Jane Fonda: We women don't close up shop 'down there' just because we're older

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

Diane Keaton, Candice Bergen, Jane Fonda and Mary Steenburgen in Book Club

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), who began acting with Jack Nicholson in the 1970s and who is perhaps best known for her role in the 1989 comedy Parenthood, 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," Academy Award-nominated actress and former model 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), one of America's most respected actresses, whose first big role was in The Godfather (1972), 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 days as one of the most prominent public faces in the anti-Vietnam War movement in the United States, is sure that today's movement will create lasting change.

"I think it had an impact on the verdict around Bill Cosby," she says. "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 in cinemas from June 1. See our review in tomorrow's Scene section.

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