While Hollywood hasn’t lost its obsession with youth, it seems to be making room for a few more wrinkles.
At 85, Emmanuelle Riva is the oldest woman ever nominated for a best actress Oscar, and “Amour,” the movie in which she stars as a rapidly deteriorating elderly woman being cared for by her husband, is up for best picture.
Six of this year’s Academy Award acting nominees (7:30 p.m., Sunday, on ABC) are in their 60s or older, as were eight of this season’s Golden Globe nominees. “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel,” about a group of pensioners living in India, was a box-office hit last summer, grossing $134 million worldwide. The AARP dubbed 2012 a year that was “hot for both older moviegoers and movie makers.”
And at 78, actress Maggie Smith has never been busier or more adored, starring in “Marigold Hotel,” the senior-themed film “Quartet” and television’s “Downton Abbey,” on which she has acquired a fan base young enough to be her grandchildren.
“It seems to me there is a change in what audiences want to see,” Smith said at a film festival in London. “I can only hope that’s correct, because there are an awful lot of people my age around now, and we outnumber the others.”
Action films featuring stars in their 20s and 30s that attract a young male audience are still king at the box office. But in an industry that traditionally considered actors to be over the hill at 40, that former career death-knell age is shifting upwards.
Though youngsters like Anne Hathaway and Jennifer Lawrence are getting ample podium time during awards season, the academy has a history of bowing to the elders. Last year, 82-year-old Christopher Plummer became the oldest actor to win an Oscar, his first, for his supporting role in “Beginners” as an old man who comes out as gay.
Older actors often add automatic gravitas to films, as Tommy Lee Jones and Sally Field, each 66, and 87-year-old Hal Holbrook do in “Lincoln.” At 78, Alan Arkin, a best supporting actor nominee for “Argo,” continues to steal every scene he’s in.
“Unlike playing professional sports, acting is an ability that improves with age and experience, so there are a lot of excellent aging actors out there,” said Thelma Adams, who covers film for Yahoo!
Until recently, said Finola Dwyer, who co-produced “Quartet,” studios “have shied away from [‘senior’ films] because they’ve thought them too hard a sell to distributors.”
Gran-coms, geezer heroes
Now many older stars are getting such steady work that they’re creating new subgenres. There’s the “gran-com,” like “Marigold Hotel” and “Stand Up Guys,” with Christopher Walken, Alan Arkin and Al Pacino playing con men. Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone and the ensemble casts of “The Expendables” and “Red” aren’t letting bad backs and stiff joints keep them from mowing down bad guys in geezer action flicks (sometimes doing well enough to spawn sequels). At 77, Judi Dench as M was central to the plot of the megahit “Skyfall.”
The 2012 drama “Hope Springs” (Meryl Streep, Tommy Lee Jones), about an older couple trying to re-spark their marriage, and the biopic “Hitchcock” (Anthony Hopkins, Helen Mirren) also found niche audiences.
Stars like us
Unsurprisingly, baby-boomer attitudes have more than a little to do with audience acceptance of on-screen aging.
“Baby boomers have been going to movies for a long time, and want to see smart stories,” said Ted Mundorff, president of the Landmark theater chain, which has shown “Amour” and “Quartet.” “They came of age in the ’60s and ’70s, which was a good time for smart movies.”
Young audiences (ages 12 to 24) still make up 30 percent of moviegoers, the largest chunk, but the number of people ages 55 to 74 buying tickets grew from 15 percent in 2011 to 18 percent last year, according to a Nielsen report released in January. Meanwhile, the 25-54 age group went down, from 56 to 52 percent.
“There’s a huge senior audience that is really underserved and overlooked,” said Dwyer. “They have the time and money to go to the cinema, and they enjoy the experience. You go to matinees and the audience is full of people in their 70s and 80s.”
In fact, the boomer generation may be the ideal movie audience “because they don’t multitask,” said Yahoo!’s Adams. “They’re not texting and tweeting, they’re just following the story. So we’ll see more releases tailored to their interests.”
Another factor is that people are living longer and more active lives. The image of Grandma in the rocking chair, knitting with a quilt on her lap, has been replaced by Granny in a tennis skirt, buying movie tickets on her mobile device.
“People are staying healthier, and still want to see reflections of themselves on screen,” said Bradley Jacobs, senior entertainment editor for Us Weekly. “They don’t necessarily want to run out and see Kate Hudson or Jennifer Aniston. They want mature, rich storytelling featuring actors who look like they have seen some life.”
Britain, home to many older stars with marquee power in America, might be ahead of the curve — a recent study found that most Britons believe middle age starts at 55 and ends at 70.
Hollywood’s age discrimination is lessening, “but there’s still work to do, especially for women,” said Adam Moore, diversity director for the 165,000-member actors union SAG-AFTRA. Male actors are overrepresented compared with the general population, while women over 40 are underrepresented by half. Women under 40 are close to equal.
The majority of female actors may still tend to enter “forgotten” territory 10 to 20 years before men do, but some top women stars have managed to break through that barrier. In films over the past 10 years, both the number of women hired and the money they made has doubled, Moore said.
Fifty years ago, Bette Davis was only 54 and Joan Crawford 57 when they were reduced to playing camp-horror “crazy old lady” roles like the spinster sisters in “Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?” It’s hard to imagine their counterparts of today, even those a decade older such as Streep, Mirren, Field and Susan Sarandon, having to resort to similar indignities.
As boomers get even older, the trend can only continue. In November, a gran-com called “Last Vegas” will star Robert De Niro, Morgan Freeman, Michael Douglas and Kevin Kline as oldsters on a holiday bender. Call it the hoary “Hangover.”