As the industry struggles with diversity, several panelists at Friday night’s panel discussion on ageism in Hollywood applauded the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for including more women and minorities as members, but decried what appears to be a “culling” of older members to make room for them.
The Academy insists that it’s not excluding older members, and that everyone will retain their membership under the new rules. But if members haven’t worked in 10 years, or haven’t been nominated for an Oscar, or haven’t worked during three ten-year periods, they will lose their right to vote for the Oscars.
“I actually think that it is ageist,” panelist and actress JoBeth Williams said of the Academy’s move. “We should have opened the door to more members, but not given the older members the boot.”
“They’re not giving them the boot,” said actress Lesley Ann Warren, noting that members who have worked once in the last 10 years will retain their votes.
“I call bulls**t on that,” said Kathy Griffin, arguing that the reason many older Academy members haven’t worked in the last 10 years is because they’ve effectively been aged-out of the business.
Griffin got a huge laugh when she came out to take her seat pushing a walker, setting the stage for a long-overdue discussion of an industry problem that has left so many talented actresses of a certain age relegated to the sidelines because of a lack of opportunities.
“Ageism matters and it matters to all of us,” said actress Sharon Lawrence, who moderated the panel. “It’s important because ageism determines the stories that are told. It determines the writers and producers and directors and actors who are hired, and who gets paid. It’s important culturally, and it’s important in how we see ourselves.”
Before the Screen Actors Guild stopped publishing its earnings surveys several years ago, the surveys showed that women earned almost exactly one-half of what their male counterparts earned every year. The reports showed that as earnings for male actors slowly went downhill after they reached the age of 40, the earnings for actresses over 40 virtually fell off a cliff.
“I had a meeting with a studio head recently,” Griffin said, “and he named one show on their slate with a woman over 40. And I said, ‘You’re not done, dude.’”
Griffin admitted that it was “a little scary” coming out against ageism in an industry that doesn’t value older workers or complainers. But in the end, she said, she figured, “What the s**t!”
Like all the other panelists, Williams, who serves as president of the SAG-AFTRA Foundation, said she wants to see “people our age” on screen. “We need to get our unions to do something about this,” she said, noting that her husband, a director, “is over 70 and he faces discrimination.”
“We need writers to write for us,” Lawrence said.
“I’m a writer,” Griffin shot back, “but I still need someone’s permission to work.”
“Ageism is deeply imbedded in our culture,” Warren said. “I’m ready and always have been to embrace my age. But there just aren’t the opportunities.”
“You always know when they’re trying to push you aside,” said actress Lynn Whitfield. “They say, ‘Oh, you’re an icon.’ Well, this icon isn’t going anywhere.”
Whitfield later asked author and ageism expert Ashton Applewhite what can be done to combat ageism in Hollywood.
“Old lives matter!” Griffin interjected.
“The very first act is consciousness raising,” Whitfield said after the laughs died down. “Start to push back individually and collectively.”
“My happiest clients are the ones who embrace their age,” said publicist Harlan Boll.
“As you get older you get wiser,” said director Michael Lindsay-Hogg. But in Hollywood, you also tend to get less work. Lindsay-Hogg, who many credit with creating the music video with his early work for The Beatles and the Rolling Stones, said he “couldn’t remember” the last time he was offered a film directing gig. (It was in 2001.)
The event, held at The London Hotel in West Hollywood, was produced by David C. Barry and Robyn Rosenfeld, with an assist from Women in Film.