Is It More Significant That This Year’s Best Actresses Are the Oldest Ever or the Highest Grossing…

By  · Published on January 19th, 2014

Is It More Significant That This Year’s Best Actresses Are the Oldest Ever or the Highest Grossing in Years?

Following the announcement of any year’s Oscar nominations, the search for records and other interesting trivia among the contenders is expected. One of this year’s most notable findings has to be that the 86th Academy Awards has broken the record for average age among the best actress nominees: 55. That’s not just interesting, it’s possibly even important. For all that’s said about Hollywood favoring young women and how actresses’ careers are done by the time they reach 40, this could be used as further evidence that older ladies are not unwelcome on the big screen.

But is it really relevant to the businesspeople in Hollywood that the leading actresses of prestige pictures are veering older, their average this year being even higher than the best actor contenders (47)? The true measure for whether last year’s movies prove that not older women but women in general deserve more respect in the film industry is instead with the box office. And, well, the grosses of the nominated movies is pretty notable in this case, too. Thanks mostly to Gravity, the average domestic take for the movies nominated in the best actress category is $90M compared to that of the best actor nominees’ $34M. Nearly three times as much.

Call it a fluke if you like that the highest-grossing major nominee title is not only led by a female character but an over-40 (soon to be 50) actress/character and one who is pretty much the only person on screen for most of the movie. It’s true that Sandra Bullock is not the draw for Gravity – that would be the premise, the effects, maybe even Alfonso Cuaron’s name for a lot of people – but the issue has never been that actresses can’t sell big movies so much as they can’t even carry them. Clearly that’s not true.

But it is worth pointing out that of the other nominees, Cate Blanchett was hardly the primary reason to see Blue Jasmine (at least not until the buzz on her performance spread), for which filmmaker Woody Allen would be the draw, and Amy Adams is part of an ensemble in American Hustle, the appeal of which is that whole (now SAG Award-winning) cast. August: Osage County is also an ensemble, albeit one where Meryl Streep’s presence is the biggest draw, while Philomena is particularly sold on it being another fine performance from Dame Judi Dench, which box office-wise isn’t that huge of a factor.

What happens if Dench ever goes away? Or if Streep retires? Both were also nominated in 2006, which was the last record holder for highest average age of the best actress contenders, so they’re key to the curve. Maybe things will balance out as fellow consistent women like Adams, Jennifer Lawrence (who has a couple decades), Kate Winslet and a few others eventually take their place. These are actresses, by the way, who’ve seen their share of blockbuster leading roles. Winslet’s was long ago, while Adams and Lawrence starred in two of the top three live-action movies of 2013, respectively Man of Steel and The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (interestingly, Blanchett, too, is in one of the top 10 grossers – The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug – albeit too briefly to make it count).

Lawrence, who is again nominated for an Oscar this year, was actually the main star of the top movie of the year in the U.S. (third in the world). That still doesn’t seem to be getting through to people that women can lead and carry tentpoles. And she probably needs Academy recognition for one of her blockbuster performances to make her stand out like, say, Johnny Depp, who earned a nomination for a Pirates of the Caribbean movie, and Robert Downey Jr., who’d at least received Oscar buzz for his first Iron Man.

Her status as one of the best actresses right now does add some prestige to a franchise like The Hunger Games (less so to X-Men, in which she’s not the main lead) even if audiences aren’t thinking of the Oscars when they go to see those movies. She’s just evidently a better performer than her YA adaptation peers, A similar case is there for Dench’s part in the James Bond series, especially in the Daniel Craig era, when her role as M grew, especially by Skyfall, to basically become its true leading lady.

After Lawrence, Adams and Bullock, the highest-grossing leading actress of 2013 is probably Melissa McCarthy – another recent Oscar nominee, of course. Again, audiences who flocked to The Heat (also starring Bullock) and Identity Theft weren’t out to watch someone with Academy recognition. But her appeal and talent go hand in hand with why she was nominated for Bridesmaids, in a way that isn’t necessarily true for a lot of male comedy stars. I won’t be surprised when she catches another Oscar worthy role in the future.

What it comes down to is, whether young or old, the women with Oscar caliber talent these days are also capable of being moneymaking movie stars unlike we’ve seen in a while. This year’s nominees’ box office average of $90M isn’t just better than the best actors’ but it’s also the best for best actresses in at least a decade. I know it’s not the best ever, thanks to Winslet and Titanic, but otherwise it’s probably close (I only looked at the past ten years). The next best of late is 2010’s average of $83M, mostly again thanks to a movie starring Bullock, The Blind Side. And this average isn’t all to do with Gravity being such a hit. The lowest grossing best actress movie this year is still higher than that of any other.

For a year that had eight of the top ten live-action movies primarily led by a man to only two that were led by a woman, the promise might not seem terrific that the balance will see a major shift soon. Still, two of the eight, both of them in the top five, had very strong independent older female co-leads – Oscar winner (and 40 year old) Gwyneth Paltrow in Iron Man 3 and Adams in Man of Steel – the former even saving the heroes life in the end. And both of those woman-led movies were also in the top five, as well.

Overall, aside from Lawrence’s youth making her the oddball, it appears we’re in an increasingly better time for moviegoers and the Academy both to go for real, mature, talented women on the big screen as definite equals to the real, mature and talented men. Whether this inspires more filmmakers and studios to open up the playing field for these kinds of actresses is another matter. I just can’t see a good excuse for them not to.

Related Topics:

Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.