with women". Luckily for me there was a wall nearby and so I just started banging my head against it. Because here's the thing: I started loving TV as a kid because of women. Mary Tyler Moore and Lucille Ball and Bea Arthur and Valerie Harper. They made me laugh, they made me interested, they made me sit in front of the TV every night. I grew up watching shows that actually bragged about their female-centric nature, either because the show was named after those women or because their gender was actually called out in the title: "Designing Women, The Golden Girls, Murphy Brown and blah, blah, blah because it no longer seems to matter.
Sarah Bernhardt, almost 100 years ago likened older women actors to bottles of champagne: used up and then discarded. And the statistics cited in the panel and provided here on the site point to the exact same spot on the map...we haven't moved much since Sarah or Murphy or Mary or Rhoda. Stories about women are in short supply and that's a fact. Stories about older people are even scarcer, another sad fact. And that's why I produced the panel. Because those facts are a darn shame. We – whether we are gay, straight, male or female, black, white or Asian – need to see ourselves reflected in our culture. Otherwise, we don't exist. Otherwise, we are invisible.
What's the answer: Writing. I think Gena Davis' work with gender bias can be translated here into our work with age bias. Simply, populate stories with people of all ages. Just as Gena questioned whether a crowd scene had to be predominantly men, we can also ask "does this scene or this character have to be under 30?" Change starts somewhere. And because I'm a writer, it must start with the writing. It must start with me, one story at a time.