Lying about one’s age in Hollywood has been great for actresses since the start of motion pictures. Imagine Jean Arthur kicking off her fame in her late 30s now, or starring in Shane in her 50s. And it wasn’t just to seem younger. Think of Traci Lords. Umm, never mind. Nor was it just women. Laurence Fishburne said he was older to get his part in Apocalypse Now. Aside from Lords’ case, it’s not a big deal. If you look the part, you get the part. Right?
Well, it turns out that the Internet has made this difficult because casting agents are allegedly considering actual ages revealed through Internet Movie Database listings rather than looking at people’s faces and performances. This thinking has already led to one lawsuit in which an actress claims IMDb posted her birth date against her wishes and hurt her chances for younger roles. Now the acting unions SAG and AFTRA are joining in, accusing the website of fascillitating age discrimination. Here’s part of the ridiculously misguided joint statement:
An actor’s actual age is irrelevant to casting. What matters is the age range that an actor can portray. For the entire history of professional acting, this has been true but that reality has been upended by the development of IMDb as an industry standard used in casting offices across America. IMDb publishes the actual dates of birth of thousands of actors without their consent, most of them not celebrities but rank-and-file actors whose names are unknown to the general public. When their actual ages then become known to casting personnel, the 10+ year age range that many of them can portray suddenly shrinks and so do their opportunities to work.
I just checked my personal listing on IMDb and — phew! – thankfully it doesn’t include my birthdate (though it does include my nickname, ‘Porkchop’). See, I’m approaching 35 and still get carded for cigarettes, not to mention alcohol. When I shave my beard and wear the right clothes, I can pass for so young that I could probably pull off a documentary version of Never Been Kissed. Then again, I’ve been illegally asked my age during job interviews by people who think I’m too young for any position of power. Complaining patrons at cinemas that I’ve managed have thought the same thing. What I’m getting at is the age you look can be both a blessing and a problem. And it has nothing to do with a number.
The unions should just re-read the first two sentences of their statement. “An actor’s actual age is irrelevant to casting. What matters is the age range that an actor can portray.” Exactly! And any good casting director or filmmaker should look at the actor or actress, not his or her age. Even knowing their birth dates at the time, we’ve accepted thirtysomething women like Stockard Channing and Gabrielle Carteris as teens and we’ve accepted a baby-faced young actor like Leonardo DiCaprio as a middle-aged man. Hollywood just needs to stop checking IDs (unless it’s a legal matter), at least until they ultimately just replace all actors with immortal, ageless computer-generated characters.
What are people saying about the IMDb age controversy and SAG and AFTRA’s request? Here’s The Conversation heard around the blosophere and Twitter:
With all the lies and evasions out there, [IMDb's birthdate listtings] seems to level the playing field and just say “Here’s how old they are. Deal with it.” [...] is the way to get more work for actors simply to cover up how old they really are? - Michael Musto, La Daily Musto
SAG may have a point here. Take, for example, [SAG president] Ken Howard. He could easily pass for a man in his mid-50s, which is much, much younger than the 67 years he has actually been alive, according to Wikipedia. – Scott Collins, LA Times’ Show Tracker
One way to overcome the age discrimination actors often face — especially women actors — is to have everyone’s ages known. If everyone who can play 30 is actually 45, then nothing will really change, will it? – Maryann Johnson, Flick Filosopher
Why IMDb is being singled out is beyond me (can’t a lot of the same information be found on Wikipedia?) but then again just about everything about this boggles the mind. How is the onus on IMDb to stop age discrimination in Hollywood? It’s not a new issue that has cropped up in the internet age. If you don’t like it, take issue with producers, casting agents, studio executives and the like. – Mike Sampson, JoBlo.com
Whilst it’s difficult to argue against the actor’s right not to have their age published if that’s what they wish, it seems the issue of ageism in Hollywood is the real problem here. But it’s easier for actors to take action against IMDb than it is to prove that they’re missing out on work because of their age. – Paul Sawers, TNW Insider
Hollywood does what every private business would be litigated out of business for doing; they hire pretty people for their movies because pretty people put butts in seats. Let Walmart hire only pretty people as cashiers, prove that doing so boosts profits, and see if they get away with it. But Hollywood gets away with the exact same thing and does so brazenly. This union crybabying (do they ever do anything different?) is all about vanity. If SAG or AFTRA gave a damn about real discrimination they would be in an uproar [over] what’s known as ‘lookism.’ – John Nolte, Big Hollywood
On one hand, it must be incredibly tough to be a 45-year-old actress. Outside of like three roles a decade (all given to Sandra Bullock), Hollywood tends to pin women into two categories: “young hot starlet” or “spinster/Mom.” Obviously, the former pays better and gives you the chance [to] extend your career in a cutthroat industry. On the other hand, as long as IMDb keeps doing this, the two sides will keep fighting about it and it will give me a chance to post banner pics where I pretend Abe Vigoda is reading for roles in teen movies, which is HILARIOUS to me. So, yeah, both sides make some pretty valid points. – Danger Guerrero, Film Drunk
@popninjas: Seriously Hollywood? You’re blaming iMDB for your age discrimination issues? You really are out of touch with reality.
@Dave_Holcroft: This sums up blame culture gone mad -always some1 elses fault!
@Alec_Azam: Sadly, no irony in requests that IMDB stop printing actors’ birthdates as it “causes age discrimination”. Why not attack the discrimination?
@stewartaward: Unions now wading in on IMDB age row “what matters is the age range an actor can portray” exactly, if you can’t pull it off you’re too old!
@andyduss: WTH? You all already make enough $ to live off. Stop suing.
@richardkendall: they could just add ‘celebrity adjusted age’ in brackets
@ThePlaylist: Uh, isn’t it up to people who are casting movies/TV to stop age discrimination and not IMDB?
Follow Christopher Campbell on Twitter (@thefilmcynic) to join The Conversation.