Too old at 41, Kingston falls foul of Hollywood's youth policy

She had a starring role in one of the most successful television drama series ever made, giving her an annual pay packet of more than £2.3m. But now the British actress Alex Kingston is out of a job - and claims she has become the latest victim of Hollywood's culture of ageism.

She had a starring role in one of the most successful television drama series ever made, giving her an annual pay packet of more than £2.3m. But now the British actress Alex Kingston is out of a job - and claims she has become the latest victim of Hollywood's culture of ageism.

Ms Kingston, who has played surgeon Dr Elizabeth Corday in the award-winning ER for the past seven years, has been told that her contract will not be renewed after the current series and she will be written out. The actress, who is 41, said the show's producers, faced with a need to keep reinventing the series, had decided to concentrate on younger cast members. "I suddenly felt very old," she said.

Ms Kingston's comments are the latest in a series of angry outbursts by high-profile actresses on both sides of the Atlantic about the way in which roles in television and film begin to dry up once they reach their late thirties or early forties. Actresses complain that they don't find themselves in demand again until they are much older when "character" roles begin to get offered and so find themselves stranded in the "babes and grannies gap".

The subject has also been made into a documentary, due for release in this country later this year, by the actress Rosanna Arquette, called Searching for Debra Winger - named after the three-times Oscar-nominated actress who opted out of Hollywood when she was 40.

The blow to Kingston's career will invoke sympathy from all those who applauded her professional and artistic fightback after the very public failure of her marriage to fellow actor Ralph Fiennes, who left her for another actress, Francesca Annis, in the mid-1990s.

Shortly afterwards, Ms Kingston won the plum role of Moll Flanders in the television adaptation of the Henry Fielding novel and gained plaudits for her earthy performance. She moved to California and soon gained the lucrative contract with ER. She now lives there with her German-born second husband Florian Haertel and their daughter Salome, aged three.

Ms Kingston, who recently starred in the mini-series Boudica, told Radio Times: "I suddenly felt very old surrounded by these young twenty-somethings, Does it mean that I'm the geriatric that's being pushed out because she's too old? Apparently I, according to the producers and the writers, am part of the old fogeys who are no longer interesting."

Ms Kingston did admit that her pay packet might also have influenced the decision of the producers. "I know for a fact that the newcomers aren't getting much at all," she said.

Other actresses who have recently complained about the difficulties of finding roles at a certain age include Kim Cattrall, who in her forties has played the sexually demanding and free-spirited Samantha in Sex and the City, and Helen Mirren, 60 next year, who has maintained a healthy career with Prime Suspect and last year's Calendar Girls, which featured a roster of middle-aged British actresses.

Arquette's documentary, released in the US last year is seen as a sustained attack on the male-dominated Hollywood producer system, which has few female directors and even fewer female studio executives. Arquette said earlier this year: "A lot of misogynistic men are very angry about it. They've told me 'It's just a bunch of chicks sitting around bitching about us'."

Holly Hunter, Daryl Hannah and Sharon Stone are among the actresses interviewed who attack the ageist bias in the system, although they acknowledge that some of their peers, such as Meryl Streep and Susan Sarandon, have managed to survive. But neither can match the earning potential of Hollywood's top two female stars, Cameron Diaz, 32 and Julia Roberts, 36.

Martin Brown, of Equity, the British actor's union, said the issue was equally commonplace in film and television in Britain - although much less in the theatre world, where great actresses such as Dame Diana Rigg and Dame Judy Dench thrive. He said: "The overwhelming number of roles for women are for younger women. This is despite the fact that we all know, for instance, that many of the romantic pairings that we see in film and television don't represent real life.

"But there is very little that we can do about it. If the producers stipulate that they want to cast an actress aged between 25 and 35 in a role, however improbable, then a 45-year-old can hardly complain about not getting the part, however unfair it may be."

VICTIMS OF THE SEXIST SELL-BY

"The number of roles I was up for halved at 40. I used to think women in their 40s shouldn't be sexual. This show changed all that.''

Kim Cattrall, 46

"Getting a job becomes harder and harder to achieve".

Helen Mirren, 59,

"It is offensive that in Hollywood a 68-year old movie star is paired with a 30-year old or someone even younger.''

Rosanna Arquette, 44

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