In A Film Industry Focused On Youth, Older Characters Are Tough To Find

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Of the 25 Best Picture nominees Stacy Smith examined, she found only two examples of an actor over 60 who was essential to the story. The characters appeared in <em>Birdman</em> and <em>Spotlight --</em> and both were played by Michael Keaton.

When the Academy Award nominations were announced in 2015 — and again in 2016 — there was swift backlash against the Academy for the lack of racial diversity among the nominees. Now, a new study of Best Picture nominees has revealed yet another demographic that's been chronically underrepresented in Hollywood — older people.

In the 25 films nominated for Best Picture Oscars over the past three years, less than 12 percent of the characters were people over the age of 60. Of those, very few were women or minorities. This is according to a new study by Stacy Smith, who directs the Media, Diversity and Social Change initiative at the University of Southern California.

Smith had previously looked at the age of characters in popular films, and was curious to see if critically acclaimed, Best Picture nominees might have a different proportion of older characters.

Turns out, they don't.

Even when there are older characters, Smith found they rarely drive the plot. In the 25 best picture nominees she examined, she found only two examples of an actor over 60 who was essential to the story. Both of those characters were played by Michael Keaton. (He played the title role in Birdman in 2014 and a Boston Globe editor in Spotlight in 2015.)

Arguably, there was a third character over 60 integral to the plot in one of 2017's Best Picture nominees — Jeff Bridges played a Texas ranger in pursuit of bank robbers in Hell or High Water. Then again, he had to put up with dialogue like this from his deputy: "You wanna hear about these bank robberies or just sit there at let Alzheimer's run its course?"

"For those films that had leading or supporting characters that were 60 or above, over 40 percent had ageist comments within them," Smith says.

Concern over portraying older people as infirm or feeble-minded isn't just about protecting hurt feelings. Studies show that embracing negative stereotypes about age can lead to poor health and even a shorter lifespan. This is why Humana, the health insurance giant, funded Smith's study. Dr. Yogi Hernandez Suarez, chief medical officer for a division of Humana, says that movies can reinforce negative stereotypes.

"If I don't see myself in the movies, what does that say about me?" Suarez asks. "Am I not a valued person? Should I be preparing for a future, or will I just sort of disappear at a certain time?"

The AARP has actually been looking at this issue since 2001. Movies made that year were the first to be recognized with the organization's Movies for Grownups Awards, which honor films and actors portraying characters 50 and older.

Bill Newcott, who founded the program, says he's seen some progress — when the awards began back in 2001, just seven of the top 100 box office movies featured a character 50 or older in a central role. In 2016 that number had jumped to 26. Why's that?

"111 million people in the U.S. are over 50," Newcott says. "They buy 25 percent of movie tickets and that number's rising."

So if we see an increase in older characters on the big screen in coming years, it'll likely be because Hollywood does what it's always done — focus on the bottom line.

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