Older women tackling meaty roles

With a pool of aging actresses eager for work, and an aging audience eager to see them, women over 70 are enjoying a new focus on stage and screen.

The decidedly unglamorous Maggie Smith in “The Lady in the Van.” (Photo by Nicola Dove - © 2015 - Sony Pictures Classics)

Since the fall, four films featuring gutsy older women giving powerhouse performances have premiered. First came Lily Tomlin (76) in the title role of Paul Weitz’s Grandma, playing a feisty woman determined to support her granddaughter in her quest for an abortion. Tomlin’s character is fearless: she’s bisexual and pugnacious, and doesn’t answer to anyone about her lifestyle, including her judgmental daughter (Marcia Gay Harden) and her former jealous lover (Sam Elliott), to whom she comes for money to pay for the procedure.

Jane Fonda (78) may have had only a cameo in Paolo Sorrentino’s languid film Youth, but she gives the movie the energizing jolt it needed with her charismatic presence. Set the Alps at a ritzy resort for the rich and famous, two old friends — a composer (Michael Caine, 82) and a film director (Harvey Keitel, 76) — are fighting off the demons of aging. Fonda plays a Norma-Desmond-esque film star legend who visits Keitel and upends the film.

In Andrew Haigh’s 45 Years, Charlotte Rampling (70) gives an aching, nuanced performance as a retired schoolteacher in provincial England. She and her husband (Tom Courtney, 78) are about to celebrate their 45th anniversary when Rampling discovers that her husband has been hiding a terrible secret from the past. Throughout the film, the camera focuses relentlessly on Rampling’s face, ravaged with suffering and bewilderment. Not only does she survive this scrutiny, however, she triumphs, giving a brave, vulnerable performance of a woman at an agonizing crossroad in her life.

Eschewing glamor

These actresses are redefining the word glamorous. They’re passionate and vital, unafraid and unapologetic, with a stalwart sense of self. Maggie Smith (81), on the other hand, could hardly be called glamorous: remarkable and unstoppable would be more apt descriptions. The celebrated stage and screen actress has delighted audiences for six seasons as the formidable Dowager Countess in Downton Abbey. Now Alan Bennett’s new film, The Lady in the Van, features Smith in the title role.

Bennett’s film, based on the 1999 West End hit, tells the true story of a homeless woman whom the playwright permitted to park in his London driveway for 15 years. The ancient Margaret (if that’s her true name) is crusty, cantankerous, and conniving. She takes shameless advantage of the meek, good-hearted Bennett (played by Alex Jennings), sneaking into his house to use the lavatory, littering his lawn with unsavory trash, cursing at the neighbors, and terrorizing their children, providing Smith with the opportunity to do some shameless scenery-chewing. Still, the strange bond of friendship that develops between Margaret and Bennett is true, mutual, and deeply touching.

Theater, too

As for older actresses on the stage, Chita Rivera (86) wowed Broadway audiences last spring as the vengeful billionairess in Durrenmatt’s Visit. In the fall, Cicely Tyson (91) played opposite James Earl Jones (85) in The Gin Game, D. L. Coburn’s two-hander about two sparring residents in a nursing home. (She graciously covered for him nightly as he struggled with his lines).

A free spirit in a conventional guise: Linda Lavin in “Our Mother’s Brief Affair.” (Photo by Joan Marcus)
A free spirit in a conventional guise: Linda Lavin in “Our Mother’s Brief Affair.” (Photo by Joan Marcus)

Most recently, we have Linda Lavin (78) playing the title role in Our Mother’s Brief Affair, Richard Greenberg’s new play, which opened a few weeks ago on Broadway. Greenberg offers a new twist on the timeworn cliché of the Jewish Mother. Lavin plays a suburban widow who is on her deathbed (again). This time, she blurts out a confession to her adult twins that she had an affair while she was married to their father. It’s a memory play that treats us to flashbacks of her dalliance, as she unfolds her story to her disbelieving children. Lavin, who has a made a career playing Jewish mothers, is positively smashing in the role. Her comedic timing is impeccable, and with a mere tilt of the head or a recrossing of her legs she reveals a free spirit in a conventional guise.

In effect, Jane Fonda speaks for all the above actresses, in celebration of aging. “I’m ‘inside oldness’ now and it’s not scary at all,” she told a recent interviewer. “I couldn’t be happier. If you are someone who has maintained passion and focus in your life, there will always be something ‘not old’ about you. I’m all for ‘not young’!”

Sign Up For Our Newsletter

Want previews of our latest stories about arts and culture in Philadelphia? Sign up for our newsletter.