The Good Eye: Tales From the Aging Box

Two actresses opine on when the only opportunity left is to play a mother. (Or a grandmother.)

Cyndi Williams and Lana Dieterich
Cyndi Williams and Lana Dieterich (Photo Amy Gentry)

Viewing this year's Academy Awards, you might get the impression that women over 40 are cleaning up in Hollywood. After all, the top two awards for women's acting went to Julianne Moore, 54, and Patricia Arquette, 46. Arquette in particular earned coded praise from critics who were amazed that she'd allowed herself to age naturally onscreen, crossing the one-way bridge from ingenue to middle-aged mom before an audience of millions.

But any actress will tell you: That bridge is coming for them all. The Austin actresses I've interviewed for this series ("Tales From the Beauty Box," Feb. 20, "Tales From the Quirky Box," Feb. 27, "Tales From the Minority Box," March 6) may begin their careers in different boxes, but they all end up in the same one. Academy Awards notwithstanding, very few of them are looking forward to it.

"How does a person even age in this career?" wondered Kaci Beeler; other actresses were already worrying over nearly invisible lines. Timeca Seretti, despite getting great work in early 2015, confessed anxiety over being called in to audition for a "cool grandma" part soon after playing a bespectacled teacher. It's not that Seretti has anything against grandmas, cool or otherwise. But Seretti, a lean, fierce actress who loves action films, can see the walls of the "aging box" closing around her.

It's a box with perks: No more pressure to look like a 24-year-old or strip down for a part, and fewer of the romantic girlfriend and "muse" roles that Jessie Lane Tilton identifies as "a vehicle for the male character."

Cyndi Williams (Room, Temple Grandin, Zero Charisma), however, sees a lot of mother roles that are just as instrumental. "I'm so happy if I get to audition for a character that has a name, and wants something besides what's best for her children. Not that there's anything wrong with that! But I think people are more complicated. I think women are more complicated. I think mothers are more complicated." She played one such complicated mother in Zero Charisma, a part she loved; but, given that she herself elected not to have children, she finds it a bit ironic that her onscreen life is now dominated by maternity.

Williams got into film in her 40s after years of acting, writing, and producing for the Austin stage, effectively skipping the ingenue phase. Still, when she was nominated for an Independent Spirit Award for Kyle Henry's Room, she got a taste of the particular brand of vitriol reserved for women who step outside their boxes. "Almost every single review talked about my body. One review actually said, 'It must have been so hard for Williams to see her own naked, sagging body in this film.' I was like, 'I'm in my 40s, I think it's fine!'" Some of those reviews have been taken down now, but she still remembers the bizarre anger directed at both her and her director for casting an unconventional lead: "At one Q&A, a person in the audience actually flat-out said, 'Why did you cast a fat actress? Why didn't you cast someone pretty? Why didn't you cast someone younger?'"

It's hard to imagine shedding any tears over aging out of a category in which one's looks are so harshly scrutinized and freely commented on. But the truth is, really juicy roles for women – Meryl Streep roles – are vanishingly rare after 50, when writers and directors seem to have trouble imagining that women even exist, apart from their roles as mothers and grandmothers.

Williams describes one table reading for a student film about a low-income woman fostering a group of misfit kids. In the screenplay, each character got a dream sequence exploring his or her deepest desires – except, that is, the foster mother. When the writers asked for her feedback, she pointed this out. "They said, 'Oh, well, she doesn't have any dreams, she's just a stupid old lady.'" Williams sighs. "There is a tendency, in our film and in our culture, to write off aging women."

Stage and screen actress Lana Dieterich (Fast Food Nation, Teeth, Love & Air Sex) has been playing "old woman" and "old lady" parts since even before she got into film acting in the mid-Nineties, due to her disability. "I had polio as a baby, and I have post-polio syndrome. My leg is progressively getting weaker and weaker." Now nearly 70, she walks with a cane. She relishes some edgier roles that she believes her disability may actually have helped her get, like the nurse character she played in Teeth, on whose uneven footsteps the camera lingers.

But when I ask about the film roles she wishes she could play, Dieterich immediately mentions one of those Streep roles: August: Osage County's Violet Weston, whom she played in Zach Scott's 2011 stage production. Director Dave Steakley dealt with Dieterich's disability on stage just as the matriarch character herself would have in real life: by having an automated chair built on set to whisk Dieterich up and down the stairs of the character's three-story home. It was the role of a lifetime, but it's hard to imagine such creativity in a film. Dieterich prefers her performance to Streep's: "I'm sorry, but Meryl pretty much phoned that in!" she laughs.

Both Dieterich and Williams seem to draw sustenance from the strong, satisfying stage careers they've had prior to, and in tandem with, screen acting. "I don't allow myself to feel constricted," says Dieterich, who recently landed the part of a honky-tonk performer in a Willie Nelson film by throwing an unscripted "yee haw" into her reading. Yet the comments about Dieterich's disability and Williams' weight brought home to me anew the endless variety of women we rarely, if ever, see onscreen in substantial roles, with their own motivations and inner lives. This series about stereotypes and screenwriting cliches could extend indefinitely, but the truth is, for some women, there aren't even boxes at all. And that has to change.


Next week: The Good Eye interviews local filmmakers who are working to change the status quo in Austin and beyond.

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

aging, acting, typecasting, Cyndi Williams, Lana Dieterich, August: Osage County, Room, Meryl Streep

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