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#OscarsSoAgeist: study finds diversity fail among best picture nominees

The Guardian logo The Guardian 5 days ago Catherine Shoard
Michael Keaton in Birdman … the only leading character over 60 among 25 best picture nominees. © Fox Searchlight/Everett Collection/Rex Features Michael Keaton in Birdman … the only leading character over 60 among 25 best picture nominees.

The Academy Awards might be making progress on race and gender equality, but a new report into the ages of characters in best picture nominees suggests that representation of the over 60s still lags behind.

A new paper by the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism has studied the spread of ages in characters over the 25 best picture nominees from the past three years.

They found that fewer than 12% of the 1,256 speaking or named characters were 60 years of age or older. In the US, the same group accounts for 19% of the population and 14% of cinema ticket buyers. A previous study by the university produced similar findings: among the 100 highest-grossing 2015 films, 11% of characters were over 59.

Said the study’s co-author, Stacy Smith: “When we think about diversity, we often talk about including the usual suspects of race, gender, sexual orientation and people with disabilities, but age is often left out of the conversation. 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.”

The study also found worryingly demeaning attitudes demonstrated towards senior citizens in the films sampled. Six of the 14 films which 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”; another included the line: “mentally feeble, sick old ladies”. The study suggests such comments have a damaging effect the psychological wellbeing of older people, as well as the attitudes of those around them.

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The study does not include the 2013 films Nebraska and Amour, both of which featured characters well past 60; in the films between 2014-2016, only one leading role was said to be over 60: Michael Keaton’s in Birdman, as a man barely past the landmark. This year, the closest the study could find was Denzel Washington in Fences – but although the actor was 60 when he shot the part, the character he plays is 53.

The actors and roles that did qualify were predominantly male and caucasian. Of the 148 characters in the best picture nominees, 77.7% were men and 89.9% white. The remaining ethnic breakdown was 6.1% black and 2% Asian. No latino or hispanic character over 60 was recorded.

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