Oscar Best Picture Nominees Are Ageist, Study Claims

Oscar Best Picture Nominees Are Ageist,
Courtesy of Paramount Pictures

This year’s Oscars has been hailed as more inclusive than previous awards shows. After two straight years of only recognizing white actors, seven of the 20 acting nominees this year are performers of color, tying a record. There are also a number of films, such as “Fences” and “Hidden Figures,” that deal with the African-American experience in this country, as well as pictures such as “Moonlight” that feature gay protagonists.

There’s one demographic that Oscar films have largely ignored, according to a new report by USC’s Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism. Researchers looked at the 25 best picture nominees from 2014, 2015, and 2016 and discovered that less than 12 percent of the 1,256 speaking or named characters were 60 years of age or older. That’s not reflective of the wider country where seniors make up 18.5 percent of the U.S.population, nor does it account for the fact that they make up 14 percent of film ticket buyers. It does, however, jibe with industry-wide trends. In an earlier study, USC researchers found that just 11 percent of characters in the 100 highest-grossing films from 2015 were over the age of 59.

“When we think about diversity, we often talk about including the usual suspects of race, gender, sexual orientation, people with disabilities, but age is often left out of the conversation,” said Stacy Smith, the study’s co-author. “It’s a missed opportunity for Hollywood. These are people with disposable income and time on their hands to view and stream and download films.”

Smith said that the problem is deeper. Many of the seniors who are portrayed in films are on the receiving end of pejorative remarks or are portrayed as being sickly. Six of the 14 films that featured a leading or supporting senior included ageist comments, such as a character telling another to “…just sit here and let Alzheimer’s run its course.” The study maintains those kinds of portraits help entrench certain stereotypes, and that these viewpoints can have a negative impact on the health and well being of senior citizens.

There’s a lack of diversity in the types of roles for seniors and the seniors who make their way onto screens. Of the 148 senior characters in the best picture nominees, 77.7 percent were men and 89.9 percent were white. In terms of the other racial makeup, 6.1 percent of the characters were black, 2 percent were Asian and not one senior character was Hispanic or Latino.

Of the leading roles in all of the best picture nominees, only one was played by a character 60 years of age or older, and that was Michael Keaton in “Birdman, or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance.” Among ensemble casts, only one of the six leading characters was a senior, and that was again Keaton, this time playing a grizzled newspaper editor in “Spotlight.” Denzel Washington is 62 years old, but his character in “Fences” is in his forties. There have also been films with seniors in the lead, such as 2012’s “Amour” and 2013’s “Nebraska,” but they were outside of the scope of the study.

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  1. Miriam says:

    People always focus on blacks but I often find the there films and especially there speeches get redundant. Why do people not focus on Hispanics, natives, and Asians. To this day a native has never been nominated for an acting award. Also Alejandro Inaritu won best director two years in a row who is from Mexico. His countryman and friend won the year before. The last USA director to win was Kathryn Bigalo in 2010. This year it is a bunch of white Americans. At least the likely winner would break a record from 1931 for the youngest winner. Last year two Europeans won acting award plus Eddie Redmayne the year before. That said I did like hidden figures. The acting was good and the story was unlike most stories and needed to be told. They need to focus on types of roles and other categories and maybe different countries and cultures. Not just African American. By the way I am autistic and half Lebanese and Canadian and a pianist composer.

  2. jazz says:

    while i agree that it is ridiculous for movies to be judged on whether there are enough blacks in it or politically correct moments or whatever…a movie should be based on a movie and that’s it…

    the idea that the oscars are better this year because more blacks are nominated is insane…what were the great performances…what were the best films…that’s what should matter…

    and whether or not older people are nominated shouldn’t matter either…what needs to be is that older actors be recognized for their talents, which are in most cases, far better than anything coming from the younger generation, who are blatantly ‘box office potential’ rather than being any good…

    hollywood has to stop looking at the bottom line and start looking up at the screen again…

  3. Jan says:

    I know black don’t crack but this is ridiculous….La La Land is going to win…why put this supposed “ageism” (based on a sample of three years’ worth of BP nominations) on Fences when it features the oldest characters of the nominees? And then claim that Troy is a character in his 40s on top of that when it’s known he’s in his 50s. You need to fix that incorrect Denzel line.

  4. Pedro Gatica says:

    Why should anyone give an award to a movie just because of a political or social reason, they must focus on the film quality, enough … that is why this years nominees are too weak in my opinion

  5. Dale Q says:

    I’ve read the link to this study on another site. Don’t know if we are allowed to post external links, but I won’t post a link, as I wouldn’t want my post to get deleted for breaking any rules.

    Not only does the study not even once mention Denzel Washington by name, it says nothing about his character being in his 40’s. Very odd.

  6. Skip Houston says:

    In a new study to be released this weekend, there are zero characters named Skip in any of the Best Picture Nominees despite the fact that there are people named Skip.

  7. Pamela Maxfield says:

    Well done, Brent Lang…interesting observations on an important issue. When I read the responses which are posted, I was surprised to realize how superficial, ignorant, and trite they sounded; I mistakenly thought readers of Variety were reflective, well-informed, and intelligent.

    • Frederick Louis Richardson says:

      Most respondents on the Internet are under-informed reactionaries. But this unfortunately is true of the real world. Thoughtful, intellectual curiosity requires knowledge, forethought and a bit of homework to which too many here are not heir to. Your astute observation is revolutionary. Bless your heart.

  8. Dale Q says:

    James: There’s clearly something fishy about this article. Leading with a picture of Denzel Washington, then claiming his character is in his 40’s (when he’s not), so therefore represents the evils of ageism in Hollywood. Right in the middle of Oscar voting in a super tight race with Casey Affleck. That’s convienient. Wonder how many older Academy members this piece was supposed to cost Washington

    If this so called researcher/study can’t get something as simple as the age of Denzel Washington’s character correct, then Variety shouldn’t be using them as a source. It’s very questionable how any study could get that information to be incorrect. The writer made Denzel the centrepiece of this story with the lead photo. I’m surprised you don’t consider this problematic

    • cadavra says:

      For the record, writers don’t pick the photos, editors do. So don’t blame Lang.

      • Dale Q says:

        Mr Lang is a senior editor, so I imagine he doesn’t need to ask for permission to select photos for pieces he also writes. This whole debacle is on him.

  9. James says:

    I love how every comment below the article basically calls out the articles writer and insults them or expresses frustration at the data being reporte for some odd reason. The writer didn’t write the study. He’s reporting on a study. The study came from the USC Annenberg School for communication, is related to the industry and the Oscars are right around the corner. So, relax and quit being douchebags.

  10. Carlo says:

    Well, I see we have some very intelligent people. I salute you all. Actually, I shouldn’t complain; I’ve been in the business both in front & behind the camera and I am well over 65. But damn it, when are
    we just going to judge a film or a performance on talent and not count how many of this and how many of that are in it? This author is a complete moron that is just trying to take advantage of all the hoopla
    of people that don’t have talent.

  11. Dale Q says:

    Why is there a picture of Washington leading this article, also claiming his character in in his 40’s? Washington has said in numerous interviews that the character of Troy Maxon is 53. It’s also stated in the play. Did the writer just randomly make up the information that his character is in his 40’s to write this article?

    Either it’s just poorly researched journalism, or it’s a conviniently timed hatchet job designed to turn older Academy voters off voting for Washington.

    You really need to do better. And correct the article.

  12. joshwolf182 says:

    This is so Fucking stupid. It’s a. Award show. They can do whatever they want. Stop butching and moaning about why some people don’t get oscars. Maybe they just fuckin suck and it’s nothing to do with their textbook liberal agenda.

  13. Sal H. says:

    I’m sorry, but this is getting insane!

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