#OscarsSoYoung: older characters absent in Best Picture Oscar nominees

Michael Keaton in Birdman
Michael Keaton in Birdman Credit: Atsushi Nishijima

After the #OscarsSoWhite and #OscarsSoMale criticisms levelled at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in recent years, could #OscarsSoYoung point at the lack of age diversity shown in Best Picture Oscar nominees?

A study has shown that the vast majority of characters in Best Picture nominees from the past three years have been under the age of 60. Of the 25 films that have been considered for the Oscar, there were only two leading characters over 60, and both were played by Michael Keaton: in Birdman, in 2014, and Spotlight, the year after. 

Dr Stacy L Smith, who co-authored the report and has previously published reports into diversity on screen, said: "What seems to be apparent from this investigation is that despite all the discussion about inclusion in Hollywood, seniors are left out of that conversation".

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The report also found that older characters who weren't male were even more rare. Less than a quarter, 22.3 per cent, of older characters were women in the 25 Best Pictures nominees, only 10.1 per cent were from an ethnic group and none were Hispanic. Only four older women of colour were portrayed across the films, and all of them were African American. None of the characters who were over 60 were lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender. 

The report explained that despite the fact that "the focus on Hollywood’s diversity problem has been unrelenting", few have recognised the lack of senior citizens on screen, despite the fact that the Academy has a median age of 62, with only 14 per cent of members under 50. 

Older people have emerged as some of film's biggest supporters in recent years. In the US, people aged 60 and over comprise 18.5 per cent of the population and 14 per cent of box office buyers. Between 1995 and 2010, the number of over-50s visiting the cinema increased by 68 per cent. The UK witnessed a 14 per cent increased in filmgoers over the age of 45 between 1997 and 2008.

Denzel Washington, 62, plays a character who is 53 in Fences

By looking only at leading characters over the age of 60, however, the report does exclude a number of actors who were of that age, or playing characters of that age, in recent Academy-recognised films. For example, even though Denzel Washington was nearly 62 when 2017 Best Picture nominee Fences was released, his character is 53, and therefore excluded. 

Jeff Bridges, 67, was not included for his non-leading role in Hell or High Water, nor was 60-year-old Kevin Costner eligible for the report in Hidden Figures. 

Dr Katherine Pieper, who wrote the report with Smith and others, explained that their study looked at lead characters because they are "the major force attempting to accomplish the story’s purpose. Typically, but not always, the lead is also the protagonist. In some cases, two characters share roughly equivalent screen time, appear within the first five minutes of the film, and/or are equally involved in the journey. Occasionally, three or more characters fit this definition, and these characters constitute an ‘ensemble.’"


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