The british actress Joan Collins once remarked: “Age is just a number. It’s totally irrelevant unless, of course, you happen to be a bottle of wine.”
A case in America will soon determine whether an actress has a legal right to keep her age secret.
The actress recently sued Amazon.com in a federal case in Seattle for $1 million for revealing her age on its Internet Movie Database (IMDb) website, and for declining to remove the reference when asked.
The actress isn’t named in the litigation – her anonymity is protected by the litigation name “Jane Doe”. The papers disclose only that she lives in Texas, is of Asian descent and has an “Americanized stage name”.
Jane Doe accuses IMDb of misusing her personal information after she signed up for the special professional film industry service IMDbPro in 2008. Not long after, she noticed that her date of birth had been added to her public acting profile. She requested that it be removed but IMDb refused.
The legal claim states that “if one is perceived to be ‘over-the-hill,’ i.e., approaching 40, it is nearly impossible for an up-and-coming actress, such as the plaintiff, to get work as she is thought to have less of an ‘upside,’ therefore, casting directors, producers, directors, agents-manager, etc. do not give her the same opportunities, regardless of her appearance or talent”.
So, the writ argues, she now loses opportunities for roles younger than her age because of her paper age, but she also misses work which would usually go to someone of her real age because of her youthful appearance.
The writ says the plaintiff has experience of rejection in the film industry for each “40-year-old” role for which she has interviewed because “she does not and cannot physically portray the role of a 40-year-old woman”.
Amazon and its movie database subsidiary, both based in Seattle, are being sued for breach of contract, fraud, and violation of privacy and consumer protection laws. The legal claim seeks $75,000 in compensatory damages and $1 million in punitive damages.
Lawyers for Amazon have said the actress was trying to manipulate the federal court system “so she can censor IMDB’s display of her birth date and pretend to the world that she is not 40 years old”. They said that this was “selfish, contrary to the public interest and a frivolous abuse of [the] court’s resources”.
Historically, English law took a less than delicate approach to the age of women. In a case in 1376, in which it was important to know whether a particular woman was of full age, counsel suggested that she be put before the court to determine the answer by inspection.
Mr Justice Cavendish replied “There is no man in England who can rightly judge whether she is an infant or of full age, for all women who are thirty years old wish to appear to be eighteen”.
Lawyers, though, seem historically to have been challenged in estimating ages of both sexes. In Lord v Thornton, a case in Yorkshire in 1616, an advocate argued heroically throughout the case that his client, the defendant, was legally an infant.
There was some disagreement about this in court. When, ultimately, church records were consulted to resolve the matter, it turned out that the defendant was not an infant after all. He was 63.