Act Their Age or Age Their Act? Stars Strive to Keep Reinventing

Aging Stars

Hollywood sexagenarians strive for renewed relevance, but not everyone can pull it off

Robert Redford is playing a heavy in the next “Captain America” film, Clint Eastwood is flirting with “The Jersey Boys” and Michael Douglas is looking cute as Liberace.

(From the pages of the April 16 issue of Variety.)

Why this random information? Because the superstars of the 65-and-over set are wandering down unexpected paths these days in a determination to keep their creative lives (and income streams) aloft.

I’ve always been empathetic to the plight of the “senior stars” as they figure out their third acts. In searching for roles, must they still get the girl? Or should they simply go to Lakers games, like Jack Nicholson, or write thrillers, like Gene Hackman, or pose for ads, like Sean Connery? Or, like Warren Beatty, should they keep trying to revive weary projects from the past? (Yes, Beatty still wants to explore the Howard Hughes mythology.)

The past has been haunting Redford (age 76) lately. His new film, “The Company You Keep,” revisits characters and political themes that have earlier failed him (remember “Lions for Lambs”?) and he has even completed a new documentary titled “All the President’s Men Revisited.” Some critics argue that his directing style, like his subject matter, has become relentlessly stolid, which is paradoxical in view of his dedication to Sundance — the mecca of young ideas and experimental filmmaking.

Robert De Niro, who’s about to become a septuagenarian, also has an important festival involvement (Tribeca commences next week) but he has been the most daring, and diverse, in his acting choices. The man who once played Jake LaMotta is willing to jump from Fokkers farce to bipolar pathos (“Silver Linings Playbook”) and has kept himself busier than any of his contemporaries.

Dustin Hoffman, age 75, celebrated his senior standing by directing his first film, “Quartet.” Tom Hanks, a kid at 56, is relishing his first Broadway role, in “Lucky Guy,” by Nora Ephron.

Then there’s Michael Douglas, age 68, who is playing gay (opposite Matt Damon) in “Liberace,” which HBO will unveil next month. (The project’s full title is “Behind the Candelabra: The Secret Life of Liberace.”)

Eastwood has brilliantly navigated the transition from actor to auteur, but some suggest that he has become too elitist in his recent choices of material. “J. Edgar,” about the tyrannical FBI boss, was over the head of younger filmgoers, and so was “Invictus,” about Nelson Mandela.

So will Clint really commit to “Jersey Boys?” He remains cagey about this. Eastwood has long prided himself as an occasional composer, but the last time I encountered him in a full-fledged musical was his excruciating performance in “Paint Your Wagon” in 1969. Yes, he sang. Worse, he sang opposite Lee Marvin.

It’s all too easy to second-guess these decisions, especially in the case of a Redford or Beatty, both intelligent men with tumescent egos. Of the two, Redford has had more hits, going back to “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” and has retained a vastly more energized career.

In a lengthy interview in the April issue of Esquire, Redford explained his cautious approach to this stage of his career. “I love being the artist at work,” he said. “That’s where I want to be now.” He did not explain how “Captain America” fits into that game plan.

His big frustration, he reflected, was his failure to launch a final project with his friend Paul Newman that would have focused on a couple of old friends walking the Appalachian Trail. Newman turned 80 in 2005 and decided never to act again.

“It was hard for him,” Redford explained. “And for me, too.”

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  1. Brian Seifert says:

    Movie star egos are at work here. Eastwood, Redford, Beatty, are no longer relevant to a large group of young and even middle aged moviegoers. People in their 20s have never even heard of these former stars. But if they can put the need to be an old fashioned movie star aside, and embrace projects in other media platforms that will reach an interested audience, these older creative people can still be relevant. Costner, Hoffman. and Pacino have appeared in cable tv projects. They understand that the expanded media environment offers new opportunities to be relevant and does not diminish or shrink star status.

    • WZ says:

      My reply below was meant for the first Brian.

    • Brian Hannan says:

      Costner, Hoffman etc have not done this out of the goodness of their hearts. They end up in television – as did stars in the 1960s and 1970s – when they can’t get jobs in the movies. it’s nothing to do with ego except in the sense that if you are an actor and not working it must sap your pride. The world is made up of more than people in their 20s and there are some older genres that young people love. I was never a great fan of Redford or Beatty but I’d still go and see any film with Eastwood, Nicholson, Hoffman and Pacino. Eastwood still gets work because his movies make money and my guess is his upfront fee is a lot lower. Here’s an idea. Put Nicholson, Hoffman and Pacino in a gangster movie as the ageing brothers in a Mafia family faced with having to kill their children – played by Tom Hardy, Bradley Cooper and Scarlett Johanssen – who have set up rival concerns because their parents aren’t dead. Maybe DeNiro as their compromised priest. The Godfather meets Cocoon. And don’t anybody go stealing the idea!

      • WZ says:

        Millennials in their 20s were brought up on rap and reality shows. So being current, modern or relevant is totally unrelated to quality or value judgments. Just because toxic pop culture waste material is new, that does not mean it equates taste or class. To understand your generation more clearly, you need to read the works of George Orwell and not dismiss real movie stars from the good old days. In the generation gap wars, to you bad is good. To us baby boomers, old is gold.

    • Brian Hannan says:

      Agreed Redford and Beatty have never got past their looks. But Eastwood is a different story entirely. He’s the only old guy actor happy to play an old guy. Redford and Beatty look like adverts for old guy cosmetics and make-up. But Eastwood is the poster boy for the grizzled. Heck, he was a grumpy old man when he was younger. But he has certainly delved into the dark in his more recent movies – regret is inbred – the scenes with the priest in Million Dollar Baby when we realise he will never find forgiveness are heartbreaking. Bear in mind that in the past actors never got to this age on the big screen – they disappeared into television or died – unless it was an anomaly like George Burns in Oh God, Henry Fonda in On Golden Pond or Cocoon.

  2. WZ says:

    It’s new product or projects that are stale, not old role players. Appeasing elder sell outs to junk pop culture won’t save an ageist zeitgeist if quality is still lacking. Leave the freak show conflict and dark subject matter to millennials. What about good old days material that appeals to older folks? Why can’t media make room for more light hearted content? Yet another new movie that sucks won’t be redeemed with an old star cast in it. It’s the same old thing with a token shade of gray.

  3. Canuck says:

    Shocking. Not one female star mentioned? Absolutely shoddy journalism. How was this even approved as a fair and balanced piece worthy of publication?

    • Brian Hannan says:

      Actually, in fairness to Peter Bart, the ageing process affects men just as much as women. Meryl Streep, Katharine Hepburn, Bette Davis etc all did great work in their 60s. Part of the problem is the misconception that most male actors continue well into this age when in fact that time most have dropped off the top of the Hollywood tree. And will the current generation of stars, the ones playing second fiddle to CGI, have careers that even last another 5 years never mind into their 40s or 50s?

  4. E Stein says:

    And there are absolutely no female stars even mentioned, let alone considered, in this article. Maybe because actresses have to reinvent themselves at 40 (“elderly” in how Hollywood thinks about women).

  5. Brian Hannan says:

    There’s a simple way to extend your shelf life as a movie star. Grow a beard. Sean Connery had one relatively early (old-age-wise) in his career. The problem for stars like Redford, Newman and Connery is that a large part of their appeal lies in their looks. Once you show a scrawny neck, it’s hard not to look old. But a beard hides that. Sean sure is canny.

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