Spotlight shines on older women

— Diane Keaton recalled her skepticism over lunch a few years back with writer-director Nancy Meyers, who was pitching a romantic comedy centered on a woman in her 50s and a man in his 60s.

"I just sat there and ate the meal and thought, 'Good luck,'" said Keaton, who figured no studio would back a romance that was not about sweet young 20- or 30-somethings.

Yet youth-minded Hollywood has produced Meyers' "Something's Gotta Give," starring Keaton as a 55-year-old playwright wooed by both a 63-year-old womanizer (Jack Nicholson) and a doctor in his 30s (Keanu Reeves). It debuted as last weekend's No. 1 movie.

The season of the older woman doesn't end there. Coming Friday is "Calendar Girls," an ensemble comedy featuring Helen Mirren and Julie Walters in the real-life story of a group of British women in their 40s, 50s and 60s who posed naked for a calendar to raise charity money.

"I think it's bloody marvelous to have several films come out like that at the same time," said Walters, 53. "Things evolve. I think things will change. Slowly change."

The numbers bear Walters out, though it's still not a pretty picture for actresses, who tend to get relegated to roles as dull moms or kooky aunts as they get into their 40s and 50s.

Annual surveys by the Screen Actors Guild found that women 40 and older landed 11 percent of all movie and television roles in 2002, a figure that has crept up gradually from about 9 percent in the early 1990s. Men 40 and older grabbed 26 percent of all roles cast in 2002.

"Men definitely have a longer run. They don't have an expiration date," said "Something's Gotta Give" creator Meyers, who also directed the Mel Gibson-Helen Hunt romance "What Women Want." "It's what the movie's about, this sense that women become invisible or less desirable after a certain age. A big chunk of my movie is saying that's not true. Take a minute, take a look, and you'll see a woman who hasn't lost anything."

While "Something's Gotta Give" salutes older women, "Calendar Girls" idolizes them. Set in Yorkshire, England, the film's heart and soul is summed up in an exchange between Walters' character and her terminally ill husband, who tells her, "The flowers of Yorkshire are like the women of Yorkshire. The last stage of their growth is the most glorious."

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AP Photo

Diane Keaton, far left, Keanu Reeves, second from left, and Jack Nicholson, right, star in Columbia Pictures' romantic comedy "Something's Gotta Give." When Keaton first heard of the role, she figured no studio would back a romance that was not about sweet young 20- or 30-somethings.

Real-life calendar girl Angela Baker, 58, the basis for Walters' character, said her late husband, John, often shared a similar sentiment.

"John always used to say to me that I improved with age," Baker said. "I never told anyone about that, and it was amazing that it turned up in the film."

Baker's pal Tricia Stewart, the basis for Mirren's character, dreamed up the nude calendar in 1999 to raise money for a local hospital where John Baker died of leukemia. Baker, Stewart and other members of the staid Women's Institute posed in the buff engaged in such prim and proper pastimes as pressing cider or arranging flowers.

The tasteful photographs strategically placed household props to cover the women's private parts.

The women hoped to sell a few thousand calendars. Instead, they became an international sensation, raising about $1 million for leukemia research.

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