What does it say about Hollywood’s ageism when a twenty-six-year-old is cast in the role of a forty-year-old woman?
Elizabeth Debicki has replaced Eva Green in the role of revolutionary modernist writer Virginia Woolf in the upcoming biopic Vita and Virginia. The film will follow the love affair between Woolf and writer and socialite Vita Sackville-West. Woolf first met Sackville-West when she was forty, while Sackville-West was a decade younger. Sackville-West even remarked in a letter to her husband Harold that Woolf was “quite old” in comparison to herself.
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Ageism is a widespread problem in Hollywood with seniors representing about 19% of the US population, but only 11% of speaking roles in the top 100 movies of 2015. That is not, of course, to suggest that someone in their forties is senior, but Vita and Virginia‘s casting of a twenty-six-year-old in the role of a forty-year-old is clearly part of the same problem.
Examples of Hollywood ageism are countless, and extremely easy to find. Last year, the Guardian published an article citing several of the most ridiculous examples of ageism experienced by women in Hollywood. In 2015, Maggie Gyllenhaal revealed that she had just been turned down for a role in a movie because she, at thirty-seven, was considered too old to play the lover of a fifty-five-year-old man. Sally Field, who played Tom Hanks’ love interest in Punchline, was considered old enough to play his mother in Forrest Gump just six years later.
In May, Vanity Fair reported that Orange is the New Black actor Jamie Denbo was turned down for a role as the love interest of a fifty-seven-year-old because, at forty-three, she was considered too old. After revealing that the fictional husband and wife supposedly have an eighteen-year-old daughter, she tweeted:
The real wife of the 57 year-old actor is EASILY AT LEAST 50. But this fucker wants to be tv married to a 38 year-old -TOPS. . .I am TOO OLD to be the mother of an 18 year-old.
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What would Woolf have to say about all this? Well, she famously stated “I don’t believe in ageing. I believe in forever altering one’s aspect to the sun. Hence my optimism.” Perhaps she wouldn’t be hugely opposed to Debicki’s youth. However, it is important to examine what age and ageing actually meant for Woolf.
By the time she was forty, though Sackville-West was at the time considered the more successful writer, Woolf was an important artist. She was part of the Bloomsbury group of writers and published her first novel The Voyage Out, as well as many essays. In 1917, she had co-founded the Hogarth Press with her husband Leonard Woolf. She had experienced several nervous breakdowns, the first of which occurred at thirteen following the death of her mother. After several more, at the age of thirty-one, Woolf experienced a bout of severe depression during which time she made her first attempt at suicide. She survived and recovered, although she would always struggle with mental health issues. Her affair with Sackville-West was a hugely defining element of her life, and endured until Woolf’s death in 1941, meaning that during their time together Woolf published almost all of her work including Mrs Dalloway and To the Lighthouse. Sackville-West directly inspired Woolf’s time-travelling, gender-transcending novel Orlando: A Biography, and served as a source of encouragement and inspiration for Woolf, who often thought of herself an unattractive, ill recluse due to her illnesses. In addition to the physical and emotional attraction the two felt for each other, much of what Vita meant to Virginia was based on what had already happened in Virginia’s life by that time.
To cast someone so young in this role seems somehow dismissive of Woolf’s richly layered experiences, and all that she had achieved and endured by the time she met Sackville-West. Debicki is undeniably talented and I’m sure she will do well in the role, which appears to focus solely on the relationship between Woolf and Sackville-West, as opposed to any other aspects of Woolf’s life. (Thankfully, Arterton, at thirty-one is much the same age as Sackville-West.) However, one has to wonder how separate this aspect can be kept from the other elements that composed Woolf’s much chronicled existence without reducing her life’s work to one affair.
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With all this said, I am still looking forward to the finished product, and to see how the lives of these two extraordinary women are approached and depicted. Sackville-West and Woolf’s realtionship is so moving and as endlessly fascinating as they were as individuals, with Sackville-West, five years after meeting Woolf, declaring herself reduced ‘to a thing that wants Virginia.’
Debicki, who starred in The Night Manager, Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby, and Guardians of the Galaxy: Vol. 2, was announced for the cast along with Isabella Rossellini, whose role has not yet been revealed.
Vanessa Saal, managing director of sales and distribution for Protagonist, said:
Vita & Virginia is the true story of two of the most fascinating and progressive women of their time, who end up in the throes of a passionate affair which shapes their work and changes their lives forever.
The film will be director Chanya Button’s second, following 2015 comedy-drama Burn Burn Burn. It is written by Button and Eileen Atkins, based on Atkins’ play. The play was first performed in London in October 1993, and was based on the love letters between Woolf and Sackville-West. As far as I can tell, Atkins’ play did not seek to drastically reduce the age of either of the titular characters.
Featured Image Via Shortlist Magazine and IMDB