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Generation Next: The Changing of the Cinematic Guard…

There are times when I feel quite young. I was born on the same day that The Joshua Tree was released. My dad took me to the cinematic re-release of Star Wars. I was mainly introduced to the great directors through video and DVD. Hollywood as it exists today is not markedly different from the Hollywood that I grew up with. However, as I sat in the cinema last week, it occurred to me: perhaps I have sat through my first real changing of the cinematic guard, so to speak. It’s an occurance so subtle and gradual that I never really noticed it, and yet it must, by necessity, be part of Hollywood’s seasonal cycle.

Putting the older generation out to feed?

It just occurred to me last week, as I was watching War Horse and its impressive ensemble cast, that none of the faces I recognised from the movie had really been working in mainstream Hollywood productions since I had started watching films. Even the older actors among that cast, including Peter Mullan and Liam Cunningham and even Gerard McSorley, had not really started appearing in big productions until the mid-nineties. Arguably, David Thewlis had been around since the eighties, but he only came to prominence during the nineties with small roles in films like Damage. Similarly, McSorley had been appearing in films since 1979, but had only begun steady film work in the nineties. Arguably French actor Niels Arestrup has been working steady in French cinema for a while, so he’s probably the exception that proves the rule.

In a film with so many “veteran” older actors – not to mention a slew of younger strong supporting actors including Tom Hiddleston and Benedict Cumberbatch – it struck me how much the worm had turned, and how long I had been watching movies. Had any of these actors turned up in Spielberg’s Jurassic Park during the nineties, I would not have recognised one them. It seems that most of the working population of Hollywood has “turned over”, so to speak, with so many of these solid supporting roles in Hollywood films going to actors who weren’t around when I started watching films. Had I thought about it before, it would have been obvious, but these things often only occur at the strangest of moments. I think I am old enough to have seen a generation pass in Hollywood, which makes me feel old.

Hollywood's dinosaurs...

Of course, reality dictates that the same actors, producers, writers and directors cannot work in Hollywood indefinitely. Even before death or retirement, the industry has a habit of “chewing out” talented individuals and leaving them very much on the outside. Fame and success are fickle beasts, with movie stars and others often riding them like waves. As such, they can carry an individual to dizzying heights, but they can also break them against the shore, leaving them washed-up and disillusioned. It would have been hard to conceive, in the wake of films like The Bodyguard or J.F.K., that Kevin Costner would end up such an outsider to mainstream Hollywood, who seemed like he might be in line for a career resurrection in Django Unchained and is playing Superman’s adopted father in The Man of Steel.

Indeed, it’s interesting to reflect what contemporary movie-goers might have expected in the future for actors like Robert DeNiro or Al Pacino, cinematic giants from the seventies through to the nineties. I don’t think that anybody could have anticipated Pacino would appear in Adam Sandler’s Jack & Jill or any of his other recent dire projects, just as I don’t think too many would have suspected DeNiro would try to turn his comedic success in Midnight Runinto the general direction of his career. Times change, and actors and directors and movie stars change as well. It just never really occurred to me until now that I had seen such a dramatic shift occurring. These are just the icons, the anchors that used to moor Hollywood – in another fifteen years, it’s possible that actors like Freeman or Nicholson or Streep will not be working at all.

I'm fairly sure Pacino's only working because it's the only way to feed his addiction to scenery...

Of course, when I talk about the generation of movie stars coming up, I’m not talking about the inevitable “flavour of the month”, where it seems that a young actor or actress is definitely “in” for every movie role for a year or so before fading from view. I’ve witnessed the hype around actors like Jonathon Rhys-Meyers or Stewart Townsend, and watched as long screen careers failed to develop. There are seasonal actors, those leading men and women who seem very popular for a brief time, but then seem to fade to the background. While I’ve seen countless crops of those come and go in my time watching films, they aren’t the ones I’m talking about.

I’m talking about watching an entire generation of younger actors emerge while an older one fades away. Not just leading actors, though there are plenty of those, but supporting actors as well. There was a time when you’d see a few dozen films over the course of a few years, and the same faces would keep showing up in the background, reliable and talented performers. Actors like J.T. Walsh or Ted Levine or Tom Sizemore, for example. Walsh has passed away since then, and Levine still shows up quite rarely, bur ir feels like the crop of talented supporting performers I recognised from my youth have all gone. I hope that they got a retirement they deserved.

Pop Quiz, Hotshot: Can I still say "Pop Quiz, Hotshot" to young people, and will they still get the reference?

There’s nothing like the death of older movie stars to make you feel old, to create the sense that time has passed. I was shocked when Michael Jackson died, even though he was still relatively young. It took me a while to process the death of Dennis Hopper as well. These were performers still working while I was alive – indeed, Hopper’s second wave of fame, in the wake of Speed had begun at the same time I had really started watching films.

In contrast, I get to watch new stars rising, and it’s something that I have only really begun to notice – something that makes me feel like I have been watching movies for a while. Looking back, I started watching movies at around the same time that most of today’s leading crop of actors started appearing in them. I remember the first fleeting glimpses of Brad Pitt in Thelma & Louise or True Romance, and watching him develop from there. Indeed, I remember watching Kalifornia for David Duchovny and Michelle Forbes, and turning off the television knowing that Brad Pitt and Juliette Lewis were the real talents to watch. I witnessed Pitt pull himself towards the status of leading man with considerable effort (raising his profile with films like An Interview With a Vampire), and watched him headlining all sorts of movies like se7en or Meet Joe Black or The Legends of the Fall.

It's not fair when he has grey hair to begin with...

I remember when George Clooney left E.R. and I remember a time when it actually looked like “Gorgeous George” might not make it as a leading man. After all, it’s easy to find hunky male television leads who had failed to kick-start their film careers, but those who “made it” seemed in relatively short supply. I wonder if those watching Bruce Willis on Moonlighting ever felt the same way – if there were those people watching the show who felt that they’d never see him again, on the big screen or the small one. It’s hard to predict where the current crop of movie-stars might come from.

It’s amazing to think that I am perhaps a “generation” into a life watching movies. Well, “generation” might be hyperbolic, but time in Hollywood does seem to move considerably faster than it does in the real world. It’ll be interesting to look back in another fifteen years and to see where all the actors and movie-makers are then. Things have changed.

9 Responses

  1. A very interesting read and I think you are right as I’m from the same generation. I recently saw Brad Pitt and really started noticing that this actor is getting older. I remember the times when you would blindly go into a De Niro or Pacino movie knowing it was going to be good. Or like you say when Kevin Costner was a great leading man.

    I still have to get used to the new movie stars, but sometimes wonder who the new superstars will be. I think Ryan Gosling is probably one of them, but I can’t immediately think of other names.

    • Yep, I know. I’m tempted to reply with some names, back all of them seem to have emerged in the past year or so – so I’m not too sure about labelling them “stars.”

  2. It makes you feel old that you started watching movies in the ’90’s? I stared watching films in the ’70’s. How does that make me feel? You saw the re-release of “Star Wars,” but I saw the original release.

    • Wow. I can’t imagine how awesome that would have been. I wondered if the effect might have been dulled for me because I grew up with post-Wars sci-fi, so it was just the same sort of effects use incredibly well. I can’t imagine seeing something like that without a frame of reference.

      • Walking into the theater as a 9-year-old and seeing the Star Wars title flash onto the screen with the John Williams music trumpeting was one of the most amazing things of my life. I still remember watching it for the first time and feeling the shivers run through my body. There haven’t been that many film experiences that match that, and I can truly say that it was a life-changing event. That single moment put me on my course in life.

  3. Haha, I think you could probably get away with switching around the 2nd and 3rd image captions 🙂 It’s a little alarming to discover you are all of 24 Darren. I guess I imagined you older. I totally get what you mean when you say it’s a little unnerving watching the older stars fade away. But it’s also reassuring when the likes of Michael Fassbender, Benedict Comberbatch and Tom Hiddleston seem to go from strength to. On the flip side of what you were saying, although we did have to see the decline of many a beloved actor from previous generations, we’ll get to see the rise and rise of the new generation. Great article Darren, thanks for this.

    • Thanks Ronan! I get that a lot. Apparently using phrases like “in my day…” in a non-ironic sense makes people think I’m a good bit older than I actually am!

  4. Haha, I do the same I’m a close to thirty than you so in my case it’s a little sensitive. 🙂

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