FILM : Hey, show an old guy some respect
There is plenty of work for aged Hollywood stars: the good get blink-and-you'll-miss-it cameos; the very good get lifetime achievement awards. What a waste, complains Nick Hasted
Nick Hasted has been a film journalist since 1986. He writes about film, music, books and comics for The Independent, Sight & Sound, Uncut and Little White Lies. He has published two books: The Dark Story of Eminem (2002), and You Really Got Me: The Story of The Kinks (2011), both from Omnibus Press.
Thursday 23 March 1995
In its intelligent use of its veteran star, Nobody's Fool adds to a trend begun in 1993, when a 62-year-old Clint Eastwood won an Oscar for Unforgiven. On the whole, today's Hollywood isn't used to seeing its ageing legends at work: its greatest talents are more often treated like antiques. In cameo after cameo, from Burt Lancaster in Field of Dreams to Charlton Heston in True Lies, Hollywood's pensioners have become senile circus turns, wheeled on and off in the blink of an eye. It's a remarkable, ridiculous waste but it's nothing new. Its roots snake back 30 years.
By the early Sixties, most of the stars of Hollywood's Golden Age, the first to grow old in public, had already slipped from the screen. Some, like Gable, had died; some, like Cagney, had retired; others, like Davis and Crawford, had been reduced to roles of implicit senility. As the Sixties progressed, the few old stars who did remain came to symbolise the geriatric state of Hollywood itself - ageing stars for an ageing audience. Pop stole the voltage these fading legends had invented. It was a sad, stumbling time. The industry's greying founders seemed to be waiting for someone to pull the plug.
Easy Rider (1968) did. It dragged Hollywood into the present with rock music, drugs and new, young stars. The time for older icons was up; the rapid wastage of a healthy pop machine had overtaken them. Robert Mitchum's brief turn as Philip Marlowe in the 1970s was typical. In the New Hollywood, a man in his fifties seemed like a character from the 1940s. By the time of Star Wars (1977), things were even worse; Hollywood had become crazed with youth and sensation. Special effects ruled; stardom itself seemed irrelevant. Like some science-fiction nightmare, the over-sixties had been wiped from the movie screen.
It took On Golden Pond, in 1981, to bring them back. It starred a dying Henry Fonda and an ageing Katharine Hepburn alongside Fonda's daughter, Jane, but, as William Goldman pointed out, it might as well have had James Stewart and Bette Davis, or Jimmy Cagney and Irene Dunne. The point was it used old, almost forgotten movie stars for whom audiences still had huge affection, as its box-office success proved. The Academy rubber-stamped this pensioners' revival with Oscars for both veteran stars. As the special effects boom faded, it seemed that Hollywood's old-timers might have been written off a little too soon.
But when the dust settled, it became clear that On Golden Pond had done their cause even more harm by handing to its aged stars just sentimental ciphers. The film had not opened a way back for old stars to act, it just let them back to be old. What followed was not a flood of meaty roles for Hollywood's founders, but their reduction to exploited Old Folk. Some were lured back to grant credibility to inferior xeroxes of their best work, like Peck and Mitchum in Cape Fear. Occasionally, as with the farewell granted by Tim Burton to his idol Vincent Price in Edward Scissorhands, a genuine respect has shown through. But increasingly it has seemed that these stars are being granted day-release from some retirement home in the Hollywood Hills, not on the basis of who they are or were, but on whose ticker can stand the pace. Peck, the most boring of surviving legends, got a key role in Old Gringo over the entirely different Burt Lancaster because he was less likely to die mid-shoot. Jimmy Stewart's last role to date has been, bizarrely, in Fievel Goes West, because he was too infirm to do much else. These cameos are grotesque enough. But when modern Hollywood puts its legends centre-stage, the results have been even worse.
Grumpy Old Men re-united a great comedy team, Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon, and was a commercial success. But unlike Lemmon's fiery performance among contemporary talent in Glengarry Glen Ross (1993), ignored by the public, Grumpy Old Men merely offered a fumbled version of who its stars used to be. The film was made not to exploit its stars' talent, but to exploit nostalgia for their names. It reduced Matthau and Lemmon to the level of The Flintstones.
The problem which haunts all these efforts can be seen in the difference between two films, Atlantic City (1980) and Tough Guys (1986). The former, a low-budget film directed by the Frenchman Louis Malle, neglected in America, cast Burt Lancaster as a weary small-time hood, grasping one last chance at redemption. It was his true farewell performance, playing on both his age and the powers of his youth with dignity. Hollywood's Tough Guys, by contrast, cast him alongside Kirk Douglas as a legendary hood, beating up muggers, robbing trains, pretending to be young. Tough Guys proved that most of Hollywood, for so long obsessed with youth, now lacked the capacity to deal with age. Instead, it was condemning its best- loved talents, one by one, to graceless ends.
It's a process which now seems to be creeping up on men considerably younger than Newman. His one-time co-star Robert Redford, 59, made one attempt, in Havana (1990), to appear as the sun-ravaged, leathery creature which he now is. His public fled, horrified. He had to follow it with Indecent Proposal, which filmed him in soft-focus, and squeezed his image almost off its posters. He must feel like Dorian Gray about to crack.
Paul Newman, almost alone, has passed these terrors by. His life after 60 has instead been a lesson in how to grow old gracefully in Hollywood. From his deserved Oscar for The Colour of Money to his refusal of a sentimental turn in Maverick for the more challenging The Hudsucker Proxy, Newman has never been condescended to. He has continued to make his choices as an actor, not a legend. So when Nobody's Fool came, he was ready. An Oscar nomination in his 70th year isn't just a pat on the back. It's his reward, in the teeth of Hollywood history, for still being himself. Next year, the Academy should have Robert Mitchum, 77, to consider, in a new western. It will be directed by Budd Boetticher, 76. You wouldn't bet against them.
Fitness fanatic Douglas finally played his age in Amos (1988), and sported a wheelchair in Greed (1994). A hit autobiography, The Ragman's Son, was followed by a novel.
Mitchum's last film, Woman of Desire, a straight-to-video sex thriller with Bo Derek. Age hasn't withered him - he always did look badly dry- cleaned.
A cameo in A Love Affair (1994) is Hepburn's cinema swan-song. Her last appearance of all (she says) was in cable's One Christmas (1994). A tribute- show fixture.
Last seen in the cinema cameoing (with Robert Mitchum) in Cape Fear (1991), Peck has also turned up in two TV tributes to himself, so far.
The only survivor, with Hepburn, of the Golden Age, illness has forced Stewart, too, from cameos to retirement. The cartoon Fievel Goes West used his voice.
Perked up by Grumpy Old Men, the Grouchy One is now a regular supporting player again. Currently on view as Einstein in the madcap romantic comedy I.Q.
Having raised himself from South Seas slumbers for his autobiography, the Mumbler will soon be seen in Don Juan and the Centrefold.
After a spell on The Colbys, he was last seen making Arnie look like a sissie in True Lies. Oh, and falling down Dame Edna's stairs.
Not a great star in his prime, the Man who was Zorba is now coming in to his own. Brilliant with Kevin Costner in Revenge (1989).
Potter's attempt to create an Essex Taj Mahal was a lovely treattv
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