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December 7, 2011

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Suit hits job bias against older actors

A million-dollar lawsuit by an actress who claims her job prospects were damaged when she was outed online as a 40-year-old has run smack into conventional wisdom: If Sandra Bullock, 47, and Helen Mirren, 66, are getting steady work, bias against older actresses surely must have vanished.

Film stars Meryl Streep, Halle Berry and Glenn Close also are members of the 40-plus and employed club. On television, the majority of the "Desperate Housewives" female leads are nearing 50, while Emmy Award-winning Julianna Margulies of "The Good Wife" is 44.

Industry insiders and unions say, however, that star power obscures the ageism gap between high-profile performers and working stiffs, a unique aspect of Hollywood's division of the haves and have-nots.

"There is a tendency for all of us to think of the actors we see all the time and whose names we know," says Duncan Crabtree-Ireland, the Screen Actors Guild's deputy national executive director and general counsel.

"But the vast majority of characters on TV and film are portrayed by people we don't know and who are struggling to make a living as an actor," he says.

Want examples? Think of searching a movie's closing credits to identify an actor in a minor role, or the somewhat familiar face that pops up as the guest victim or killer on a TV crime drama.

Older actresses face more hiring hurdles than their male counterparts, according to employment statistics from SAG and the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, as well as the experience of those on the front lines.

Women over 40 comprise 24.3 percent of the US population, the 2010 census found. In comparison, union casting analyses show actresses over 40 years old get 12.5 percent of roles for television and film. Men of that age are also about a quarter of the population but nearly equal their ranks in casting.

Picture no pretty

Television overall does not do well by women, who are 50.8 percent of the US population but are seen in only a quarter of roles, according to union statistics.

The picture is no prettier when it comes to earnings in the youth-obsessed industry. In 2010, for example, actresses ages 41 to 50 working in SAG-covered film and TV projects earned US$58 million, compared with the US$160 million paid to actors in that age group.

The guild is heartened by the high-profile older actresses who are finding work, especially on TV, and the guild's Crabtree-Ireland says, "We hope this will be the beginning of a trend for all of our members, but our data doesn't show that."

Non-marquee performers see a different script. The lawsuit filed in October by an actress identified only as "Jane Doe" contends that "lesser-known 40-year-old actresses are not in demand in the entertainment business."

How her age became public is at the heart of the suit. She says it was through the Internet Movie Database Pro website IMDbPro, the subscription-based counterpart to the popular and free IMDb, which are subsidiaries of IMDbPro's home page boasts that "Industry Insiders Use Pro," which offers 80,000 representation listings for actors, directors and producers. Those listings generally include, among credits and contacts, birth dates.

"It's become a really big tool in our business. But it's become a detriment to the working actor," says agent Marilyn Szatmary, a partner in SMS Talent in Los Angeles.

What Crabtree-Ireland calls "the IMDb issue" has provoked a flood of complaints from guild members in the last five to six years. Young actors can also be affected, he says, recalling a 22-year-old who, when her age was revealed online, abruptly stopped getting juvenile roles she'd routinely played.

Industry changes, including the rise of reality TV series and diminished film production, have reduced the available work for actors and made hiring more competitive. In this crowded field, even a guest role on a TV series such as "Grey's Anatomy" can draw 2,000 submissions, Szatmary said.

That is why those responsible for filling roles need to use all tools at their disposal, casting directors say. Actors may claim to be younger and may post misleading photos online, says casting veteran Sheila Manning.


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