Scott's World -- UPI Arts & Entertainment

By VERNON SCOTT, United Press International  |  Aug. 1, 2002 at 5:06 PM
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HOLLYWOOD, Aug. 1 (UPI) -- Nowhere is the chasm between talent and profits more clearly delineated than in Tinseltown, where the bottom line takes precedence over art.

Movies employ a throwaway economy where the latest and hottest, no matter how transitory, determine who and what will be seen in major films.

Chief victims of filmmakers' revolving-door tactics are actresses propelled to stardom, then all-too-soon consigned to has-been status when the next bare-midriffed damsel slinks on camera.

This common policy is a dreadful waste of the industry's most valuable commodity: stars, particularly disposable actresses.

A sorry example is the fate of female stars who pass the age of 35 and fall into an abyss of unemployment or who are relegated to insignificant roles.

No one exemplifies these victims of the bottom line more than Meryl Streep, perhaps the greatest living actress on the planet.

Streep, at 53, remains one the most brilliant performers anywhere, nominated 12 times for Academy Awards, winner of two Oscars.

She is a national treasure, perhaps the best performer in America's major popular art form which she has elevated by her presence in some 24 major movies since "Julia" in 1977.

Were she an English actress, Streep would be Dame Meryl, an honored national figure accorded as much respect and -- far more importantly -- as many plum roles as she chose.

Look at the indefatigable Maggie Smith and Judi Dench, the late Sybil Thorndyke and Edith Evans.

Hollywood's preoccupation with youth has produced blatant ageism that turns away enormously talented performers purely for economic reasons.

How many stars do we have who are over the age of 60?

Count those under 35 and dare to compare their acting competency with Streep and others of her age.

Actors can look forward to much longer careers than actresses, a clear bias fostered by box-office receipts.

Cases in point are Clint Eastwood and Gene Hackman, both 72 years old. They continue to work in major mainstream movies because they are superlative performers on screen AND at the box office.

Streep, 20 years younger than they, has been driven to appear in fewer, lesser roles in inferior scripts.

Who is to blame for what appears to be sexist prejudice?

There are some who point a finger at screenwriters who fail to write stories dealing with middle-aged women because they aren't big box-office draws.

Others offer the explanation that actresses over 35 don't make exciting, promotional news in their private lives as do half-dressed, publicity-viable young exhibitionistic cuties pushing the envelope.

In the end, the blame, if such it can be called, may be laid at the feet of the moviegoing public.

Apparently the populace prefers to see unlined faces, unthickened waistlines in youthful stories even if the performances are subpar.

However, the ever-important bottom line is the genuine culprit for the disappearance of fine, seasoned actresses from major motion pictures.

Movies have become entirely a youth-oriented art form because that's where the big bucks lie.

When a half-baked comedy like "Austin Powers in Goldmember" earned $73 million in its opening weekend this month with a youthful cast for a youthful audience, why would any producer in his right mind not follow suit?

No matter how much a polished drama such as Steven Spielberg's "Road to Perdition" may try to compete in such a market, it didn't earn a third as much in its opening week.

Typically these days, neither film included a major role for a leading actress, much less a middle-aged actress.

Then there is Julia Roberts, this decade's America's Sweetheart whose fingerprints are on every good script that comes down the pipe.

Everybody loves Julia, and properly so, but she, too, will find herself facing professional Armageddon before long. Julia turns 35 this October.

Other admired actresses are fully engaged in coping with the stormy latitudes of age burnout: Cher, Meg Ryan, Sally Field, Sissy Spacek, Ellen Burstyn, Jane Fonda, Faye Dunaway, Goldie Hawn, Glenn Close and more.

Some Academy Award winners who haven't lost their talent, though their youth may be spent, cannot find any jobs worthy of them: Elizabeth Taylor, Shirley MacLaine, Julie Andrews, Joanne Woodward, Sophia Loren.

In the not-too-distant past, Katharine Hepburn and Bette Davis were exceptions. They worked well into their 70s.

They were exploitable names with hosts of fans who rushed to see their performances.

Today it is different.

Streep cannot compete with "Austin Powers," "Stuart Little," "Men in Black" and "Lilo & Stitch."

Neither could Hepburn or Davis, for that matter.

Movies today are not about soaring drama, inspiring performances and the human equation; they are about spectacle, shock, overwhelming action and special effects.

These are not the province of Streep nor any other actress, no matter her age or experience.

And that's a downright shame.

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