40 and fabulous
By Jeanmarie Tan
For some of Hollywood's top-earning actresses - Halle Berry, 38; Julia Roberts, 37; Nicole Kidman, 37, and Catherine Zeta-Jones, 35 - that number looms like a bright red stop sign.
Sandra Bullock (right), 40, who is back with her first film in two years, Miss Congeniality 2: Armed And Fabulous, is already there.
And they have reason to be alarmed.
It's the age when, historically, desirable roles for women begin drying up, good scripts stop rolling in, and fresh-faced 20-somethings begin elbowing their way in.
Essentially, it's the age when careers are pronounced over.
Bullock was so offended by such a trend that she protested to The Sydney Morning Herald: 'I think we need to stop sticking age onto females, because they don't do it to the men.'
For instance, 43-year-old Meg Ryan once ruled as the giddily girlish princess of Hollywood's hottest romantic comedies, but the very factors that made her so popular proved to be her professional undoing when she became middle-aged.
And whatever happened to femme fatales Michelle Pfeiffer, 46, and Sharon Stone, 47?
But Bullock and company may stand a chance of beating Hollywood's odds and still sit pretty at the top of the food chain.
Experts think they've not worn out their welcome - yet.
'These women's careers really blossomed when they were in their 30s,' Entertainment Tonight film critic/historian Leonard Maltin told USA Today.
'So it's not as though anyone is tired of them. I don't see a lack of interest in either one of them.'
Anyway, haven't you heard? This year, 40 is the new 30.
The surprise success of Desperate Housewives has led the way in making Hollywood safe again for older actresses, like its own over-40 leads Teri Hatcher, Marcia Cross, Felicity Huffman and Nicolette Sheridan.
Others with hot careers and buff bodies? Sex And The City alumni Sarah Jessica Parker, 40, actress Demi Moore, 42, singer Sheryl Crow, 43, and multi-hyphenate Madonna, 46.
Awards season earlier this year also featured favourites like Being Julia's Annette Bening, 46, and Sideways' Virginia Madsen, 41.
Two-time Oscar winner Jodie Foster, 42, told London's Evening Standard that women are 'more interesting' in their 40s.
She said: 'They've lived longer, they're more confident about their choices and they don't have to be hip and cool any more, which I think is a godsend - you make really bad choices when you are trying to be hip.
'You hear all this stuff about actresses not having the same shelf life as actors, especially once they are over 40. But I didn't make my career as an ingenue or as the beautiful slinky girlfriend.'
Bullock added that 'the whole 40 thing' is a media obsession because 'it sells magazines'.
She told the Associated Press: 'It depends on what you base your career on. If it's based on youth, then when the youth is going, you should find something else to base it on.'
That is why many of the actresses pushing 40 have cleverly varied their roles to show their range, picking both sizzle and substance by starring in both big-budget crowd-pleasers (Berry in the X-Men flicks, Zeta-Jones in Ocean's Twelve) and smaller, more intimate films (Roberts in Closer and Kidman in Birth).
Perhaps the best observation on the over-40 phenomenon comes from Rolling Stones frontman Mick Jagger, who deadpanned to Los Angeles Daily News: 'You have to do a great performance. It's not enough to be old.'
The foxy and fabulous actresses are also using their clout while they're on top to prepare for the leaner years, either producing films or have their own production houses which they use to find or develop screenplays that don't typecast women as the leading man's love interest.
For example, Bullock has vowed she's done with romantic comedies - the genre that catapulted her to superstardom in the mid-90s.
THEIR OWN PRODUCTIONS
Now, she produces most of her work (the Miss Congeniality franchise, Two Weeks Notice, Murder By Numbers) and the Latin-American sitcom, The George Lopez Show ('about 70 per cent of what I'm doing right now').
Kidman, who produced Jane Campion's 2003 erotic thriller In The Cut (coincidentally, starring Ryan), isn't fretting about ageing because she sees herself quitting acting in the future to focus on charity and theatre.
She once said: 'I don't have a complete cut-off point, but this (acting) is not for me.'
As for Roberts, her Red Om Productions was behind 2003's oestrogen-fuelled drama Mona Lisa Smile.
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.
These days, the male-dominated industry is making progress, as many parts aren't too age-specific and can go to a woman in her 30s and beyond.
And here's where Bullock and her uniquely beautiful peers win out.
They all have a vibrant, youthful appearance while still exuding a sexy, smart womanliness.
WHERE'S THE COMPETITION?
Maltin said: 'I don't see any diminishing of cover stories on Julia Roberts in People magazine. Or coverage of Nicole Kidman on the red carpet. Or Halle Berry being replaced as the spokesperson and model for Revlon.'
Besides, few 20-somethings have proven 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 US$25 million ($41m) 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,' said the superstar mummy.
'You really have to speak only from your own experience. And my experience so far has been ridiculously nice.
'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.'