Cast away

Alex Kingston, traded in by ER for younger models, fell victim to an ignoble Hollywood tradition. Andrew Gumbel reports
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The Independent Culture

The Screen Actors Guild commissioned a study a few years ago to find out how well demographic groups were represented on television. Surprisingly, the most overrepresented group was black men. The most under-represented was women over 40 - which surprised nobody.

A few years ago, the Hollywood Screen Actors Guild commissioned a study to see how well different demographic groups were represented on television compared with their strength in the real world.

Perhaps surprisingly, the most over-represented group turned out to be black men. The most under-represented group was women over 40 - which came as a surprise to absolutely nobody.

Switch on the telly on this side of the Atlantic and the evidence is plain to see: plenty of older men, with lined faces expressing character and the hard knocks of experience, surrounded by a bevy of improbably gorgeous 20-somethings.

The part of the female lead might call for a battle-scarred district attorney, or a senior surgeon in a busy public hospital, but still you would swear the actress does not look a day over 28.

Under the circumstances, we should not be too surprised that Alex Kingston has been dropped from the line-up of ER after seven years as Dr Elizabeth Corday.

Certainly one can argue, as Kingston herself has, that it is entirely fitting for an actress of 41 to play the head of surgery in a busy Chicago casualty ward. But the show also calls for the lead actors to become romantically entangled with one another. And for that job, a 41-year-old, no matter how well preserved, just doesn't cut the mustard any more.

That, at least, is what Kingston surmised when she talked about the shock of losing the part in an interview with the Radio Times. "Apparently I, according to the producers and the writers, am part of the old fogies who are no longer interesting," she said.

The honchos at ER don't appear to have taken too kindly to public airing of such sentiments, because within days Kingston issued a formal statement insisting that her remarks had been taken "out of context" and that she and the producers of the show were in perfect agreement that her character had simply run her course.

Still, she did not deny making the remarks and, looking at the climate for women in today's Hollywood, one would have be naïve or foolish not to believe them.

ER, which has been on the air for 10 years, has undergone a very obvious attempt at rejuvenation. Last season saw the arrival of two new female leads in their 20s, Linda Cardarelli (who played Velma in the live-action film version of Scooby Doo) and Parminder Nagra (from Bend It Like Beckham). A young male gun, Shane West, will be joining the cast next season. That will leave just two main actresses, Laura Innes and Maura Tierney, over the age of 35.

Is this shake-out of the older generation any more than business as usual for Hollywood? The answer is both yes and no. There is certainly nothing new about actresses - even Academy Award-winning actresses - being spurned, ignored or offered miserable little parts once they are deemed to be past their prime of sexiness. As Goldie Hawn's character famously said in the 1996 film The First Wives' Club, a comedy all about discarded older women: "There are only three ages for women in Hollywood: babe, district attorney and Driving Miss Daisy."

What we see now, though, is a growing disparity between feature films and television. On the big screen, older actresses have enjoyed a modest degree of success in recent years. Think of Meryl Streep - just shy of her 55th birthday - in The Hours and Adaptation, or Diane Keaton stripping down to the altogether, aged 57, in Something's Gotta Give. Julianne Moore is going great guns at 42, as is Frances McDormand at 45.

This is a major improvement on a the late 1990s, when we were forced to endure such ludicrous on-screen couplings as Sean Connery and Catherine Zeta Jones (a 39-year difference) in Entrapment, Warren Beatty and Halle Berry (32 years) in Bulworth, Harrison Ford and Anne Heche (28 years) in Six Days, Seven Nights, or Jack Nicholson and Helen Hunt (also 28 years) in As Good As It Gets.

An infuriated Meryl Streep - who at the time was not landing the sorts of parts coming her way now - gave a rapturously received speech at an awards ceremony celebrating women in film in 1998 in which she excoriated the swelling ranks of on-screen women who apparently stop eating as soon as they grow up, marry a 60-year-old man when they are 25 and "have a fabulous 10 years escorting him into his dotage". "That's a time-honoured fantasy for him," she said. "What's hers?"

That blunt expression of reality may have engendered some modest corrections in feature films, but it did absolutely nothing for television, where the absurdity of post-menopausal men dating hot chicks in their early 20s remains a daily reality.

Things are a little better on cable - where HBO shows like Six Feet Under, The Sopranos, Sex In The City (Kim Cattrall, who plays Samantha, is 46) and the Larry David comedy Curb Your Enthusiasm all offer juicy work opportunities to at least a handful of older women. But on network television, actresses report a state of desperation.

The big four networks - ABC, NBC, CBS and Fox - are all going through an agonising drought, without a bona fide new sitcom or hit drama to boast of in years. On top of that, scripted comedy and drama are facing an unprecedented challenge from reality programming. The networks' response is to play it as safe as possible, and playing it safe means making the women younger, sexier, blonder, more doe-eyed (and, often, a lot less interesting).

One example is the long-running cops and prosecutors show Law & Order, where the men are reliably wizened and the one token lead female district attorney (currently played by Elisabeth Roehm, aged 31) is young enough to be their daughter.

The really bad age bracket for women runs from about 40 to 60. Amy Aquino, an experienced character player in film and television and Screen Actors Guild officer who is herself the wrong side of 40 (she has a regular non-leading part on ER, among many other credits) calls this time in an actress's life "no woman's land".

She explained the distinctly kooky logic behind a lot of casting decisions. "Often, the best you can hope for is to be cast as a mum or a grandma," Aquino said. "Trouble is, if they're casting a mother, they like to have the 14-year-old boys in the audience at least thinking of wanting to shtup her, so they skew the mums young to make sure they are still hot.

"If they want a grandmother - of a 10-year-old, say - they still won't cast a 50-year-old, because she might still be a little bit hot and that would be gross. So they'll cast a 75-year-old instead, someone way older walking around with a cane. They do this just for the marketing, so they won't shock people or piss them off."

Because there are so few parts for women over 40, the competition becomes intense. A lot of actresses that age are married and have children, so they prefer not to be away on movie sets all the time and hope instead for work on sitcoms or episodic drama.

Sitcoms are viewed as the ideal - four days' work a week, one week off in four, and great money. Patricia Heaton, who plays the wife on a long-running US sitcom called Everybody Loves Raymond, has managed to have three of her four children while appearing on the show and is consequently the envy of her peers.

Stories like hers are rare indeed, however. One actress friend of mine in her 40s had to be aged with make-up when she appeared as a mother on a television teen drama a few years ago; now that she has reached a more plausible age for that part, she finds it almost impossible to get work. Another, younger friend is obsessive about concealing her age from anyone and everyone for fear that the sexy lead roles she craves will forever elude her. Even when asked to produce her driving licence at airports or government buildings, she has developed the habit of covering her date of birth with her forefinger.

All of which makes one reflect that Alex Kingston may be lucky to have survived as long as she has. She acknowledged that luck when I interviewed her four years ago, and held no illusions whatsoever about the tenderness of Hollywood's embrace. "The day ER ends," she told me, "I can happily go back to England and carry on where I left off in the theatre. That would suit me just fine." Indeed, that is now the future that awaits her.