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Vintage Hollywood Whine - August 4, 2002

By James L. Hirsen, J.D., Ph.D.
contributor to

Ageism is prevalent in our industry and it's like a silent killer, like cancer, and it gets worse every year.
­ Actor Peter Mark Richman, per The Associated Press

Hollywood has always been a place where youth and beauty reign supreme. But a rebellion seems to be afoot.

Celebrity baby boomers all across town have decided not to go gently into the midlife years. In fact, many are flat-out refusing to accept the notion of aging, or the diminished opportunity that oftentimes accompanies it. Of course, individuals born in the latter 1940s through the mid-1960s had a profound influence on the culture as they made their way from adolescence to adulthood.

But as Hollywood boomers reach pre-retirement age, they're fighting back in a manner that, for their glittering hometown, is the liberal norm.

They've latched onto an "ism" in hopes of extending some waning careers. Their battle cry is "ageism" ­ discrimination based on an excess of numerals. And they want government to do something about it.

Senior liberal activist and actor Ed Asner, along with fellow actors Peter Mark Richman and Kent McCord and others, have started the Industry Coalition for Age Equity in the Media (ICAEM). The goal of the group is to find a way for older actors to get more work.

Working closely with ICAEM, the California Commission on Aging is promoting legislation that has been authored by State Senator John Vasconcellos. It is currently pending in the California Legislature.

New laws would mandate that the state "work with the entertainment industry to change cultural attitudes toward older adults and make the work force more responsive."

Could quotas for aging stars and starlets be far behind?

Ironically, while the population outside Tinseltown ages, the youth orientation of Hollywood moves forward with a vengeance.

Why the emphasis on the young? The answer is simple. The entertainment industry is a business. And like any business, it hungers for the fuel of commerce. That fuel is called profit.

Now, the industry will sometimes produce artful product. But that's incidental to its structure, as much as artists may wish otherwise.

Movies cost a fortune to produce. Companies rely on throngs of teen-agers and repeat viewers to make monster blockbusters out of movies like "Spider-Man" and "Men in Black II." These phenomenal successes will compensate for all of the other movies ­ and there are plenty of them ­ that flop.

Not so long ago, Angela Bassett hinted to Newsweek magazine that age was a factor when a younger Catherine Zeta-Jones was picked instead of her for the female lead in "Entrapment."

She brought up a sad truth: that Hollywood filmmakers don't find older female actors desirable for certain roles.

But this is merely a reflection of the market. Our culture as a whole is obsessed with perfect features, perfect teeth, perfect skin, perfect bodies. And use of surgical technology, which promises everything to those in search of the youthful ideal, does have its limitations. In the 1980s, one of the most successful and highest-paid actresses dealt with her age in a different way than the current wave of cause-clutching celebs. After three Oscar nominations and a variety of critically acclaimed roles, Debra Winger walked away from Hollywood at age 40.

She told the Guardian, a U.K. newspaper, "Nothing quite compares with the sense of liberation I felt. It stays with me: I am happy and I am free."

Winger discovered what many who embrace the time-tested values of old already know ­ that superficiality is corrosive, that self-worth doesn't come with a number and that freedom will always be an essential component of human happiness.

Unfortunately, for the victim-minded aging actors in Hollywood, they will never find the solution they seek at the hand of government.

The same values that many industry liberals have played a part in eroding over the years actually hold the key to solving the "problem" of ageism: promotion of the true source of our strength, encouragement of family cohesion, elevation of time-honored codes of behavior and, yes, respect for those who have made it to the golden years.

Reproduced with the permission of . All rights reserved

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James L. Hirsen, J.D., Ph.D.

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