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.