Youth often rules Hollywood, in terms of both target demographics and the actors most prominently featured on-screen. This is especially true for women, unfortunately, and recent years have seen some of film’s most respected performers – including Sally Field, Jessica Lange, and Glenn Close – make the move to television. But is the small screen really more hospitable to veteran actresses? Comparing Oscar winners to Emmy winners from the past 20 years, the answer is clearly yes.
In the last two decades, the average Oscar winner for Best Actress was 36.4 years old. In that same period, the average Emmy winner for Lead Actress (including comedy, drama, and movie/miniseries) was 43.7 years old. A gap of more than seven years is noteworthy in itself, but the disparity is even more significant when you consider how the ages are distributed at each awards show.
Six women under age 30 have won Best Actress at the Oscars since 1993: Gwyneth Paltrow (“Shakespeare in Love,” 26); Hilary Swank (“Boys Don’t Cry,” 25); Charlize Theron (“Monster,” 28); Reese Witherspoon (“Walk the Line,” 29); Natalie Portman (“Black Swan,” 29), and Jennifer Lawrence (“Silver Linings Playbook,” 22).
But in that time only two women under 30 won Emmys for leading roles: Gillian Anderson was 29 when she won Drama Actress in 1997 for “The X-Files,” and America Ferrera won Comedy Actress for “Ugly Betty” in 2007 when she was just 23. So even though the Oscars hand out one-third as many lead-actress trophies, they have honored three times as many twentysomethings.
On the other end of the spectrum, only five women over 40 have won Oscars since 1993: Jessica Lange (“Blue Sky,” 45); Susan Sarandon (“Dead Man Walking,” 49); Helen Mirren (“The Queen,” 61); Sandra Bullock (“The Blind Side,” 45); and Meryl Streep (“The Iron Lady,” 62).
Compare that to 39 lead-actress winners at the Emmys who were over 40. That’s nearly two-thirds of the available 60 acting prizes during that time period.
Of the three Emmy categories, Comedy Actress skews the youngest with an average age of 39.5, only three years older than the Oscar average, but that includes 10 winners over 40, double the Oscars’ total in that age range.
Movie/Miniseries Actress skews the oldest (47.8); 15 out of 20 Emmys in that category went to women over 40. The youngest winner was Claire Danes, who was 31 when she took home the prize for the HBO biopic “Temple Grandin” in 2010.
Drama Actress winners had an average age of 43.9; 14 out of 20 were 40 or older at the time of their victories.
The trend may continue this year, as only one of the 18 current lead-actress nominees is under age 30 – Lena Dunham (“Girls“), who turned 27 in May – while 12 will be 40 or older when awards are handed out in September. So while youth is often a significant advantage at the Oscars, it may be a liability when competing for TV’s top honor.