Karen Valby
August 10, 2010 AT 06:44 PM EDT

A story in today’s Hollywood Reporter celebrates the fact that three 40-something Hollywood actresses — Halle Berry, Jennifer Aniston, and Julia Roberts — will grace the coveted covers of ad-heavy September issues of three fashion magazines. Take that, dewy youth! Go get some life experience, Sienna and Scarlett! What women really want these magazines are betting is the familiar mug of a star they’ve admired and emulated — grown up with, the more sentimental might say — for decades now. This comes on the heels of news that Sandra Bullock is the highest paid Hollywood actress, followed by Reese Witherspoon (34), Cameron Diaz (38), Jennifer Aniston (41), and Sarah Jessica Parker (45). (Angelina Jolie would admittedly take a roundhouse kick to this whole list had she actually released a movie in 2009.)

Now, it’d be foolish to hope that Hollywood, to say nothing of the masses who consume it and the media that covers it, has become any less accepting of a woman’s weight or age or appearance. (Damned if you Botox, damned if you don’t.) But the women bringing in bank for the studios right now aren’t the successors to Julia Roberts. It’s Julia Roberts herself.

Because they’re so often rudely forced to talk about their age as if it was a rash of some sort, a condition with poor survival odds, actresses can pretty safely assume a defensive tone on the subject of age. Sandra Bullock groaned to me during an interview for The Blind Side about journalists who would bring up the age question as if it were the subject of an illegitimate child. “I’ve never been so amazed by how many interviewers brought up that number. They don’t do it to men. If you look at the last two or three years in the films that have come out and been really successful for women, guess what age those actresses are? It’s about making money. Look at what Meryl Streep is doing…every other week!” And I’ll never forget when I asked the divine Judy Greer how old she was and, with genuine embarrassment, she told me her people really didn’t like her to bring up the number in interviews. (She was just 29, mind you.)

I interviewed Jodie Foster when her movie the Brave One came out in 2007 and she was candid on the subject of age anxiety, game to talk about why the number 40 had so long seemed like the finish line: “My mom would always say ‘When you’re 40, your career’s going to be over, so you need to figure out what you’re going to do next. She’s been telling me that since I was 18.” (The Brave One went on to open No. 1 at the box office. Foster’s since been mostly absent from the big screen and now has the phenomenal bad luck of figuring out how to release her next directorial effort, The Beaver, despite the circus of wretched publicity surrounding her star, Mel Gibson.)

So was Jodie Foster’s mom wrong? (Besides the obvious fact that she mercilessly hammered unnecessary anxiety into her young daughter’s poor head.) Is our youth-obsessed culture slowly shifting towards an experience-admired one? “I think the days of ‘Oh, we hit 40 and we’re f***ed!’ are really over,” Julia Roberts told me while promoting Duplicity (a really fun movie, Netflix it!). “Because the best actresses around who are working with consistency are Susan Sarandon, Frances McDormand, Meryl Streep, Annette Bening,  Holly Hunter. These are people who are part of our workforce. They’re not 30.”

Explaining the trend of magazines shifting away from starlet cover models, More Editor-in-Chief Lesley Jane Seymour was refreshingly blunt: “Who is there with any kind of real style or longevity in their 30s or 20s right now? Britney Spears? Kim Kardashian? These are flashes in the pan. Many are shallow reality stars like Snooki. Style icon? Um, talk to me in a year. Frankly, it’s here today, gone tomorrow. Lindsay Lohan? What’s to look up to?”

“Showbiz used to be so different in the way that one gained opportunity,” explained Roberts. “The way a person was received and treated was a lot more methodical. Satisfaction was cute,” she said, describing her own career climb, “she’s a little bit chubby, not so sure about the hair, but we’re not going to discount her. Baja, Oklahoma okay, still chubby. One was given these little tries, and you got paid accordingly. Now people go from relative obscurity to being wildly famous and hugely overpaid and expectations are so out of proportion, how can anybody accomplish what is needed next and then it’s just a big disaster story. It’s the Titanic, and not Titanic the movie.” (Oh Lindsay, rest well. Take up knitting. Read. Nap.)

In the meantime, smart women everywhere gave each other high fives when it was announced that Meryl Streep is going to star in a movie with Tina Fey. Every studio in town wants a piece of Sandra Bullock. Julia Roberts holds David Letterman’s rapt attention. Book clubbers keep their fingers crossed for the adaptations of The Help and Water for Elephants. Jennifer Aniston fields a barrage of inelegant questions about motherhood while promoting The Switch. Sigh. One step forward…. And as for those September covers, don’t kid yourself. They gotta sell. “If you can’t sell a cover of a magazine anymore you’re deemed worthless,” summed up Bullock.

What do you think PopWatchers? Is Hollywood’s fame machine to blame for the quick and fizzy, sparkler-like careers of young women these days? Is Katherine Heigl a serious contender for movie stardom or does Hollywood just desperately want her to be? Has this been a fluke of a good run for women of a certain age, or is this the new norm? Do you even want movie stars going forward, or would you be happily content with the likes of Michelle Williams, Zoe Saldana, and Ellen Page making interesting career choices?

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