Geena Davis has won an honorary Oscar for her work advancing the representation of women and girls in children’s entertainment through the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media. The industry’s history of sexism, stereotyping and double standards is a subject she’s all too familiar with, having had her own acting opportunities dry up once she hit 40.
“[Once I had] a four in front of my age, I fell off the cliff,” the actress, now 64, tells the Guardian’s Hadley Freeman in a new interview. “I really did.”
“In the early stages of my career, I was blithely going along thinking, ‘Meryl Streep, Jessica Lange and Sally Field, they’re all making these great female-centric movies. And I’m getting these great roles, really tippy-top roles, so things must be getting better for women.’ But suddenly, the great roles were incredibly scarce. It was a big difference,” she adds.
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Davis — who was name-checked in Brad Pitt’s Oscar acceptance speech this year as thanks for helping him secure his breakthrough role as her lover in the groundbreaking Thelma & Louise — admits feeling let down that her biggest roles didn’t usher in the change within Hollywood she had hoped would come.
“Everyone said: ‘Now we’re going to have so many movies starring women,’” she says of Thelma & Louise, in which she starred opposite Susan Sarandon. “And I was like: ‘Hot dog! I’m in something that started change.’ And then A League of Their Own comes out and everyone says: ‘Now there’s going to be so many women’s sports movies!’ And five years go by … It was a shock that absolutely nothing happened.”
And while she admits that wearing skimpy lingerie for her first film role, in 1982’s Tootsie, “didn’t bother me” — “[director] Sydney Pollack said: ‘Why are you not nervous? It’s your first day on a movie set, you’re in your underwear and there’s Dustin Hoffman,’” she recalls — other film experiences weren’t so comfortable.
The Oscar winner for The Accidental Tourist says one director told her to sit on his lap mid-audition, and she witnessed other incidents of sexual harassment on various sets. But speaking out was discouraged.
“You can’t say anything, because it will kill your career,” she says of the general attitude toward harassment, adding that, post-#MeToo, “people really can talk about it now. It’s like night and day and it’s amazing.”