In this crowd, she's the ingenue. Photographer: Axelle/Bauer-Griffin/FilmMagic via Getty Images
In this crowd, she's the ingenue. Photographer: Axelle/Bauer-Griffin/FilmMagic via Getty Images

So much for the theory that Hollywood has no place for women who’ve outgrown ingenue roles: At 39, Amy Adams is the youngest of this year’s Academy Award nominees for best actress. It’s the oldest slate in history, with an average age of 55 and a median of 49.

Disposable starlets may still fill the middling ranks, but at the top of the profession, older women are getting unprecedented amounts of work. “Many of those actresses who were hot a decade ago as thirtysomethings still sit atop the A-list as fortysomethings,” wrote the Hollywood Reporter’s Tatiana Siegel.

As a result, Sunday’s Oscar fashion parade will feature a striking number of middle-aged stars, from nominees Cate Blanchett (44) and Sandra Bullock (49) to presenters Naomi Watts (45) and Viola Davis (48). Red-carpet fixtures Gwyneth Paltrow, Julia Roberts, Halle Berry, Jennifer Lopez and Nicole Kidman are all in their 40s.

For an aging audience, these icons in their gowns and polished hairstyles offer an especially appealing version of Hollywood glamour, demonstrating that you don’t have to be young to be beautiful, stylish and admired. But pretty people posing in pretty clothes constitute the least important type of Hollywood glamour.

Far more influential are movie and television portrayals that channel the audience’s dissatisfactions into images that make new identities and lifestyles alluring. Think of the “modern woman” in the 1920s and '30s, the nonconformist rebel in the late 1950s and '60s, or the single career woman in the 1970s and '80s. These glamorous archetypes did more than sell tickets. They created new mental pictures of the good life, and in so doing changed their audience’s aspirations and behavior.

Longevity is as much a challenge for today’s audiences as modernity or conformity were for yesterday’s. Looking decades ahead, men and women in their 40s, 50s and 60s want to believe that life can still be interesting, that they can still be valuable, that love and work aren’t only for the young. This desire isn’t a baby boomer quirk; it’s a result of significantly expanding healthy lifespans. The prospect of living into your 80s or 90s is great, but you don’t want to spend the second half of your life feeling useless and unwanted.

Meryl Streep, 64, evolved from respected actress to popular, bankable star when she began taking on roles that answered the demand for appealing images of middle age. The turning point, argues Karina Longworth, a film critic and the author of the new book “Meryl Streep: Anatomy of an Actor,” was Streep’s role opposite Clint Eastwood in “The Bridges of Madison County,” released in 1995. “Portraying an illicit, later-in-life romance as a protest against conformity,” said Longworth in an e-mail, “Madison County sold a potent fantasy of virility and vitality in defiance of age.” It was a box-office hit, grossing $176 million worldwide.

“Middle-aged chick flicks,” in which women over 50 find love, are now a recognized genre, even garnering scholarly attention.

But Hollywood is still groping for archetypes that fully respond to the challenge of longevity. Male as well as female audiences want a richer vision of their future than the stock silver-fox-at-leisure images in commercials for retirement planning and erectile dysfunction drugs. Action franchises such as “Red” and “The Expendables” have tried assembling teams of aging stars, with mixed results. And in a turbulent economy where mid-career workers fear being deemed obsolete, we have yet to see major hits -- other than CBS’s “The Good Wife” -- that feature careers attractively reinvented in middle age. (Becoming a meth dealer out of desperation doesn’t qualify.)

So that’s the assignment, Hollywood: Come up with appealing, borderline-realistic fantasies of later middle age (and beyond) that find the upside of living longer in a world of uncertain personal prospects. The audience is waiting. Let’s hear your elevator pitches.

(Virginia Postrel is a Bloomberg View columnist. Her book, “The Power of Glamour,” was recently published by Simon & Schuster. Her website is at vpostrel.com. Follow her on Twitter at @vpostrel.)

To contact the writer of this article: Virginia Postrel at vp@vpostrel.com.

To contact the editor responsible for this article: Tobin Harshaw at tharshaw@bloomberg.net.