TV welcomes over-40 actresses as never before to play series leads
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BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. -- Women, particularly women older than 40, used to have limited roles on TV. Not anymore. Now they're just as likely to be the single lead of a series around whom the whole show revolves. And we're not just talking about Lifetime fare.
This summer, Glenn Close, 60, took the lead in FX's "Damages" (10 p.m. Tuesdays); Holly Hunter, 49, stars in TNT's "Saving Grace" (10 p.m. Mondays); and more people than ever are watching Kyra Sedgwick, 41, in TNT's "The Closer" (9 p.m. Mondays). And coming in the new TV season, there will be more female-led series, albeit mostly shows with women in their mid-to-late 30s as the stars.
Women started to become series leads in the '90s, and after the success of ABC's "Desperate Housewives" in 2004, the ages of the actresses playing these lead characters have been creeping upward.AGE 60: Glenn Close as Patty Hewes in the legal thriller "Damages" on FX.
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"What's interesting and different is we're seeing lead, female characters in innovative television series," said Amanda Lotz, an assistant professor of communication at the University of Michigan and author of 2006's "Redesigning Women: Television After the Network Era" (University of Illinois Press). "These are not only A-list actors. These are roles that are wonderfully written and as sophisticated as men have had in the last five to 10 years in shows like 'The Sopranos' and 'The Shield' and 'Rescue Me.' They're meaty roles, as opposed to women being the cop or the doctor who has a troubled relationship in a show with plot lines you can see a mile coming."
The past is precedent
TNT's "The Closer" has consistently broken cable ratings records. In its third season, the show is averaging more than 7.47 million viewers. That's more viewers than many broadcast network series have, particularly in the summer.
"I'm thrilled if this show has paved the way for other good actresses to get work," said Sedgwick last month while sitting on a desk in the office of her "Closer" character, Brenda Johnson. "I certainly think when you make a movie about robots, they make more movies about robots. If they have a show with a lead woman in her late 30s, early 40s, that's done really well for the business of television and gotten critical acclaim, I think they want to make more of those."
The success of the women-dominated ABC drama "Grey's Anatomy" also hasn't gone without notice.
"I think 'Grey's Anatomy' opened the door in terms of waking up advertisers and networks to the power of women watching television," said Margaret Nagle, creator of Lifetime's "Side Order of Life." "It wasn't enough just to watch 'Oprah' during the day. ... I wanted to see a woman in her 30s struggling to make these decisions because in your 20s you can get away with so much and it doesn't stick."
Nagle said the "Grey's" pilot set a tone that made her ask: "We can talk about women making mistakes on TV and women being flawed, they don't have to be perfect anymore? And I don't mean like in a TV version of a mess. I mean in a much more real way that women struggle and are imperfect."
In its fall spin-off, "Private Practice," Lotz sees more advances.
"I was pleased to see grown-up people in that pilot, instead of actresses in their late 30s playing like they're 18," she said, referring to "Grey's" star Ellen Pompeo, who is in her late 30s but plays a character in her 20s.
But Lotz recalled being in the writer's room of the 1998-2002 Lifetime series "Any Day Now" and hearing the writers discuss that, although the network was happy to air a show about women in their 40s, they didn't want to hear the characters refer to their age. She suspects the same could prove true with some of these newer shows, including "Saving Grace."Andrew Eccles
AGE 41: Kyra Sedgwick on TNT's "The Closer."
Click photo for larger image.AGE 49: Holly Hunter stars in the new TNT series "Saving Grace."
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"There isn't a lot contextually, other than knowing Holly Hunter's age, that suggests how old the character is," Lotz said. "She certainly is behaving more like a younger woman, or the stories we've traditionally seen about younger women."
Women watch more
Warner Bros. Television produces "The Closer" for TNT, but its president, Peter Roth, doesn't see his show as one of the primary reasons for the increase in the number of dramas featuring female leads over 40.
"I just simply believe it's a trend of great material that attracts great stars," he said during a visit to the set of "The Closer" last month.
There's also an economic incentive for networks: It's easier to have success by targeting women.
"The one thing that's certainly true is that women watch more television than men, and women control the TV set," Roth said. "Women love seeing great, strong, contemporary role models."
In addition to watching more TV, more women are in more powerful network executive jobs than ever before -- although, ironically, at the broadcast networks the two channels with women at the helm, CBS and The CW, have the fewest new shows with single female leads this fall. But in the cable universe, women are in top executive roles at many networks, including USA, Bravo, Lifetime, Discovery Channel, HBO, Nickelodeon, Sci Fi Channel, SOAPNet and Sundance.
TV's reputation improves
American actors have begun to follow more of a British model that sees stars segue effortlessly among stage, screen and TV roles. Lili Taylor, star of Lifetime's "State of Mind," said she enjoys all three mediums and is happy to move from one to another.
"It seems like TV is pushing itself or has started to in the past 10 years," Taylor said.AGE 41: Julianna Margulies as an attorney on Fox's "Canterbury's Law."
Click photo for larger image.AGES 40, 38, 33, 39: ABC's "Cashmere Mafia" stars Frances O'Connor, Lucy Liu, Bonnie Somerville and Miranda Otto.
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Close, who did a stint on "The Shield" a few seasons ago, acknowledged that she was advised to avoid TV.
"Very early on in my career, I made the decision to go where the writing was at a time when I was told, after doing 'The World According to Garp,' that if I did anything on television, it might really affect my career in film," she said last month. "And it just didn't make sense to me. I kept thinking, well, if the English can do it, why can't we do it?"
TV is no longer looked at as the place actors go only when their film careers have dried up. Sedgwick makes that point emphatically when a reporter used the past tense in relation to her work in movies.
"Let me just be clear about the 'had a movie career,' because I have a film coming out in summer, and I plan on working in film the rest of my life," she said, "and I'm sure Glenn Close and Lili Taylor and Parker Posey will, too. I don't think anyone's career is over because they go to TV for 15 episodes a year."
Cable networks are regularly producing scripted series, albeit in shorter seasons -- about 13 episodes per season for a cable network vs. 22 on a broadcast channel. That's become more readily available to actors just in the past five years.
"Weeds" star Mary-Louise Parker, 43, said this flexibility didn't exist when she was in her 20s.
"I wanted to be available to do long runs of theater, and I've done a lot of long runs, you know, eight or nine months of a play," she said. "You can't really do a TV show when you do that."
But if the production schedule is for just 13 episodes, that's only about four months of the year devoted to TV, allowing eight months for other projects.
In addition, cable has garnered a reputation for a willingness to take risks. While movies continue primarily to target teenage males who will flock to the box office opening weekend, on the whole, cable networks have a broader range of target audiences.
"I just think maybe they're more willing to explore more complex female characters," Close said. "In the Hollywood movie, older women, who aren't just there to be pretty, are much more problematic. And so to find these real, authentic, complex, strong female parts, that kind of writing is being done for television."
"Saving Grace" star Hunter, a Carnegie Mellon University graduate, also credits cable with motivating changes in the TV landscape.
"It happens to be made for less money, and so risks can be greater because less cash is at risk," she said. "Every single thing about it adds up to people who were waiting to take some chances are given the opportunity. ... In the '70s, anti-heroes were all over the place in cinema, and now it seems that it's happening on television with women."
Liz Craft, formerly a writer on the male-centric FX drama "The Shield," is executive producing ABC's female-driven "Women's Murder Club" for ABC this fall with writing partner Sarah Fain.
"I think some of it is that the glass ceiling thing in the world is starting to go away," Craft said, "Hillary Clinton could end up being the [Democratic] nominee. I think people just take women in the workplace and doing this stuff more seriously."
"It's undeniable that something is going on," Hunter added.
"Often, people go, 'OK, we're on the threshold of a big change in cinema' or something, and it never really holds true," she said. "It's always just a trend, and hopefully that's not the case here."
AGE 43: Mary-Louise Parker, who stars in "Weeds," says that because cable series average just 13 episodes a year, she is free to appear in movies and on stage for the rest of the year.
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