Belfast Telegraph

Book Club: 'The studio wanted younger women to play these roles and Bill said no'

Veteran actresses Jane Fonda, Diane Keaton, Mary Steenburgen and Candice Bergen, the stars of new film Book Club, talk to Laura Harding about misogyny, ageism and sex when you’re past 60

Hollywood isn't always kind to women of a certain age, but especially not to women north of retirement age.

They can be reduced to sickly or silly - or just downright excluded from the narrative altogether.

So it's something of a miracle to see a film top-lined by four female stars with a combined age of 289.

Book Club brings together the talents of Jane Fonda, Diane Keaton, Mary Steenburgen and Candice Bergen, all Oscar winners or nominees, for a tale about four friends who read Fifty Shades Of Grey in their monthly gathering.

It's the kind of story about female friendships, of wine-drinking confidantes - not to mention sexual shenanigans - that is normally left to women half their age (think Sex And The City, Bridesmaids and Girls Trip).

"Older women are the fastest growing demographic in the world," 80-year-old Fonda says.

"It's very smart to make movies that would appeal to us and it's also important because it shows that just because you're old, it doesn't mean that you have to stop living in the full sense of the word."

Steenburgen (65) agrees. "It's kind of a miracle actually that it ever occurred because Hollywood does ask you in some ways to rather disappear as you get older.

"That is a shame because people should be able to enjoy life and be reflected in movies and television and scripts as long as they are alive, so it's quietly subversive and revolutionary that it occurred at all."

Proof of this miracle lies in the fact the film's director Bill Holderman had to fight to cast his leading ladies.

"The studio wanted younger women to play the roles," Bergen (72) reveals. "Bill said, 'No, the whole point is that they are older women and the challenges that women this age face'."

Fonda is matter-of-fact about the situation. "It's an industry that is very much driven by youth and beauty.

"Ageism is alive and well. I think that is beginning to change though - I am not only in this movie but I'm in a very big hit series called Grace and Frankie (with Lily Tomlin), also about older women, so it feels very good."

Now these actresses hope the film's racy themes demonstrate that older women have an appetite for more than just soft foods.

"They will realise they are making a big mistake if they assume that we close up shop down there, just because we are older," Fonda says with a twinkle in her eye.

"If everybody can agree on an age that they want to totally give it up then I guess we could reflect that in a movie," Steenburgen adds.

"But since that is such a dumb idea then maybe it's fine to see people having fun at our age."

But Keaton (72) concedes that it is still "tough" for older women in Hollywood, and that she is among the rare few who still have a vibrant career.

"It's always tough for older people," she says. "They are used less frequently in every field, it's not just in the performing arts, so we are fortunate."

Steenburgen looks despondent. "We have so many friends that never work that should work, all of us do.

"It was a privilege to do this but it's hard not to want it to open up things for our sisters that are our age."

Which brings us on to the subject of the Time's Up movement, which aims to open up the industry for the whole sisterhood, young and old alike.

For Keaton, it all comes down to two words. "Equal pay. I think that is the central theme for me.

"You are paid the same as all the men and for what you're worth and your value.

"That is fair and with that, I think, comes other things that come along with it."

Steenburgen nods vigorously. "In the business world, when women are paid comparably to men it's quite obvious these things aren't so prevalent."

Fonda, who has been an activist since her Hanoi Jane days as one of the most prominent public faces in the anti-Vietnam War movement, is sure today's movement will create lasting change.

"I think it had an impact on the verdict around Bill Cosby.

"The Me Too movement has grown into becoming the Time's Up movement.

"We are making structural changes, policy changes, and joining forces with women in other sectors - janitors, domestic workers, farm workers, office workers - to create safe and equal working spaces.

"It doesn't have to grab attention, we just have to change things.

"It can be quiet, behind the scenes, but women are speaking up now about the need to have equal pay and to have diversity in all aspects of all industries.

"When we are respected and when that respect is reflected in our salaries, there is much less sexual violence and sexual harassment."

"It has already created the change," Bergen adds. "It almost overnight changed behaviour, because people are terrified.

"People have to work at it being a lasting change, because that behaviour will always resurface, but I think as long as people insist on it remaining, it will stay."

Book Club is released in the UK today

Stellar performances but plodding script

Let's talk about sexagenarians.

Writer-director Bill Holderman's frothy romantic comedy stars Diane Keaton, Jane Fonda, Candice Bergen and Mary Steenburgen in underwritten roles as lifelong friends, who have forgotten what it means to grow old disgracefully.

One leaf through the pages of EL James's erotic thriller Fifty Shades Of Grey, the chosen text for a monthly book club, and these likeable heroines are enjoying first-date sex on the back seat of a car, slipping Viagra pills into a spouse's beer and inadvertently grabbing the crotch of an adjacent passenger on a commercial flight.

"If women our age were meant to have sex, God wouldn't do what he does to our bodies!" argues Bergen's feisty Federal court judge.

Book Club arrives in cinemas more than seven years after James's swoonsome literary beau Christian Grey whipped wide-eyed readers into a frenzy.

It's hard to believe that one of the characters in the film wouldn't have secretly read the bestseller in that period but Holderman's film, co-written by Erin Simms, doesn't tarry on matters of likelihood or logic.

Not when contrivances and coincidences can be piled one atop another to provide the four likeable leading ladies with predictable subplots that ensure they all reach the end credits with willing suitors and a sheen of contentment.

Best friends Diane (Keaton), Vivian (Fonda), Sharon (Bergen) and Carol (Steenburgen) merrily reunite each month over glasses of chilled white wine to discuss a book chosen by one member of the coterie.

Hotel manager Vivian elects to introduce her shocked pals to Christian Grey's notorious Red Room.

"I haven't had sex since my divorce and it's been the happiest 18 years of my life," quips Sharon, who has recently learnt that her ex-husband Tom (Ed Begley Jnr) has taken a pneumatic young blonde (Mircea Monroe) as his fiancee.

As agreed, the women devour the pages of the chosen tome and James's lurid descriptions of spanking and bondage spark lustful thoughts.

Doting wife Carol seeks new ways to reinvigorate her marriage to husband Bruce (Craig T Nelson) while Sharon is persuaded to sign up to an internet dating site and matches with accountant George (Richard Dreyfuss).

Vivian has a chance encounter with old flame Arthur (Don Johnson) and recently widowed Diane is swept off her feet by airline captain Mitchell (Andy Garcia) during a visit to her grown-up daughters Jill (Alicia Silverstone) and Adrianne (Katie Aselton).

Unlike the luminous leading ladies, Book Club feels tired and outdated. The cast enlivens a plodding script and injects vim into scenes of sisterly solidarity that might otherwise become clogged with emotional syrup.

Fonda savours every slink of her man eater and Bergen can make even the dullest one-liner sing.

They are far better than Holderman's picture deserves.

Damon Smith

Two stars

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