Elderly action heroes and Hollywood age issues

The arrival of The Expendables 3 leads James to the conclusion that, when it comes to being an action hero, age is just a number...

“All I have produced before the age of 70 is not worth taking into account. At 73 I have learned a little… a little about the real structure of nature, of animals, plants, trees, birds, fishes and insects. In consequence when I am 80, I shall have made still more progress. At 90 I shall penetrate the mystery of things; at 100 I shall certainly have reached a marvellous stage; and when I am 110, everything I do, be it a dot or a line, will be alive.” – Hokusai, the Japanese artist who painted the famous ‘Great Wave off Kanagawa’ and kept on creating astounding art until his death at the age of 88.

“I’m too old for this shit.” – Roger Murtaugh, the LAPD homicide detective played by Danny Glover in the Lethal Weapon film series. There’s no update on Lethal Weapon 5 so maybe he’s decided that he really is too old for this shit now.

Age is just a number. You’re only as old as you feel. It’s never too late for [insert thing seen as the special preserve of the young here]. You’re a spring chicken, you don’t look a day over 35 and so many other reassuring clichés and aphorisms about age. Altogether, people get very bothered about being old and the idea of aging.

Time flies and its beating wings are merciless. When human beings have moments in which they perceive those pounding pinions and acknowledge the passage of time, they’re liable to fall into a state of anxiety. Movie stars are not immune and, in fact, might even feel the fear more severely by nature of the job they do. Media industries are notoriously superficial fields where image is ‘everything’, and the film industry is no exception. At a simplistic level, ‘old’ is a label that carries baggage and stigma. Youth, on the other hand, is prized and highly desirable.

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It’s the reason why wicked witches the Sanderson Sisters (Bette Midler, Kathy Najimy and Sarah Jessica Parker) are cooking up horrible Halloween schemes to suck the lifeforce out of the local kids in Hocus Pocus. It’s the reason why Ingrid Pitt’s Countess Elisabeth (aka Countess Dracula, based on the legend of Countess Báthory) is bathing in the blood of young virgins. The insecurity and envy of youth, likewise, drives the Queen to send a Huntsman after the heart of Snow White in every version of the fairytale once her magic mirror has taunted her with the truth that she ain’t fairest of them all anymore. 

You’ll notice that all of the above examples from fiction are female. It’s definitely the case that women get an even rawer deal when it comes to the issue of aging, and that’s because we live in a society and culture in which everyday sexism thrives and which undermines and oppresses the feminine gender.

This is an essay on unisex aging, so I won’t get drawn into a feminist polemic or attempt to wrestle with gender politics too much. I will instead just leave you with a briefish reminder of the reality that, generally speaking, women are expected to aspire to certain ‘ideals’ of femininity and desirability upheld by and promoted by glossy magazines, soft-porn magazines, commercials and patriarchal traditions.

Woe to all women, then, who don’t conform to the design that identifies them as members of a submissive, inferior sex. Woe also to women who don’t meet the impossible standards of physical perfection of which youth is just one vital aspect if females are figured as sex objects.

Yes, it’s definitely not pleasant being a women actor in such pressurised, ideologically toxic conditions. Nonetheless, men aren’t completely immune from the popular gerontophobia – fear of old age – either, and you can get a sense of that at times if you take a hard look around the movie world. When noticeably aged actors are suddenly on the slate, film reviewers and message board threads start casually flinging around phrases like “dinosaurs”, “fossils”, “creaking bones” and “zimmer frame”. Some bright sparks may even riff on Roger Murtaugh’s “too old for this shit” catchphrase.

As for the industry itself, film producers mark performers’ increasing maturity by confining their range of roles to a set of restrictive archetypes. Actors may find that, upon reaching a certain age, the only parts being offered are for protagonists who are either packing a pipe and a pair of slippers or who are declining into decrepitude. 

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Putting myself in the position of a much older actor, I can imagine seeing nothing but mellow dotage fluff screenplays in the vein of The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel and Last Vegas if they receive any screenplays at all. It’s a nightmarish vision, and you can easily come to appreciate why stars would start going through cosmetic surgery procedures, jumping on ridiculous fad diets or bathing in the blood of youthful virgins. You know that things are really bad and that the dread is really taking hold when a maturing actor starts murmuring about their wish to move into directing.

It’s a pretty depressing picture I’ve painted here, but it isn’t necessarily the reality of all thesps who find themselves on the other side of 50. In fact, if you look at the film industry from a different vantage point you realise that it may be that the movies are the best place for humans who are getting older.

Think about it and you come to see that actors can potentially keep on working until the day they die unlike their ‘regular’ peers who reach pension age and are promptly put out to pasture (or sentenced to the allotment, or the old folks’ home with Bubba Ho-Tep, or told that coming out of retirement for ‘one last job’ is only an available option for movie cops).

Shunning what’s considered to be ‘the way old fogies are’, they can have high times travelling the globe, enjoying new experiences and learning new skills (like swordfighting or martial arts) on the play-pretend trail if the parts demand it. As for cosmetic considerations, film crews will proactively de-age them with the world’s best hair and make-up, and digital effects if necessary. (Though, of course, this is very superficial thinking and in line with the anti-image-obsessed culture rant I’ve already had in this column, I’d like to celebrate being happy just the way you are.)

Age discrimination is present in Hollywood but I’d also say that there are powers challenging it – defying stereotypes and prejudices – and doing good work for those who aren’t quite spring chickens anymore. (Though I’ve never understood why anyone would want to be a spring chicken because spring chickens usually end up in sinister petting zoos or in a carton of McNuggets).

The Expendables franchise is a pertinent specimen to study, especially now that the third instalment of the series has just dropped into theatres with big weapons, big explosions and an even bigger main cast. The majority of that cast are action movie veterans and most are over fifty so the cumulative age tally is also very big. 

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Highlighting the hoariest of the heroes, Arnold Schwarzenegger (Trench Mauser) is 67, leader Sylvester Stallone (Barney Ross, “The Boss”) is 68 and newcomer (oldcomer?) Harrison Ford (Max Drummer) is 72. Regardless of the years and the mileage, though, all these golden oldies are still looking fresh, still in incredible shape, still having a blast (literally) and still making action movies just like back in the day.

Whether their recent work rates as highly, earns as much and resonates as strongly as the classics isn’t really relevant – the key thing is that these guys are still working hard and exerting a presence instead of fading into old age obscurity or dreary dotage as would probably be expected.

What’s more, when it comes to exalting seasoned screen figures, The Expendables series isn’t an isolated phenomenon. Glance over other franchises and you’ll find more grandfather-vintage gentlemen getting glory as elderly action heroes, like Patrick Stewart in the X-Men multiverse and his best mate Ian McKellen who has become the living manifestation of Magneto and Gandalf in Peter Jackson’s cinematic Middle Earth.

For further examples look to, say, Geoffrey Rush and Bill Nighy in the Pirates Of The Caribbean movies and the majority of an entire generation of ancient British acting nobility in the Harry Potter series. Sir Christopher Lee – 92-years-young and still making heavy metal records – is both Count Dooku of the Star Wars universe and Saruman of the Rings and Hobbit trilogies. 

By securing themselves a place in major multimedia franchises, these actors engrain themselves in contemporary pop cultural consciousness, thus ensuring that they both remain relevant and endear themselves to a whole new generation of young cinemagoers (who may even buy their action figure or Lego duplicate). The lucrative late-career path first followed by Sir Alec Guinness (as Ben Kenobi in Star Wars) is even more of a typical trajectory in this age dominated by super-franchises.

At this present moment, the Marvel Cinematic Universe is the hottest party in town, and you can see how many ‘old’ heads are enjoying themselves by becoming a part of the mythos – Samuel L Jackson, Sir Anthony Hopkins, Sir Ben Kingsley and Robert Redford just a select few. Jenny Agutter’s surprise ass-kicking moment in Captain America: The Winter Soldier is also worth a shout out, and Michael Douglas (70 in September) will be getting in on the action next year as Dr Hank Pym (the original Ant-Man).

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The Force is strong with these ones, in spite of the numbers on their birth certificate. Another Star Wars alumnus provides perhaps the most potent demonstration of how older stars can enjoy a later-career resurgence when they reconfigure themselves as an action hero and find fresh life in zesty genre films. Following his lightsabre-waving stint as Qui-Gon Jinn in The Phantom Menace, the Mighty Liam Neeson went on to dabble in a little bit of gang fighting (Gangs Of New York), ninja fighting (Batman Begins) and crusader knight fighting (Kingdom Of Heaven) before carving a niche for himself as a cult bruiser whose name and reputation as a go-to action gruff is the core of so many recent action films. 

He is the Unique Selling Point and main draw in flicks like Taken, Taken 2, Unknown and Non-Stop. Watch these films and your foremost thoughts will be a repeated mantra along the lines of “oh my, Liam Neeson is such a hard bad-ass”. You never dwell on the fact that the towering Irish icon is in his 60s, and I’m certain that it’ll be much the same in upcoming releases A Walk Among The Tombstones, Taken 3 and Run All Night.

I can still buy Harrison Ford as a lead action hero (who needs a new Indiana Jones?). Jackie Chan may have been around forever but I don’t honestly believe that the chopsocky legend is anywhere near the end of his shelf-life. The same is true for Arnie, Sly and Bruce Willis. There’s no reason why these icons can’t keep on fronting action flicks, and they needn’t be wry movies that really play up the old age angle either. I’m thinking here of movies like Grudge Match – Stallone and Robert De Niro spoofing their Rocky and Raging Bull prime – and the two RED (‘Retired Extremely Dangerous’) flicks which are all about geriatric special ops agents.

Aptly enough, The Expendables 3 has arrived on the same week as my birthday. (I celebrated by reading Adventure Time comics, so clearly I’m still young at heart) I’ve had those inevitable angsty moments about the swift passage of time but, on reflection, I observed that I’m still under half the age of many of the Expendables. They’re not doing so bad and have a lot of life left in ’em, so perhaps our fears about growing older really are nothing more than a crock of shit.

I’m too young for this shit, and so are all actors as long as they’re alive and still have their talent and will to make motion pictures and play interesting parts. In line with Hokusai’s proactive attitude quoted at the beginning of this article, I’d urge those who find themselves at a mature age to keep on going, because there is no upper age limit in art and entertainment and excellence isn’t the soul preserve of the young. In fact, it’s probably more likely to be the opposite.

I hope that cinemagoers and studios see that. If not, we’re going to need to cast Sir Christopher Lee as Doctor Strange to hammer home the point. Hey, hold on kids, we might be on to something great here…

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James Clayton is going to be an action movie star one day… maybe when he’s 73 and thus mature enough to handle the responsibility. You can visit his website or follow him on Twitter

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