Ty Burr
February 02, 2000 AT 05:00 AM EST

Why Ashley Judd’s film is No. 1 and Bette Midler’s isn’t

Here’s an interesting development. Ashley Judd stars in a stink bomb called ”Eye of the Beholder,” and it hits No. 1 at the box office (a puny $6 million, to be sure, but enough to hold the top spot). Bette Midler stars in a stink bomb called ”Isn’t She Great,” and it comes in way the hell down at No. 16, with a minuscule $1.3 million.

What’s the difference? Partially, ”Eye” succeeded because its star is coming off a hit movie. More to the point, ”Isn’t She Great” failed because Bette Midler isn’t a babe.

Well, she was never really a BABE. Rather, Bette’s been a bawd for all seasons, a reliable comedian who can handle melodrama in a pinch. Mae West with a soupçon of Joan Crawford. She’s been in duds before (anyone remember ”Hocus Pocus”? I’m so sorry…), but the turnout for her new movie offers the latest proof of a sad but hard truism in American pop culture: We likes ’em young.

You can caveat if you want. Yes, theatrical box office reflects a younger audience than, say, video rentals. Sure, male actors can remain potent box office bait well into their 60s. Think Clint Eastwood and Sean Connery. Now think about who their female leads are these days.

This is hardly news. In fact, Goldie Hawn even addressed it in ”First Wives Club” when she said ”There are only three age roles for women in Hollywood to play: Babe, District Attorney, and Driving Miss Daisy” (I believe she was standing next to Bette Midler when she said it). And the cruel fact is that the movie industry has always worked this way. Otherwise, why would Crawford and Bette Davis have ended up doing horror junk like ”Dead Ringers” and ”Trog”?

Beyond that, though, there just seems to be a point where we start trading in our stars — of either gender — for younger versions. Maybe it’s just a function of younger audiences coming of age and wanting their own big-screen stand-ins to relate to. That’s the only explanation I can think of for Freddie Prinze Jr. On the other hand, my mom had Tyrone Power, who was pretty much the Freddie Prinze Jr. of his day, only with Brylcreem instead of hair gel.

Does that mean Harrison Ford might as well toss it in and reserve a room in the Motion Picture Retirement Home? No, but ”Random Hearts” indicates that he’s not bulletproof. Does it mean that Michelle Pfeiffer — an excellent actress with the short-term fortune and long-term misfortune to look like a goddess — has tough years ahead? In terms of craft, no; in terms of box office appeal, probably. Does it mean that Julia Stiles should invest in an IRA? Oh, yeah.

The interesting part — and the only saving grace of our youth addiction — is that you never know which former movie hunk or babe is going to age into someone interesting. Remember, Bogart didn’t even become a star until he was 41. Or, as a coworker of mine says, ”I can’t wait till Pam Anderson gets to ‘Miss Daisy.”’

I think she’s kidding.

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