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Growing Old in Hollywood…

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?

Grumpy - but cool - old men...

Grumpy - but cool - old men...

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.

"I am Zeus! Behold me in my neon glory!"

"I am Zeus! Behold me in my neon glory!"

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…

29 Responses

  1. Pacino is still extremely watchable and belies his years.

    • True, but he used to be more that watchable – I won’t deny there’s a charm in any roles, but it seems he’s lately developed quite a taste for scenery. Which is handy when he’s playing the devil or for “the six inches in front of your face” speech. I love that man, but there’s no denying he doesn’t seem to be as good as he once was.

  2. OMG! Clash of the Titans. I have to rewatch that! ๐Ÿ™‚


  3. I like old acters and Hollywood.

  4. It must be as hard for actors to keep up the passion for their careers as they age as it is for us “regular” folks. I mean, after so many scripts “been there done that” must come up a lot. I think that’s why so many move into other areas of the entertainment business or are very selective in the roles they play. Others just seem tired….. North Coast Muse @ http://sally1029.wordpress.com

  5. Great reasons and arguments there. I think too much emphasis is placed on age now rather than the performance.

  6. It’s kinda sad though that as actors age, their days of glory are left behind. Fame does not treat its people well…

  7. Morgan Freeman is still doing good work.

    Paul Newman was excellent, and Helen Mirran springs to mind.

    But, if you judge working actors by their entire body of work all working actors will have some clunkers here and there. No way around that.

    It will be interesting to see the current crop of good actors (Tom Hanks, Denzel Washington, etc) hit their 60’s and 70’s and see what they can do…

    Excellent post.

  8. Morgan Freeman is still doing good work.

    Paul Newman was excellent, and Helen Mirran springs to mind.

    But, if you judge working actors by their entire body of work all working actors will have some clunkers here and there. No way around that.

    It will be interesting to see the current crop of good actors (Tom Hanks, Denzel Washington, etc) hit their 60’s and 70’s and see what they can do…

    Excellent post.


  9. i guess actors may have to take what they can get at some point in their career … and at the same time there are some who simply want to try something else. depends on the individual actor and their situation. interesting article. on a diff note, there are quite a few older female actors on tv playing some amazing roles. that makes me very very happy to see. as an actor, it certainly gives hope.

  10. There are still some exceptions. Helen Mirren, for example, has aged beautifully and is actually producing more popular works in her later years.

    On another note, I thought Ed Asner was a perfect choice for UP.

  11. Great blog, interesting, but one uncertainty…I linked through via the photo of Ed Asner on wordpress.com homepage but there’s no mention of him in the content. I have a hard time including him in my mind as one of the “great actors” of film (Eastwood, DeNiro etc)

    • No, it just got me thinking about Up and the fact that it does feature two ageing great actors – Christopher Plummer (who is, in fairness, enjoying a much-deserved renaissance this year) and Edward Asner, who has been confined to voiceover roles on animated TV shows (Freakazoid!, Animaniacs, Batman: The Animated Series) for the past two decades. I think Up is a great example of the kind of lead roles that ageing actors don’t really get that often.

  12. I think it’s a mixture of the sad fact that talent diminishes with age for most, and that their aren’t many good roles for old people.

    It makes you wonder why. Do artists lose their abilities because of degenerating brains, or is it a sort of late middle age ennui that emerges from having passed your time of biological imperative, so that they are no longer driven strongly by the need to mate and have progeny? (Although Phillip Roth would disagree) And are their a lack of good geriatric characters because writers aren’t interested in oldsters, or is it because no one wants to make a movie about old people because they don’t make money?

    Of course there are a lot of people out there who want to see good movies about people in the autumn of their years — loved About Schmidt — but, I do believe that for both screenplays and actors, producers need to look for undiscovered talent. They need to find old people that never made it in their youth but are still out there writing and auditioning.

  13. Whoa, there may be two things missed or taken lightly when it comes to old actors:

    1) Hollywood isn’t producing scripts for old guys all that much and it’s hard for an aging action figure to find a niche in agism Hollywood.

    2) Acting is exhausting and contrary to popular belief, a lot of hard work. Once you make your pennies it’s understandable to kick back and indulge your own whims. Walken is great actor but even in the early days his personal sense of humor was pretty twisted. He may command a lot, but he’s only doing it for the fun of it.

  14. I believe that a good actor at 30 will be a good actor at 80, should he live that long. Johnny Depp will always be on top. So will Meryl Streep (age 60). (PS: She was good in Mama Mia, too. Just goes to show that talent will out. Consider also Johnny Dep as Cap’n Jack Sparrow and as James Barrie in “Finding Neverland”.)

    Hollywood seems to have an obsession with youth. Consider, for example, the last Star Trek movie: “Star Trek: The Teenybopper Generation”.

    giftedgirl194: “Fame does not treat its people wellโ€ฆ”

    It’s not Fame. Fame still shines on the great ones. It’s Hollywood, which is all about “what have you done last week?”. (And “who are you married to this week?”)

    I can still watch Cary Grant in the Hitchcock movies, especially with Audrey Hepburn. (In “Charade” (Stanley Donen), he was 59; Hepburn 34.)

    Gary Cooper was 51 in “High Noon”.

  15. It is difficult to know how good a project is when you’re working on it. And it’s easy to criticize an actor for taking a big check when the movie turns out badly, but they don’t necessarily know when that’s going to be the case. Also there are successful actors who take roles for much less money than they’re “worth”. Didn’t Travolta supposedly spend more having his family with him while filming Pulp Fiction than he was paid?

    • I think John Travolta’s career was going exactly nowhere before he made that movie. They had officially run out of “Look who’s talking now” movies. Without pulp fiction, none of his later high paying yet kind of crappy movies would have been possible.

  16. I’m not much of a movie fan – in general. I’m a huge fan of aging gracefully whatever role you’re playing.

    I would die to have Meryl Streep play me in “Getting Lucky at Eighty”. She’s perfect for the part.

  17. I think it is sad that people look at getting old as something so awful.
    Should be something you appreciate and embrace.
    Our society it way to focused on anti-aging and looking ‘young’, what’s wrong with having laugh lines and knowing you’ve enjoyed your life?

    • Hey ashleythinks,

      very well said! I totally agree with you!
      In my opinion, the actors who stand out as having aged and have become icons of the entertainment industry are Al Pacino, Jack Nicholson and Robert DeNiro.

  18. And Brad Pitt, of course – it was brave of him to appear without make-up in the first half of Benjamin Button ๐Ÿ˜‰

  19. Our society has a love affair with youth and 15 minutes of fame types. I’d say there is little possibility for older actors to do well nowadays.

  20. You said Nichelson’s last best role was in “As Good as it Gets”, but I really liked him in “The Bucket List”, co-starring with another aging actor I like, Morgan Freeman, who also starred in “Driving Miss Daisy” with another aging actress I liked very much, Jessica Tandy.
    And don’t forget sexy Ricardo Montalban (Fantasy Island, The Wrath of Khan), and the star of one of my daughter’s favorite TV series (no accounting for taste ๐Ÿ™‚ Matlock, starring Andy Griffith. Oldies but goodies one and all. ๐Ÿ™‚

  21. Well certainly any actor who has a significant body of work will have a number of dubious credits among them. But do these bad films contain bad performances? Clash of the Titans is terrible, but is Olivier? not so much as he hams it up not because it’s easy but because it’s the natural choice for so flimsy a role. But don’t assume that older actors give lessor performances just because they give fewer. As someone else noted, there are not that many older people roles to begin with. Those that exist tend to be “supporting” roles. Hard to shine consistently in those.

    A great actor will be fine throughout his career. Old Heath Ledger may not have been so good, but you say it yourself, perhaps he wasn’t THAT good now (I suspect he was though). But several actors make the grade as consistently good from youth to old age. Some obvious choices are Katherine Hepburn, Spencer Tracy, James Cagney, Cary Grant, Paul Newman. And I think you miss the mark in saying Brando’s later work is more inspired by money than role–I would gladly debate the merits of Brando’s performances in say, The Freshman or A Dry White Season, with anyone. Indeed, perhaps more than any other actors, Brando and Hepburn consistently gave truly great performances throughout their careers. Be certain, the runner stumbles sometimes and old actors do fade away, but some glow brightly even after death because indead, they are great performers.

    • Very good point (must check out A Dry White Season), but what really sticks in my mind is films such as the Island of Doctor Morneau or the most-expensive-salary-to-screentime-ratio-ever in the original Superman (though it may have to be excluded since he filmed it before Apocalypse Now). It’s also hard not to feel bad that his last film was as decidely average as The Score.

      • I’ll take slight issue with your assessment of Superman, which I actually think is a strong performance. Yes, there is a certain mock-grandeur, but within the context of the prologue, it seems the right choice. In fact all those performances during the prologue (trevor howard, terrance stamp) set up the mythological tone of the movie. If the prologue (and the movie) fail, it’s more likely due to poor special effects.

      • I think that’s a solid point – the prologue is stunningly effective in creating effectively the first superhero universe brought to the big screen and Terrence Stamp has never been so… just perfect (yes, he’s been better in other films, but I think his Zod is amazing and defined the comic book villain archetype on screen) – but I’m not entirely sold on Brando. Though I’ll concede it’s probably from hearing all the back stage gossip about his appearance and that feeding into my perception of the role. Though I won’t pretend that the only time Superman Returns felt like a proper Donner film wasn’t using the Brando footage.

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