Charging that “the Academy Awards cannot escape ageism,” a new study has found that characters aged 60 and over “are scarce in Best Picture-nominated movies,” and that senior women and older minority characters are even scarcer. It also found that there were only two leading characters over 60 featured in all of the 25 Oscar-nominated films in the last three years, and they were both played by the same actor: Michael Keaton.
“What seems to be apparent from this investigation is that despite all the discussion about inclusion in Hollywood, seniors are left out of that conversation,” said Dr. Stacy L. Smith, one of the report’s co-authors.
The report, out of USC’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, found that “only 22.3% of senior characters in these acclaimed films were female,” that only 10.1% of senior characters in the 25 films were from a racial/ethnic group, and that not one of them was Hispanic. It also found that only four senior women of color were portrayed, all of whom were African American. No senior Hispanic, Asian/Pacific or Native American women were presented at all.
LGBT seniors didn’t fare any better. “Not one character 60 years of age or older was lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender,” the report found.
“For the past several years, the outcry over the lack of diversity at the Academy Awards has created a volume of news coverage,” the report states. “From #OscarsSoWhite and #OscarsSoMale, to outrage over derogatory comments about Asians made during the televised awards ceremony, the focus on Hollywood’s diversity problem has been unrelenting. Yet one group has not been at the center of public anger and advocacy: senior citizens. Individuals aged 60 and older represent 18.5% of the U.S. population and 14% of film ticket buyers in the U.S. They are also a stalwart of Hollywood’s most prestigious club: the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.”
The report also found that of all the “leads and co-leads driving the action, only one was a character 60 years of age or older. Among ensemble casts, only one of the six leading characters was a senior. Ironically, Michael Keaton filled both these roles in Birdman and Spotlight. Thus, the only two senior leads across the 25 films were played by the same white, male actor.”
The report had to significantly narrow its scope, however, to reach that conclusion. Denzel Washington wasn’t included for Fences because his character identified his age as 53, even though Washington himself was just a few days shy of his 62nd birthday when the film was released last December. The authors of the report say they based their findings on the ages of the characters, when identified, and not on the ages of the actors playing them.
Jeff Bridges wasn’t included in this category either because the authors determined that the 67-year-old actor had not played a leading role in Hell Or High Water, and that the cast was not an ensemble. The same logic was used to exclude 60-year-old Kevin Costner in Hidden Figures and 67-year-old Stephen Henderson in Fences.
“The lead character is the major force attempting to accomplish the story’s purpose,” explained Dr. Katherine Pieper, one of the study’s co-authors. “Typically, but not always, the lead is also the protagonist. In some cases, two characters share roughly equivalent screen time, appear within the first five minutes of the film, and/or are equally involved in the journey. Occasionally, three or more characters fit this definition, and these characters constitute an ‘ensemble.’ ”
Tom Hanks and J.K. Simmons weren’t included in the report for their roles in the Oscar-nominated films Bridge Of Spies and Whiplash, respectively, because both were 59 when their films were released, though the ages of their characters were never mentioned. As for Keaton, who’s now 65, the age of his character was mentioned in Birdman, but not in Spotlight.
Titled Over Sixty, Under Estimated: A Healthy Look At The “Silver” Screen in Best Picture-Nominated Films, the report was a joint project of the Humana, the health insurance company, and the Media, Diversity & Social Change Initiative at USC Annenberg.
According to the 2010 census, seniors 60 and older make up 18.5% of the U.S. population. But the USC report found that only 148 (11.8%) of the 1,256 speaking characters in the last 25 Oscar-nominated films were 60 years of age or older – and that “this is 6.7% below the percentage of seniors in the U.S.”
But here the report made a common fractions mistake, conflating percentage points with actual percentages. For while 11.8% may be 6.7 percentage points lower than 18.5%, it’s not 6.7% lower, but 35.2% lower. It’s a mistake that’s made several times throughout the report and inadvertently makes percentage differences appear smaller than they really are.
Similarly, in finding that only 22.3% of senior characters were female, and that a larger number of non-senior characters were female (30.7%), the report concluded that “This overall percentage of non-senior female characters is 8.4% higher than the percentage of female seniors.” Here again, the report confused percentage points with percentages. For while 30.7% may be 8.4 percentage points higher than 22.3%, it’s not 8.4% higher, but 37% higher – just as 10% is not 5% higher than 5%, but twice as high – 100% higher. Queried by Deadline, the authors said they’re sticking to their statistics.
Math problems aside, the report also found that senior women were more often depicted as less empowered than senior men. “Examining the occupational status and clout of senior characters reveals a masculine picture of leadership. Only one female senior was depicted in a powerful occupational post – fleeting portrayal of a U.S. politician. Additionally, few senior characters from underrepresented racial/ethnic groups appear in positions of occupational influence. These findings echo results from previous work on the disparity of on-screen employment for female characters of all ages in film. The consistent portrayal of male leaders in film means that audiences across the life span do not see a portrait of authority and achievement that reflects reality by including females and people of color.”
The report also found that while only 13 of the senior characters died in their films, 11 of them (84.6%) died violently, either by poisoning or being shot to death. Only two died of natural causes, which stands in stark contrast to the major causes of death of seniors – heart disease, cancer, or respiratory ailments. Those more mundane causes of elder death, the report wryly notes, “are less likely to inspire Hollywood storytellers.”
The researchers also found bits of dialogue in four of the Oscar-nominated films that they deemed “ageist.”
· “You look so old in person” — from Birdman
· “You wanna hear about these bank robberies or do you wanna just sit there and let Alzheimer’s run its course?” – from Hell Or High Water
· “Hell, must be getting old the way I’m watching that boy whip through that wood” – from Fences, a line that was also in August Wilson’s original play
· “He’s a ruthless adventurer and a con artist who preys on mentally feeble, sick old ladies and he probably f***s them too” — from The Grand Budapest Hotel.
“From these results it is clear: Age can no longer be excluded from the conversation about diversity in Academy Award-nominated movies,” the report concluded.
A panel will be held at the college this evening to discuss the study’s findings.