Sunday, May 18, 2008

It's Not the Years, It's the Milage.

It seems as though James Dean had the right idea: Live fast, die young, and leave behind three classic films. As tragic as his loss was and however many great films he might have gone on to make, we were spared the idea of Dean getting older and outstaying his welcome in a bunch of second-rate films.

There’s been a bit written lately about how such respected actors as Al Pacino, Robert De Niro, and Dustin Hoffman have spent the last several years wasting their time and talents in material that’s beneath them, and it’s difficult to disagree with that when you consider their most recent efforts: Pacino in 88 MINUTES, Hoffman in MISTER MAGORIUM’S WONDER EMPORIUM, and De Niro in most everything he’s made in the last decade, not to mention De Niro and Pacino teaming again in RIGHTEOUS KILL, which doesn’t look all that great and supposedly isn’t (I’m willing to cut Pacino more slack than the others for continuing to do stage work and for the occasional quality film like THE MERCHANT OF VENICE). Add to that the likes of THE BUCKET LIST, which certainly made money but didn’t win any respect for Jack Nicholson or Morgan Freeman, and it’s looking like everyone’s cashing in on what’s left of their name value before they have to make up a bucket list themselves. I can’t speak for any of these guys as to why they did any of these films, though I’m sure the paychecks were fine and maybe there was something in the material they liked or perhaps they got to work with friends they really like working with. But I think if you look at all those films, along with many (though not all) of the recent films these talents were all involved in, and you can see a long-unspoken fact come to light once again: Hollywood has a long history of having little to no idea what to do with aging actors. It’s almost no wonder that Paul Newman, Sean Connery and Gene Hackman have retired and Warren Beatty hasn’t made a movie in almost a decade.

Name some of the greatest movies stars of all time and then name their final film (or films) and you’ll see what I’m talking about. Bette Davis had WICKED STEPMOTHER and Joan Crawford had TROG; James Stewart did AN AMERICAN TAIL: FIVEL GOES WEST (voice work does matter for the purposes of this piece); Marlon Brando had THE SCORE; Katherine Hepburn went out on a cameo in LOVE AFFAIR and a slew of rotten TV movies; George C. Scott had Lumet’s GLORIA remake and Lee Marvin said goodbye with THE DELTA FORCE while Bronson’s last film was DEATH WISH V; Olivier had WILD GEESE II while Fred Astaire, Melvyn Douglas and Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. all said goodbye with GHOST STORY, it’s a sad list that unfortunately goes on and on, so you get my point. Of course, the argument can be made that there are a number of great stars who finished their long careers by either going out on top (Henry Fonda in ON GOLDEN POND) or at least in a quality film (John Wayne in THE SHOOTIST or Lancaster in FIELD OF DREAMS). There’s even the career of Don Ameche to consider, an actor who gained greater fame and recognition when he came out of retirement to co-star in a series of successful films and even ended up with an Oscar. But look a little closer and my point becomes clearer. Fonda was making movies like THE GREAT SMOKEY ROADBLOCK and CITY ON FIRE just before ON GOLDEN POND and Wayne had a lot of losers in the mid-Seventies (ROOSTER COGBURN; McQ; BRANNIGAN). In their final years, many of the great actors had better roles on TV than they did in the movies, while some turned to the stage for their final bows. It seems to me that the real problem here is that the movie industry doesn’t really seem to know what to do with people of age, and I don’t simply mean older actors but also stories about older folks. This really isn’t a shattering insight by any means, but when people complain about the likes of THE BUCKET LIST and 88 MINUTES, you also have to ask in return, was this really the best they’ve been offered?

Older actors in Hollywood are usually cast as grandparents, wise sages, crooked politicians, or now, thanks to GRUMPY OLD MEN, foul-mouthed old farts. Occasionally there’s a romantic lead or a COCOON or DRIVING MISS DAISY (though let’s not ask for too many of those) or even something offbeat like Ossie Davis in BUBBA HO-TEP to stand out, but when you consider how senior citizens comprise a large bulk of the movie-going (and renting) audience, it’s pretty much a slap in the face when you think about how few great roles and stories there are for older actors. Unless you’re Clint Eastwood and have the power to create your own roles or find your own material, the pickin’s get slim once you turn 65. In this regard, Harrison Ford and Sylvester Stallone are probably right to return to the role of Indiana Jones, John Rambo and Rocky Balboa in their sixties, giving themselves one more huge box office hit and allow everyone a reminder that not only are they still here, they’re still in shape and can still kick ass. There’s an overall problem in this country of a lack of respect for the aged, and the common perception that youth has always equated beauty and freshness to most isn’t much to be surprised about, but it’s been a real problem in movies and it truly needs to be addressed. Studios have arthouse divisions and genre divisions (some even have urban divisions and Christian divisions), so why not senior divisions? A couple of years ago I was working with an upstart DVD label called Riverside Entertainment, who were distributing titles that appealed to older audiences; I understood what the label was going for, the people behind it had their hearts in the right place and some good titles, but it turns out they didn’t know jack about the realities of the industry and they quickly sank, a rather unfortunate occurrence. Had they had their shit together, they could have succeeded and marked out a solid niche for themselves, but that was not the case. However, the idea still has a lot of merit: Seniors comprise a large part of the audience and can turn small pictures into hits. You can go the BUCKET LIST route and make sappy, sentimental comedies or you can make smarter adult works like ATONEMENT or MICHAEL CLAYTON and as long as you market it right, don’t spend too much and release it properly you can do pretty well. And don’t those types of movies always do well at Oscar time? Am I the only one who thinks this idea has merit? (This advice is free, by the way, so anyone who wants to steal it is more than welcome to. Just invite to the premieres and we’re all good.)

The baby boomers are all hitting retirement age now, so the concept of just what appeals to older audiences has changed radically than what it was before. These are the audiences who helped usher in the changes in movies from the studio days of old, just as the likes of DeNiro, Hoffman, Nicholson and Pacino were among the trailblazing actors who made that change possible, which is partly why the lack of quality of their current work is so upsetting. Movies need to change the misconception that old people aren’t cool. Granted, I’ve know a few uncool older folks in my time (I might be related to one of two of them), but seniors can be just as cool as Johnny Depp or Denxel Washington combined, so let’s give them the opportunity to prove it. One of the coolest people I know (a former filmmaker and lifelong movie nut) is turning 80 next year; John McCain is 72 and he could be the next President of the United States (that might not be such a cool thing, but for a person of 72 to achieve that would be cool in theory); Neil Diamond currently has the #1 album in America, while Willie Nelson’s 75th birthday is something of a month long holiday here in Texas. Let’s not count out the aged just yet, movie industry. They’ve been around a long time, they have monumental name recognition (Pacino’s face is on more t-shirts in this country than Miley Rae Cryrus, for pete’s sake!), and they happen to know what they’re doing. Kiera Knightly? She’s nice, but she’ll be around a while. Give some respect where respect is due, show some balls and you’ll get results.

You’re welcome.

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