Great actresses who turned in amazing performances in later life

There’s always been a shortage of good roles on screen for ageing actresses, but these great stars defy the trend.

Katharine Hepburn (1907-2003)

On Golden Pond (1981)

The western, the cop film, the spy film and the thriller welcome with open arms the mature male actor—relish, in fact, the lines of age and silvering at the ears. Wrinkles on a woman are just what they are; on a man, they are runic, mutably significant, but always denoting meritoriously: an appetite for life, rich experience. Hoary whiskers spell wisdom, and so on and so forth. But there is no genre that caters to the ageing actress, and the shortage of roles for older women has been enough to elbow some performers into early, undue retirement.

How incredible, then, that Katharine Hepburn received three of her four Oscars when over the age of 60. Hepburn collected Oscars for her performance in On Golden Pond (1981), opposite Henry Fonda; for The Lion in Winter (1968); and for her last film with real-life love Spencer Tracy, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? (1967). 

In between, she earned an Emmy for her part in the lesser-seen British production Love among the Ruins (1975), an amusing two-hander with Laurence Olivier in which her well-to-do widow hires Olivier’s lovelorn lawyer to defend her against a charge of breach of promise.

What links several of these late performances is the exploitation of her character’s age – her “time of life” – as fair game for gag material in a way, needless to say, it would not be were she male. In On Golden Pond, her elderly Ethel argues the toss: “Well, we’re at the far edge of middle age, that’s all.” Her husband puts his foot down: “We’re not, you know.”

Geraldine Page (1924-87)

The Trip to Bountiful (1985)

Among the scarce roles available to the more mature actress, there is The Mother: the beneficent; megalomaniacal; estranged or empty-nested; the elder Mildred Pierces, Mommie Dearests, and the I Remember Mama mamas.

Nominated for eight Academy Awards, Page might conceivably and deservedly have collected an Oscar for her disquieting performance as morbidly depressed mother Eve in Woody Allen’s Interiors (1978). Eve’s neuroses are writ large on her starched appearance: the bows tied tight at her throat, the gatherings-in by drawstring, the severity of her centre-parted hair like a crease pressed into trousers.

Page aged up for the role that won her an Oscar in 1986—another mother, worlds apart. She was 61 when she played the eightysomething Carrie Watts, the creation of playwright Horton Foote, who adapted his text for the screen. But perhaps what secured her the award and the reason for the play’s recent revival is that The Trip to Bountiful (1985) is about more than motherhood. When the elderly Carrie flees in floral housedress the two-room home of her henpecked son, it is to return to the rural Texas of her upbringing, where she changed into a woman, worked the soil, watched love walk by the porch, and buried two infant children. Page’s Carrie is natural as running water, soft and feminine in her dotage as ever she was in her youth; a youth the depth of her performance has us picture in a film without flashbacks. 

Page died suddenly at the age of 62 while performing on Broadway in Noël Coward’s Blithe Spirit. Had she lived longer, there’s no doubting she’d have continued to work and be hired—not to recapitulate earlier roles as was, in large measure, expected of Hepburn and Bette Davis, but to lose herself, mercurially, in still more complex permutations of womanhood.

Bette Davis (1908-89)

Death on the Nile (1978)

If Bette Davis did not receive Academy recognition for her later film performances, she merits mention anyway for her tenacity. Davis worked right up until her death in 1989, bouncing, post-60, between two antithetical institutions: Hammer and Walt Disney. 

Davis did what she wanted and only what she wanted, so there is relative safety in trusting her choices. After showing the door to its first director and ordering a rewrite as one imagines she might a drink, she sported a colour-coordinated eye-patch in Hammer’s The Anniversary (1967) as the mordant Mrs Taggart, widowed mother to three grown boys, who insists on their celebrating her wedding anniversary a decade after her husband’s death. Exquisitely camp, pursing pillar-box lips, Davis seemed to have decided not to bother with the requisite British accent—but who cares? It was a ‘Feast For Bette Davis Fans,’ according to the movie poster. 

She joined Christopher Lee – as the old lady-aide to his evil Dr Gannon – in the live-action Disney sequel Return from Witch Mountain (1978), and was the ashen lady-of-the-manor Mrs Aylwood in The Watcher in the Woods (1980). 

When the older actress is deemed no longer eligible for leading roles, the ensemble cast – or Agatha Christie – comes to the rescue. Davis was at her caustic best engaging in tit-for-tat one-upwomanship with Maggie Smith in the still-definitive, Anthony Shaffer-adapted Death on the Nile (1978). Along with Angela Lansbury’s dipsomaniac authoress, the duelling of the dowager and her lady’s companion yields the whodunit’s funniest dialogue, with Smith’s Miss Bowers roughly maneuvering her mistress, who, in turn, has Bowers in a headlock over her suggested homosexuality.   

Turning to TV movies when feature roles were unforthcoming, she won an Emmy for outstanding lead actress for her performance in Strangers: The Story of a Mother and Daughter (1979), which paired her – in a coup of inspired casting – with Gena Rowlands as the daughter who abandoned her 21 years before. (The rub of these mother-roles is that they are seldom explorative, under-the-skin; this one is.)

In long white wig, she teamed with fellow veteran Lillian Gish for the Maine-set The Whales of August (1987), directed by Lindsay Anderson. In this, her penultimate film, she played the older, scolding sister to Gish’s genteel Sarah. No, Bette Davis “did not go gentle”, but by all accounts was brattish behind-the-scenes of The Whales of August, lobtailing like a great cetacean and disturbing the film-set waters. What else? 

Ruth Gordon (1896-1985)

Rosemary’s Baby (1968)

Ruth Gordon was, for a long time, likelier to be laurelled for her half-a-dozen screenplays, some of which she co-wrote with her husband Garson Kanin. Together they scripted two Cukor vehicles for Hepburn and Tracy – Adam’s Rib (1949) and Pat and Mike (1952) – that allegedly used the vicissitudes of their own married life for a yardstick. 

Not until she appeared as Natalie Wood’s mother in Inside Daisy Clover (1965) – after a 15-year absence and plaudits in the theatre – did she garner any real recognition as a film actress. 

From then on, Gordon was a go-to for eccentrics; gifted at them. As Minnie in Rosemary’s Baby (1968) she was more than met the eye: sashayed in mules and tinkling jewellery into the apartment of Mia Farrow’s naïve eponym, and, puckered behind the peephole, groomed her for impregnation by the devil. 

At 75, she subverted the norm and took the romantic lead in Hal Ashby’s Harold and Maude (1971), rescuing Bud Cort’s boy, who is blue in the face with boredom, from asphyxiation by his impassive, aristocratic mother. An impish inventorix, Maude was no mother role, but the motherlode: the beluga caviar of characters for women over sixty. 

Gordon was 73 when her name was called out for the Oscar in 1969. She got up like a shot, pitched fur into her seat, walked toward the stand, and said, drily: “I can’t tell you how encouraging a thing like this is.”

Emmanuelle Riva (1927-2017)

Amour (2012)

French actress Emmanuelle Riva was earmarked to win best actress for her confronting performance in Michael Haneke’s Palme d’Or-winning Amour (2012), as retiree Anne Laurent who is paralysed after a stroke. Like many of the films on offer to ageing actresses, Amour makes the indignity of infirmity its subject; few, however, are as unsentimental and sensitive as this, or have captured quite the tendresse between senescent partners.

Though she lost the Oscar to Jennifer Lawrence, Riva – whose 86th birthday coincided with the ceremony – holds the record for being the oldest nominee. 

In her youth, she was ‘She’ in Hiroshima mon amour (1959), adapted from the novel by its author Marguerite Duras, and the feature debut of Alain Resnais, then fresh from Night and Fog (1955). It is fitting, then, that she came full-circle – half a century later – with another love story; another film about the fragmentation of communication.

Jessica Lange (b.1949)

Grey Gardens (2009)

It was as Julie in Tootsie (1982) that Jessica Lange earned the first of her two Oscars—somewhat unexpectedly. She missed out on the best actress Oscar that year – to Meryl Streep for Sophie’s Choice – though nominated for her moving performance as real-life actress Frances Farmer. Frances (1982) pointed the finger at Hollywood for flattening the outspoken star when she rejected its projections for her career. Notably, Kim Stanley was nominated in the best supporting category for her part as Frances’s mother, complicit – so the story goes – in her daughter’s repeated institutionalisation. One suspects, then, that Lange’s win was a nod to her Frances in all but name. 

Lange, always excellent, seems now – more than ever – to have found her stride. Her Golden Globe- and SAG-nominated, Primetime Emmy-winning performance as Big Edie in the TV-movie Grey Gardens (2009) beggared belief by its likeness to the real-life relative of Jackie Onassis – first conveyed to screen in the cult Maysles brothers’ documentary of 1975. Watching side-by-side, one is pushed to tell the difference between the real and the performed Big Edie, so completely is Lange dissolved in the role.

Lange has cemented her comeback with the ongoing anthology series American Horror Story, now in its fifth season. Her polymorphous performances – fiendish, monolithic – earned her an Emmy, a Golden Globe and a SAG Award in 2012. 

Kinuyo Tanaka (1909-77)

The Ballad of Narayama (1958)

Japanese actress Kinuyo Tanaka was 64 when awarded the Silver Bear for best actress at the 1975 Berlin Film Festival. The winning role, her reclusive Osaki, relates – by way of a framing interview – how she was sold into prostitution as a young woman in turn-of-the-century Malaysia. 

Tanaka’s career traversed the most formative decades of Japanese cinema. She starred as the female lead in Japan’s first sound-film in 1931, and went on to work for some of the country’s most acclaimed directors, twice for the masterful Kenji Mizoguchi in Ugetsu monogatari (1953) and Sanshō Dayū (1954).

She played a Grandmother long before her 70th year in the lush, jidaigeki narrative Ballad of Narayama (1958). Tranquilly consenting to ubasute practice – by which a village’s elderly relatives are conveyed the height of Narayama mountain and abandoned there to die – Tanaka’s Orin tasks herself with first finding a wife for her doting son. 

Extraordinarily, Tanaka appeared in over 250 films, and became the second actress to turn director in the history of Japanese film. 

Jessica Tandy (1909-94)

Driving Miss Daisy (1989)

Hackney-born, working-class Jessica Tandy was among the world’s most prolific theatre actors. She first took to the stage at age 18, rising to prominence with roles now synonymous with the acme of an actress’s career: Ophelia, to John Gielgud’s Hamlet, and Katherine in Olivier’s Henry V.

In America, where she would pass the larger part of her career, she secured still more desirable roles, her avian beauty perfectly fitted to the part of the delicate Blanche Dubois in the original Broadway production of A Streetcar Named Desire (1948). 

Her film roles were fewer, on the fringe – though she flew in unforgettably as Lydia Brenner in Hitchcock’s The Birds (1963)

She took breaks for years at a time, but resurfaced with a supporting part in The World According to Garp (1982) and joined Ron Howard’s well-meaning geriatric ensemble Cocoon with her husband Hume Cronyn.

Tandy became the oldest Oscar-winner of all time – overtaking Katharine Hepburn – for her role in the now much-dated Driving Miss Daisy (1989). She was 80.

Ingrid Bergman (1915-82)

Autumn Sonata (1978)

American audiences embraced this émigré actress like no other. But their eulogising hurt her the more when a starring role in Stromboli (1950) led to an affair with Roberto Rossellini, and she fell pregnant. Persuaded by the scandal to remain in Europe, she left her husband and daughter behind—a decision that didn’t fit with the public’s impossible perception of her character. 

Previously, the star stole hearts with parts in Casablanca (1942) and Notorious (1946). She spellbound in Gaslight (1944) as Paula, made paranoid almost to madness by a magpie-husband who would have her impounded. 

At 63, under the watchful eye of her namesake Ingmar Bergman, she gave a darkling performance in Autumn Sonata (1978) as an eminent concert pianist forced to hear out her daughter’s accusations that she deserted her family to advance her career and brought about, by dint of neglect, a second daughter’s disability. 

Bergman was (apparently) pardoned across the pond some years before, winning best supporting actress for her missionary in Murder on the Orient Express (1974).

Bergman used her acceptance speech, as has rarely happened before or since, to extol the talents of another actress, Valentina Cortese, her competitor that year – showing her true colours as a team player and supporter of women inured in a fickle, unforgiving industry: “after all, we have all forgotten our lines, and always opened the wrong doors.”

Lillian Gish (1893-1993)

The Whales of August (1987)

In her younger years, this silent era film star was branded by association with The Birth of a Nation (1915) and its seminal director D.W. Griffith. She was Griffith’s spring lamb; suffered in Broken Blossoms (1919) and Way Down East (1920), among other films they made in unison. 

Gish never wanted for work. At 60, she starred in the first screen-adaptation of The Trip to Bountiful (1953), alongside an upstart Eva Marie Saint, who – still acting herself, aged 90 – identifies Gish as her life-long mentor. 

Gish replenished her icon in Charles Laughton’s The Night of the Hunter (1955) as earthbound guardian angel to a brood of “little things”; a white knight behind fly-screen – in rocking chair, with a shotgun – waiting for Robert Mitchum’s child-catching, sham man-of-God to play his next move.

Judi Dench (b.1934)

Philomena (2013)

Judi Dench was 61 when cast as ‘M’ in Goldeneye, a character formerly gifted to men—from Bernard Lee, the first, to macho-man John Huston. Dench was nearer 80 when they slew her ‘M’ in Skyfall (2012).

She gave a tour-de-force performance, making havoc in Notes on a Scandal (2006), as a vinegary schoolteacher infatuated with a younger female colleague. Dench deserved her Oscar nomination – deserved, in fact, to win – doing justice to a role more interesting than the ageing actress is given grounds to expect. 

Never ebbing, now 82, Dench has a knack for attracting fully realised female characters, and turned out textured women in Ladies in Lavender (2004), Philomena (2013) and The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (2011).

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