Ageism in Hollywood will be the topic of a panel discussion Friday night moderated by actress Sharon Lawrence. Panelists will include actresses Kathy Griffin, Lesley Ann Warren, JoBeth Williams and Lynn Whitfield along with director Michael Lindsay Hogg; manager and publicist Harlan Boll; and best-selling author Ashton Applewhite, an expert on aging and ageism.
At 55, Griffin says she’s been hearing ageist comments her entire professional life. “I hear it all the time,” she told Deadline. “I’ve been hearing it since I was 30, from managers, agents, studio heads and network executives. I’m sure I heard it in the last year. They really think nothing of saying to me, ‘You’re really funny, but they’ve decided to go younger.’ It’s so common for a woman to hear that. I don’t think anyone ever told them you’re not supposed to say that. They think it’s still a legitimate reason for someone not to get a job.
The two-time Emmy winner added: “Hollywood is behind the curve on women’s issue and on who their audience is. They want that 18-29 guy demo, but people who are watching television are not 18-year-old dudes – they’re watching their phones. Suze Orman told me, ‘They don’t have the money.’ People my age have the money. But I still hear this from network advertisers: ‘We need younger eyeballs.’”
Griffin said that the women she met her recent 80-city comedy tour are a lot more like her than anyone she sees on TV. “I’m seeing the real America, and real women, and they’re all ages, and they don’t look like what’s being represented on television. There’s really very little representation of people who look like me or sound like me on television. I want to see people I can relate to.”
The comedian says she has “the work ethic of a horse” and has no plans for being put out to pasture. “I take meetings and have to explain to them that I have no intention of retiring. They say, ‘What do you want to do now? You’ve kind of done everything.’ But you’d never say to Will Ferrell, ‘Do you really want to do another movie or host another awards show?’ It’s odd to me when people say, ‘You should just enjoy your life.’ I’m looking to work more than ever.
“I’m 55 and having the time of my life,” Griffin said with a laugh. “But it sucks to have to say, ‘Please, please, give me a job’ — like a puppy with its paws up. I have to convince them that I am a viable option to make money for them, and I have to smile a lot when they say something ignorant. It’s just part of the deal.”
She says primetime network television is a desert for female actors of a certain age. “There seems to be a quota for women my age,” Griffin said. “Often the networks have maybe one woman who’s my age. I’m getting the feeling that if they have one woman who’s 55, they say, ‘OK, we’re done.’ I’ve had lengthy conversations about this with Gloria Steinem, who told me, ‘Every time you take the stage, you’re fighting ageism and performing an act of feminism.’
“A showrunner once said to me, ‘The dirty little secret in television is that female-driven comedies don’t make as much money as male-driven comedies.’ I said, ‘What about Lucille Ball and Rosanne, who made a fortune for other people? He didn’t have an answer.”
Griffin is dismayed that late night is exclusively male. “The guys have it locked up.” She’d love to host her own late-night show, but sighed, “I guess I’m going to be a guest forever.”
Naturally, no conversation with Griffin would be complete without a mention of Cher. “She recently told me, ‘I still feel 21,’” she said in a spot-on Cher imitation. And like her longtime friend, Griffin said that she too still feels 21 – well within the preferred network demographic.
As ageist as television is, feature films aren’t much better. A survey lasy year found that of the 100 top-grossing films in 2014, the majority of female characters were in their 20s and 30s, while the majority of male characters were in their 30s and 40s.
The survey also found that there were twice as many male characters in their 50s (18%) than female characters in their 50s (9%) and that males 40 and over accounted for 53% of all male characters, while females 40 and over only comprised 30% of all female characters.
Ageism, however, doesn’t only effect actresses of a certain age. In 2010, a class-action lawsuit brought against the networks and talent agencies by older TV writers settled for a whopping $70 million. Many older directors and producers also feel the sting of age discrimination.
Friday’s panel will look at ageism in all walks of life in Hollywood. “The sad fact is: Aging scares us,” said writer David Christopher Barry, who’s producing the event, set for 7 PM at the London Hotel in West Hollywood. “As people working in the industry, we have the ability to change that. We have the responsibility to show that there is value to every stage of life.”
“Remaining relevant at every age means rejecting age discrimination along with the negative stereotypes that go with it,” said producer Robyn Rosenfeld, who’s co-producing he event. “Perception has a lot to do with age discrimination. How can we in the entertainment industry help buck the clichés and create new messages? How do we help transform the negative way we view aging for our children, and for our culture at large?”
Women in Film is assisting with Friday’s event.