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

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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