You can stay in Hollywood—just act your age

Aging movie stars are in no rush to give up the spotlight, and a good thing for studios, too.

Darius Khondji/Sony Pictures Classics/Everett Collection

Not so long ago, once a movie star reached a certain age, it was time to shuffle off into minor character parts—various grandparents, coots and crones—leaving the lead roles to less wrinkled faces. Hollywood was known to be no country for old men, or even middle-aged women. These days, however, that’s changing. Hollywood may still be addicted to youth and beauty, especially when it comes to the studio blockbusters that drive its economy. But as boomer icons hit their 60s and 70s, they seem to be in no rush to relinquish the spotlight. Like the Rolling Stones, movie stars are doubling down on their longevity.

Recently we’ve seen Arnold Schwarzenegger, 65, as a creaky, small-town sheriff battling a Mexican drug cartel in The Last Stand, and Sylvester Stallone, 66, baring cast-iron abs in Bullet to the Head, while Al Pacino, 72, and Christopher Walken, 69, play grumpy old gangsters in Stand Up Guys—with 78-year-old Alan Arkin as their wheelman, sprung from a nursing home and unhooked from oxygen. There’s a whiff of desperation about these attempts to keep screen legends in the game. Despite its droll performances, Stand Up Guys fell flat at the box office, as did the Schwarzenegger and Stallone vehicles, which critics dismissed as geriatric odes to the ’80s action genre. Though Clint Eastwood may have aged well, there’s something freakish about a leathery old gladiator.

But a new breed of codger comedies about elders who dare to act their age has found a robust audience. The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel was one of last year’s sleeper hits. Made for just $10 million, and starring Maggie Smith and Judi Dench (both 78), it has grossed over $135 million worldwide. And for those who found it just too exciting, along comes Dustin Hoffman’s Quartet, set entirely within a home for retired musicians, led by the inimitable Smith as a faded opera diva.

Aging stars have brought an aging audience back to the cinema. While TV sponsors shun viewers over 50, the film business isn’t so fussy about the age of bums in seats. After pandering to the youth market for years, it now sees there’s an older audience hungry for films that address issues of aging, from crowd-pleasers like Marigold Hotel to the palliative drama of Amour. “The studios are certainly more focused on that demographic than in the past,” says Pat Marshall, vice-president at Cineplex Entertainment, who says she’s seen an increased appetite for films “targeted at a baby boomer or older.”

Seniors don’t download movies; they go to movies. “The older generation doesn’t have kids to take care of—they’ve got rid of everybody and they like going to the movies,” says Tom Bernard, co-president of Sony Pictures Classics, Amour’s U.S. distributor. “They’re going to movies that are smart and sophisticated and about them. And they’re old. They still read newspapers and those critics who are hanging on by their fingernails.”

Bernard also points out that, as the boomer generation of indie filmmakers matures, so do their themes. Austria’s Michael Haneke, 70, best known for films about violent cruelty, was inspired to make Amour after his 92-year-old aunt tried to persuade him, unsuccessfully, to help her commit suicide. Amour’s austere drama may lie at the opposite end of the spectrum from Quartet and Marigold Hotel. But all those films are powered by defiant performances from elderly women. And for anyone concerned about the lack of mature female roles—something Meryl Streep has complained about almost since she’s been of drinking age, while making herself the perennial exception to the rule—Amour’s star, Emmanuelle Riva, could serve as a radiant poster girl.

Riva is the oldest performer ever to compete for Best Actress, one of Amour’s five Oscar nominations. She will turn 86 on Feb. 24—the day of the Academy Awards. Jennifer Lawrence and Jessica Chastain are the favourites, but Oscar loves a good real-life fable, so Riva could be the spoiler. Remember the Academy itself is of a certain age, and Lawrence’s recent Saturday Night Live monologue poking fun at her fellow nominees raised a few craggy eyebrows. If there’s one thing the elders demand from the kids, it’s a little respect.

Looking for more?

Get the Best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.