Is it possible for an actor to age gracefully? The Guardian has been very fruitful in providing food for thought this week and the article that grabbed my attention today is a discussion of Heath Ledger’s potential had his life not been cut so tragically short. I don’t intend to dwell on what could have, should have or would have been, but the article does raise some interesting assertions about the ageing of great actors:
If you want to propose Pacino, De Niro and Nicholson as the outstanding figures of the 70s and 80s, who can be resigned about what has happened to them? They have become pastiches of what they once were.
So, is that what really awaits our truly great actors at the end of their careers?
It’s certainly an interesting assumption and one that bears study. The artical goes on to cite Meryl Streep as a rare exception, but I think that might be being too kind – for every Doubt in these years of her career, there’s a Mamma Mia or a Lions for Lambs. The last truly great Robert DeNiro or Al Pacino film was over a decade behind us with Heat. Jack Nicholson’s last truly amazing movie was As Good as Gets, and he’s been filming knock-offs ever since. These are the three kings and the queen of classic movie acting, slowly fading away. Perhaps there is some truth in Les Grossman’s observation that an ageing actor is…
… a dying star. A White Dwarf headed for a black hole. Thats physics. Its inevitable.
Or are we being too harsh?
I think it’s quite reasonable to observe that for every talented actor who has seen his talent diminish with time, there has been another who has seen their talent grow or develop. For example, Michael Caine has only gotten better with age (though admittedly it’s easy to improve from Jaws: The Revenge) and actors like Anthony Hopkins and Judi Dench only really emerged as fantastic talents once they were past fifty, despite working for a long time beforehand (although Hopkins has since shown a will to do anything with a large cheque attached – check out Bad Company). Clint Eastwood is the rare example of an actor who has distinguished and matured, but only because he is the driving force behind most of his projects. I’m more hopeful than ever that Robert Downey Jnr. may fully develop his dramatic talent with the excesses of youth behind him.
The Guardian has a point – it is hard to think of an actor who has remained consistently superb throughout a long career. I’m tempted to jump of Meryl Streep’s bandwagon and use the excuse that there aren’t enough badass old person roles these days (or ever), and maybe that’s a factor. It’s also more than likely that distinguished character actors who have rich and varied early careers in artistic and generally low-budget high-quality dramas seek financial security in their old age – admittedly Pacino hasn’t starved, but his paycheck has got fatter and fatter and it seems fellow distinguished thespian Christopher Walken will do anything for money. It’s by no means a new phenomenon – look at Lawrence Olivier as Zeus in Clash of the Titans. Seriously, look at it.
It’s hard to blame an actor who has struggled for their craft for years for seeking a big cash payoff in their later years. Sometimes, like with Marlon Brando, it’s due to bankruptcy. Sometimes, like in the heartbreaking case of Raul Julia, it’s about providing for your family after you’re gone. Maybe sometimes it’s about ceasing to be a serious dramatic actor and having a bit of fun, which seems to be the excuse Liam Neeson is using as he followed films like Michael Collins and Schindler’s List with a scenery-chewing turn in Batman Begins and (ironically) succeeding Lawrence Oliver in the remake of Clash of The Titans. Maybe Daniel Day-Lewis’ hot streak will continue into the next few decades, making him a rare exception (say what you will of the films, he’s never given a bad performance).
Or maybe we take it all too seriously. The flashpoint for this discussion was the death of Heath Ledger and the discussion of what he could have been. I don’t know what he might have become, I only know what he was. He was a very talented actor, but even in his brief career he produced films of questionable quality. Ignoring the ridiculously overrated Brokeback Mountain, 10 Things I Hate About You and A Knight’s Tale were entertaining, but they weren’t classics. I’m not saying this to be mean, it applies to any actor. Before Al Pacino hit his hot streak with The Godfather, he stared in the less-than-superb Panic in Needle Park. Robert deNiro offered one of cinema’s least interesting depictions of Satan in Angel Heart. And so on.
The point is that even those actors whose pasts we celebrate and venerate today have the odd turkey or two in their past. It just becomes less obvious when we look at back at it. By the same logic, fifty or sixty years down the line, I imagine we’ll gloss over the Righteous Kill and The Recruit years of Al Pacino’s career and focus on Serpico, The Godfather, Dog Day Afternoon and other such classics. In short, we’ll do for these actors what we do for fallen actors now.
Yes, it is sad that their autumn years haven’t brought more of the classy productions that their golden years wrought, but every career has ups and downs, even the far-too-short ones. I agree with the article that is impossible (and unfair) to discuss what might have happened to actors who didn’t make it to old age – though I do admit there is unfortunately litle of value being produced to showcase the talent of tinseltown’s more mature residents. Maybe Up will represent a renaissance the casting of old folks, but that’s pie-in-the-sky thinking…