You knew it, I knew it, the American people knew it. And Patricia Arquette sure as hell knew it, too. On the night of February 26, the journeywoman actress proved the awards punditry world correct when she ambled up the steps of Hollywood’s Dolby Theatre to accept the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her riveting turn in Boyhood.
Sporting a pair of glasses—as well as a stylish asymmetrical bodice by Rosetta Getty—Arquette brandished her prepared speech, and let it rip.
“To every woman who gave birth, to every taxpayer and citizen of this nation, we have fought for everybody else’s equal rights,” shouted a fiery Arquette. “It’s our time to have wage equality once and for all and equal rights for women in the United States of America!”
The entire star-studded auditorium jumped to their feet, including the indomitable Meryl Streep, who jabbed her finger in the air triumphantly and screamed, “YES!” over and over again. It was, needless to say, the unequivocal highlight of an otherwise meh Academy Awards ceremony. And one would think that, after taking home one of those snazzy statuettes and wowing all of Tinseltown, there would be a wealth of juicy silver screen roles in Arquette’s future. Not so.
Instead, on Wednesday she returns to the small screen with her debut as FBI Special Agent Avery Ryan, the head of the bureau’s Cyber Crime division tasked with patrolling the deep web, on the CBS police procedural CSI: Cyber. Meanwhile, last year’s Best Supporting Actor winner, Jared Leto, who at 43 is just three years younger than Arquette, saw his film star rise considerably in the wake of his big win, snagging the coveted role of The Joker in the upcoming superhero blockbuster Suicide Squad—this despite not acting for five years prior to his Oscar-winning role.
Whether it’s the dirty old men running the studios, the fellas behind the camera, or the teenage boys packing the seats, the film world has become increasingly ageist against women over 40, forcing some of the finest actresses around to decamp to TV for meaty lead roles.
“Most of the stories for women are about being young, and desire, and falling in love, while the rest of the parts are usually pretty damn boring, supportive characters. ‘OK, honey, you can do it!’ ‘OK, son, you can do it!’” Arquette told me late last year. “Financiers these days are bankers looking at spreadsheets and seeing where people fit, and it didn’t used to be that way, whereas on television, you can craft these really rich, layered female characters.”
And Arquette is only the latest example. These days, many recent Oscar-nominated women over 40 have taken their talents to the tube in search of complex characters. There’s Red Band Society’s Octavia Spencer, who took home the Best Supporting Actress Oscar in 2012 for The Help; Oscar nominee Viola Davis (The Help, ’12), who is tearing it up as a criminal law professor in How to Get Away with Murder; and Oscar nominee Taraji P. Henson (The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, ’09), whose Cookie on Fox’s breakout hit Empire might be the most mesmerizing character on television, period. All of these women are over 40, and all of them have seemingly aged out of lead roles on film.
When Viola Davis recently won a well-deserved SAG Award for How to Get Away with Murder, she thanked ABC executives for giving “a 49-year-old dark-skinned African-American woman” the opportunity to play a “sexualized, messy, mysterious woman”—the type of layered, dynamic role that would not be available to her on the big screen.
“The roles are not there in general for women, and once you add an ‘other’ into it, they’re far fewer,” American Crime showrunner John Ridley says of film roles for women of a certain age and color.
Ridley is well-versed in the film world, having taken home an Oscar for the screenplay to 12 Years A Slave, in addition to penning movies like Three Kings and Red Tails. But he’s decided to return to his TV roots since that’s the medium that can not only tackle hot-button issues like race and crime in America, but also provide rich characters for middle-aged women—like Oscar nominee Felicity Huffman (Transamerica, ’06), who stars on Crime.
“It is a little nuts when you see someone of Viola’s ability and quality and think, ‘In that time, there wasn’t one quality lead role she could get before going to television?’” he says. “It’s nuts.”
The statistics seem to back up these claims. While women comprise 51 percent of the U.S. population, they are terribly underrepresented on film. A disturbing study released in February found that women not only made up just 12 percent of all lead protagonists in the top-grossing films of 2014 (down three whole percentage points from 2013), but also account for a mere 30 percent of all speaking roles on film.
Meanwhile, a 2014 survey by the Center for the Study of Women in Television concluded that women directed just 7 percent of the 250 top-grossing movies that year. On the small screen, things are considerably better, with women creating 21 percent of cable comedies and dramas, and 26 percent of broadcast comedies and dramas. But those numbers paled in comparison to the acting ones, with women accounting for 51 percent of lead acting roles in broadcast comedies and dramas (aligned with the general population), and 37 percent of lead acting roles in cable comedies and dramas.
Perhaps it’s not just the predominately male powers-that-be that are pushing women toward television, but the audience as well. Statistics show that the average age of a moviegoer is 30.5 years old, while the average age of a broadcast TV viewer is in the mid-50s, so naturally, an older audience would be more amenable to women their age (or slightly younger).
But hey, things aren’t all bad. We’re in the midst of a Golden Age of Television, and even though these women of a certain age aren’t being afforded fair opportunities on film, dominating the TV space is a pretty decent fallback option.
“It’s great if you’re Jennifer Lawrence and you’re in a couple of franchises and you’re an Oscar nominee. As a working artist, that’s a great space to be in,” says Ridley. “Another great space to be in is where you’ve got 8 or 9 million people watching you on a weekly basis.”
Arquette agrees. “On any given week, you’d have 8 million people tuning in to Medium, and if that many people bought movie tickets, it’d be the biggest fuckin’ movie that weekend!”