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Winona Ryder as Spock’s Mom: Are Young Women Cast as Matriarchs the New Trend?

January 17, 2010

I quite enjoyed the most recent Star Trek movie. I’m married to a total sci-fi geek (and a fan of the original series myself) and we saw it in IMAX once, a regular old boring movie theater once, and now on our own TV at least three times. Each time, I catch a few more neat little references J.J. Abrams has thrown in there and I think wow, great flick, clever guy. But something has been bothering me ever since that first viewing — the casting of Winona Ryder as Spock’s (played with humility and candor by Zachary Quinto) human mother.

Now I may be ignorant of Vulcan gestational practices, but here on Earth, having a mother that young would be quite, er, impossible. See, Ms. Ryder was born in 1971; Quinto in 1977. If math still serves my feeble brain, little Winona would be physically incapable of birthing a child at the tender age of six. This physically improbable yet magically accepted practice Hollywood foists upon us is sadly representational of a system that casts younger women in the role of middle-aged mothers, when clearly there is a plethora of talented, appropriately-aged actresses out there who could fit the bill, so to speak (no offense to Ms. Ryder — glad to have you back, girlfriend).

Take these examples (from this week’s issue of Entertainment Weekly magazine) in which they discuss the ridiculous mother/child age differences, or lack thereof, on a few TV shows:

Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles (2008): Lena Headey 34, Thomas Dekker 20 — Sarah would have been 14 when she gave birth. Not completely crazy given this current climate in America of children having children; however, knowing the story, we all know Sarah Connor did not give birth to John Connor when she was 14. Yes, the American public has a short attention span, but we are fierce when it comes to this story, guys — we’ve all seen the first movie a kabillion times. Give us a break.

Kath & Kim (2008): Granted, the show was dreadful. Surely part of its complete unwatchability (aside from Selma Blair, 36, attempting comedy) was the fact that no one bought Molly Shannon, 43, as her mom. Perhaps the seven-year age difference was part of that recipe for failure for a show that was surely doomed from the start… who knows?

Gilmore Girls (2000): Please, don’t shoot me, but I was never a fan of this show. Both Lauren Graham, 33, and Alexis Bledel, 19, are talented actresses and I’m glad the show did well and I wish them continued success. But I never bought the premise; they just always looked like sisters to me, dammit. And given their age difference – 14 years – now I understand why. (I think in the show, Graham was supposed to have had her daughter at the age of 16-ish?) I know it was hip and cool and all that, peppering each episode with pop culture references (or Gilmore-isms); they even talkedreallyfast to mirror the fast-paced dialogue of today’s American teenager. Ugh.

Of course, this practice isn’t new. Go back to the movie The Graduate. Though she certainly looked like a middle-aged, albeit sexy, harpy, Anne Bancroft was actually only six years older than Dustin Hoffman when she played the iconic role of Mrs. Robinson. I know. In this case, obviously the right actress was cast and the chemistry was undeniable. Hoffman, Bancroft, and even Katherine Ross (who, for the uninitiated, played Bancroft’s daughter) all earned Oscar nominations. Who am I to question the brilliance of famed director Mike Nichols? And yet… even Bancroft expressed reservations in playing the role of the “older woman” given that she was only 36 at the time of filming.

Moving into the ’80s, we have Lea Thompson playing Michael J. Fox’s mom in the sci-fi classic Back to the Future. This was particularly galling given that they were exactly the same age. In defense of this casting choice, most of the cast was “younger playing older,” and they were all playing dual roles — their high school selves and their future selves. In my personal opinion, her makeup looked totally fake and silly when they aged her (though apparently it took over three hours to apply); it was if Spielberg and Zemeckis were flaunting their ability to pull the wool over our eyes while at the same time making it patently obvious — a wink wink, if you will. Nevertheless, people love the movie to this day; the sequels not so much. It’s great escapist fare. The casting choice was seen as a great break for Thompson and she was thankful, as any young actress would be, for the incredible boost it gave her career.

Of course, the other recent example of Hollywood’s penchant of placing young actresses in the “mother” role is when Angelina Jolie played Colin Farrell’s mother in the movie Alexander a few years back. Granted, Jolie is stunningly beautiful and a gift from the gods. I get that the director (Oliver Stone) wanted to not only get folks to the theater (men) but exploit the good looks of the youthful, half-naked (Jolie) cast — but come on! She’s just one year older than Farrell. She took her casting in stride and described working with the notoriously difficult Stone as “a pleasure.” Given that Jolie, already mother to six, never seems to age, she seems to have this role down pat. I guess when you look that good onscreen, you may as well flaunt it while you’ve got it.

I suppose that’s what it comes down to. Maybe many of these actresses take these roles because, perhaps, they are terrified, that if they don’t, they won’t work again. This is what they are being offered so they take it, like Thompson did back in the day, for the boost it can give them; or like Ryder, to get back in the game. Jolie was reportedly “thrilled to be cast” in an Oliver Stone movie, even if it was in the mother role, even if she was barely older than Rosario Dawson, who played Farrell’s wife, for the opportunity to work with him and the exposure it offered her. (That the movie was widely panned clearly hasn’t hurt any of their careers, particularly hers.)

It’s also worth noting that all of these movies were directed by men.

Hard to believe, incredible really, that Jolie has to worry about ageism. If that’s the case, are all young, beautiful actresses older than, say, 25 doomed to be relegated to the mother role before they hit 30?

No wonder they all end up having (shhh!) plastic surgery every other month. But that’s another article…

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