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Posted 2/17/2005 9:15 PM     Updated 2/17/2005 11:04 PM
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Five actresses face down the big

For five of Hollywood's top actresses — Halle Berry, 38; Julia Roberts, 37; Nicole Kidman, 37; Naomi Watts, 36; and Catherine Zeta-Jones, 35 — that number looms like a bright red stop sign.

It's the age when, historically, desirable roles for women begin drying up. When good scripts stop rolling in. And when fresh-faced twenty-somethings begin to grab coveted roles.

For every Katharine Hepburn, who won her fourth Oscar at age 74 for On Golden Pond, there are many more female stars who seem to fade away like once-treasured oil paintings left out in the sun. Think of Jessica Lange, 55; Melanie Griffith, 47; or Michelle Pfeiffer, 46.

"The roles thin out when (actresses) get to a certain age," acknowledges Oscar-nominated director and actor Clint Eastwood, who at 74 is still considered leading-man material. "It's a crime."

But Kidman, Roberts, Berry, Zeta-Jones and Watts — all either Oscar winners or Oscar nominees — stand a chance of beating Hollywood's odds for several reasons, experts say.

They have not worn out their welcomes. "These women's careers really blossomed when they were in their 30s," says Entertainment Tonight film critic/historian Leonard Maltin. "So it's not as though anyone is tired of them."

They've varied their roles. All the actresses mix it up by starring in both big-budget audience pleasers — Berry as Storm in the X-Men flicks, Watts in next month's The Ring Two, Zeta-Jones in Ocean's Twelve— and smaller, more intimate films. That includes Watts in 21 Grams, Roberts in Closer and Kidman in Birth.

They're planning for the future. All five actresses either produce films or have their own production houses that they use to find or develop screenplays.

It's all part of using their clout while they're on top to prepare for the leaner years. And that's smart, because the longevity of a female star is grounded in a combination of "good roles, good genes and good luck," says Jeanine Basinger, founder and curator of the Cinema Archives and chair of the Film Studies Department at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Conn. "The man can be the romantic interest until he's 101. But there's a point for a woman where, if you're not the romantic interest, what are you going to play?"

 The fabulous five

That's why, Basinger says, it's key for actresses in their 30s and beyond to pick substance over sizzle.

Eastwood's ex-love Frances Fisher, 52, who has maintained a steady career by playing supporting roles, points to Kidman as someone who is heeding Basinger's advice.

"Nicole is really smart about her career," Fisher says. "She's been taking on some very juicy roles and showing her range. She hasn't gotten herself locked into one type of (role)."

Kidman won her Oscar not for playing a glamour-puss cancan dancer in Moulin Rouge but an unattractive Virginia Woolf in The Hours, complete with a prosthetic nose and frazzled hair. Berry de-glammed to portray a bitter waitress in Monster's Ball. Roberts played against type as an unlikable adulteress in Closer. And Watts earned raves for playing a depressed, washed-out widow in 21 Grams.

But as has always been the case, good roles are hard to come by, especially for women as they get older. "It's a very, very hard thing to change the perception of the studios that it's not just young and beautiful that is acceptable to the public," Fisher says.

Writer/director Nancy Meyers says it was having Jack Nicholson on board that allowed her to make her $125-million-grossing 2003 comedy Something's Gotta Give, with Diane Keaton, now 59, in the lead. One male studio head told Meyers that audiences weren't interested in seeing older women between the sheets. Nicholson, she says, "made (the studio) feel safe."

"The movie business is tough," acknowledges Annette Bening, who at 46 is up for an Academy Award this year for her role as a fading actress in Being Julia. "It's driven by economics and economics are about trying to get a lot of people into the theater. That's the reality of the business — the culture we're in."

Good parts still hard to come by

That's no shock to Los Angeles-based casting director Jane Jenkins, who worked on A Beautiful Mind, Friday Night Lights and Something's Gotta Give.

"I can't tell you the last script I read where I needed (women) in their mid-40s," she says. "There's just not a whole lot of those parts. Since Something's Gotta Give, I can't think of a project I've worked on for which I've been looking for actresses of a certain age."

But many parts aren't too age-specific and can go to a woman in her 30s and beyond. And here's where Roberts, Kidman and Co. win out. They have a vibrant, youthful appearance while still exuding a mature, smart womanliness.

"Nicole's career is safe. She can turn 40 and be breathtakingly beautiful and talented," Jenkins says.

The same goes for Roberts, Basinger says: "She has one of those unique beauties that's somewhat unconventional, in the tradition of Audrey Hepburn. She has options because she has a look that won't age."

And those options are open to Berry, Watts and Zeta-Jones as well.

"Traditionally women are shunned at 40, but I think in some ways these women will be able to break that barrier," says Mimi Leder, who directed Kidman in 1997's The Peacemaker. "Fifty is the new 40; forty is the new 30. Women are looking better. Look at Desperate Housewives. Those women are (mostly) all in their 40s, and it's a very successful show. Maybe the world has finally realized all women aren't 20."

Roberts, Kidman and their peers are still seen as "sexy, sensual women," Maltin says. "I don't see any diminishing of cover stories on Julia Roberts in People magazine. Or coverage of Nicole on the red carpet. Or Halle Berry being replaced as the spokesperson and model for Revlon."

Meyers says this crop of women probably will "hang on a little big longer because they have a real relationship with the audience. People really want to see Nicole Kidman and Julia Roberts."

And even though Zeta-Jones has yet to be the lead in a hit movie, "she has shown herself to be able to play a lot of different kinds of things. She can do musicals, adventures, dramatic stuff and comedy. That increases her chances," Basinger says.

As for Watts, the experts say she remains an adaptable character actress who can work for years because her career has never hinged on her looks or sex appeal.

Of all the women, the situation could be most dire for Berry, who has recently stumbled in films like Gothika and Catwoman, according to Basinger. "She pulled back from the serious acting and that has clearly been the kiss of death for her."

But don't write her off so fast, says Marc Forster, who directed Berry to Oscar gold in Monster's Ball. "Halle's a great actress," he says. "But she needs to make sure she works with the right directors and projects."

Berry will play serious again as a poverty survivor in her new Oprah Winfrey-produced ABC TV movie, Their Eyes Were Watching God, airing March 6.

Producing helps keep roles coming

For Berry and her colleagues, insurance for the future includes planning ahead by running production houses, going after hot scripts and producing films.

Kidman, who produced Jane Campion's 2003 erotic thriller In the Cut, isn't fretting about aging because she sees herself quitting acting in the future to focus on charity and some theater. "I don't have a complete cut-off point, but this (acting) is not for me," she says.

As for Roberts, her Red Om Productions was behind 2003's estrogen-fueled drama Mona Lisa Smile. And Watts produced last year's We Don't Live Here Anymore and her new film Ellie Parker, which premiered at Sundance. Berry, meanwhile, was executive producer of the critically lauded HBO drama Lackawanna Blues and is producing her two upcoming films, Foxy Brown and Nappily Ever After.

"If I have to produce movies, direct movies, whatever to change the way Hollywood treats older women, I'll do it," Watts says. "If I have to bend the rules, I will. If I have to break them, I will."

She'll have help from powerful behind-the-scenes women like Elaine Goldsmith-Thomas. The Revolution Studios partner and former ICM super-agent says she is currently developing 18 to 19 scripts, all of them with female protagonists.

"We're not trying to make a stand," Goldsmith-Thomas says. "We make movies that we want to see."

Even critical darling Meryl Streep attributes her longevity to having more women managing studios.

"Someone once said that sometimes studio heads don't want to cast films with the image of their first wife in the role," Streep told USA TODAY last July. "It's just rather unpleasant for them. So they like the idea of the new one."

But all that is slowly changing, Bening says. "I think as time goes on and women are in positions to make choices as to what ends up in the theater, maybe we can expand people's imaginations about what people might enjoy seeing."

Perhaps that time already has come. Anne Sweeney is in charge at ABC/Disney. Amy Pascal at Sony. Stacy Snider at Universal. And although Sherry Lansing is on her way out at Paramount (to be replaced by producer/talent manager Brad Grey), she has seen progress.

After famously starting her career off by declaring she would never see a female head of a movie studio during her lifetime, Lansing is now "confident that 40 is no longer a problem, and I think the power of women is responsible. As women are controlling the greenlighting process, we are looking for women of all ages and looking to make films about women and different types of women. We're not just looking for 20-year-olds anymore."

Besides, few 20-year-olds have proven themselves worthy of taking over as the next Pretty Woman. Scarlett Johansson, Julia Stiles, Reese Witherspoon, Natalie Portman and Keira Knightley have impressed critics. But none so far, save for Witherspoon's Legally Blonde franchise, has succeeded in pulling in the box office millions of their senior counterparts. And none comes close to the audience devotion Roberts elicits.

Roberts, still Hollywood's supreme leading lady and its highest-paid at $25 million a picture, has perhaps the best shot at being successful far into the future.

"I think it's dangerous to talk in the big generalities of sexism and ageism and face lift-isms," says the superstar mommy. "You really have to speak only from your own experience. And my experience so far has been ridiculously nice. Yeah, do the boys get paid more? Yes. But do we all get paid too much? Yes. I'm confused at what I'm supposed to complain about."

Contributing: Scott Bowles, Claudia Puig