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How the Frances McDormand drama 'Nomadland' defies Hollywood ageism

American movies often don’t spotlight the experiences of average women in their 60s. Chloé Zhao’s celebrated road drama is a notable exception.
Frances McDormand in the film \"Nomadland.\"
Frances McDormand in the film "Nomadland."Searchlight Pictures

“Nomadland,” Chloé Zhao’s portrait of the itinerant life, explores themes that are typically ignored by mainstream narrative movies. How often does Hollywood survey the scars of the Great Recession, the fragility of the gig economy or the gaps in the social safety net?

But it is almost as unusual to see an American movie centered on an ordinary older woman, according to film historians and gender equity advocates — in this case, a fiercely independent wanderer named Fern, played by Oscar-winning actor Frances McDormand, 63. (The film debuted on Hulu and in select theaters Friday.)

“It is extremely rare to see a woman in her 60s in the lead role, especially one who is allowed to look her age on screen,” said Alicia Malone, a host on Turner Classic Movies who has written two books about women in cinema.

“Hollywood has historically been a very ageist place, certainly since it became a commercial business where men were at the helm and women were discarded once they got to a certain age,” said Malone, who recently co-hosted a TCM series spotlighting 100 movies directed by women.

The film industry routinely casts “men of a certain age” as romantic leads or action heroes. But women over 50 tend to be relegated to supporting or one-dimensional parts, and major stars such as Meryl Streep and Nicole Kidman might be exceptions that prove the rule, Malone said.

“When we see older women, they’re in sideline roles with a lot of stereotypes around them and a lot of jokes being made at their expense,” Malone said. “They’re rarely shown to be at the center of stories as viable, complex characters.”

In recent years, television shows and limited series have become havens for women over 50 seeking interesting roles, such as Viola Davis (“How to Get Away With Murder”); Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin (“Grace and Frankie”); and Catherine O’Hara (“Schitt’s Creek”).

In a report published in September, the University of Southern California’s Annenberg Inclusion Initiative found that only three of 2019’s top 100 movies featured a leading or co-leading role filled by a woman over 45, and only one of those roles went to a woman of color.

The previous year, USC researchers found that 11 of the top 100 movies featured a woman over 45 — whereas nearly a quarter (24 movies) featured a man over 45 in a leading or supporting part.

“We don’t have enough movies about women to begin with, let alone women over 45,” said Melissa Silverstein, the founder of Women and Hollywood, an organization that advocates for more inclusion in the film industry. “It’s a really hard thing to find, and it’s a problem.”

“Nomadland” sharply breaks from norms with its frank and deeply empathetic look at McDormand’s character, who takes to the open road in a van after the death of her husband and the collapse of the real-life Nevada factory town where she worked and lived for decades.

The film chronicles McDormand’s character with bracing, documentary-style intimacy. We see her toiling in an Amazon warehouse; cleaning restrooms at an RV campground; bonding with other vagabonds (some of them nonprofessional actors playing versions of themselves); savoring the beauty of the natural world as she traverses the American West.

“I don’t think I’ve *ever* seen a movie about an older woman that is about her in relationship to herself instead of in the capacity of mother, grandmother, wise aunt, etc.,” culture writer Jenna Scherer tweeted recently. “It’s such a joy to watch Frances McDormand just take time and space to wander and think and, frankly, play.”

McDormand, who co-produced “Nomadland,” happens to be among a group of prominent actors who have advocated for greater inclusion and equity, on screen and off screen. (The film is an independent production that was acquired by Disney-owned distributor Searchlight Pictures.)

In March 2018, when McDormand accepted the best actress Academy Award for her performance in “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri,” she rallied for “inclusion riders,” a contractual provision that artists could use to demand more diversity in productions.

The relative dearth of fulfilling career opportunities for women and people of color has been under particular scrutiny since at least late 2017, when the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements began to reshape working cultures in entertainment and media.

The gender imbalances persist behind the camera, too. “Nomadland” director Zhao, who earned acclaim for the neo-Western drama “The Rider” in 2017 and will make her Marvel universe debut with the upcoming “Eternals,” is one of a handful of high-profile female filmmakers in contemporary Hollywood.

Image: Chloe Zhao
Chloe Zhao poses for a portrait during the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah on Jan. 22, 2018.Taylor Jewell / Invision/AP file

Zhao, who is Chinese, is also among the few female directors of color with a growing presence on the studio circuit. In an analysis published in January 2020, USC’s inclusion initiative found that just 13 of the 1,300 top-grossing movies released between 2007 and 2019 were directed by women from underrepresented racial or ethnic groups.

McDormand, for one, has said she feels fortunate to have collaborated with Zhao, who was likewise committed to building a project around an authentic American woman rarely seen in mass media.

“What if I had looked in the mirror, unable to recognize myself as the women who are being represented in fashion magazines and movies? What if that had stopped me? That’s a lot of ‘what-ifs,’ but part of the American Dream I got to realize was working with people like Chloé Zhao,” McDormand said at a press conference in September.

Nell Minow, a film critic and expert in corporate governance, said she believes there has been more cultural oxygen available to small-scale and women-led projects during the coronavirus pandemic because leading studios were forced to postpone the release of many male-driven blockbusters.

“It’s been a bonanza for more intimate films like ‘Nomadland’ in many ways,” said Minow, pointing to Channing Godfrey Peoples’ “Miss Juneteenth” and Radha Blank’s “The 40-Year-Old Version” as examples of women-anchored projects that received welcome attention last year.

“I have realized that so much of the media I consume requires me to translate from the male point of view into something that speaks more directly to me,” Minow said. “When I see these movies, I can relax. I don’t have to translate anything.”

“It’s a cliché at this point to say ‘representation matters,’ but it makes me feel connected and listened to because I have something in common with these characters,” she added.

Malone, the TCM host, said viewers should consider how they have been deprived of valuable human stories because of the film industry’s gender imbalances.

“When you think about how much older women have been erased from Hollywood, it also makes you consider how much we have all lost by not getting to experience their stories on the big screen, with all of their life experience, their wisdom, humor and vitality,” she said.

CORRECTION (March 1, 2:00 p.m. ET): A previous version of this article misstated the nationality of "Nomadland" filmmaker Chloé Zhao. She is Chinese, not Chinese American.