“You told me about all these old directors whom people in Hollywood say are ‘over the hill,’ and it made me so sick, I couldn’t sleep. I started thinking about all these conductors – Klemoerer, Beecham, Toscanini – I can name almost a hundred in the last century – who were at the height of their powers after seventy-five. And were conducting at eighty…. it’s only in your twenties and in your seventies and eighties that you do the greatest work … and we must treasure old age and give genius the capacity to function in old age – and not send them away…”
—Orson Welles in Peter Bogdanovich’s Who The Devil Made It?, 1997, pp. 11-12.
On Age and Pop Culture
William Gillette was 78 when he finished his final tour as Sherlock Holmes, having played the role some 1,300 times, beginning at age 46. Many of the traits we now consider part of Holmes’ image – such as the deerstalker hat and curved pipe (and possibly, but not demonstrably, the genesis of the famous “Elementary, my dear Watson”) – were established or cemented by Gillette’s characterisation.
Gillette might have seemed old when he finished up as Holmes, but in today’s media environment it’s tough to see how he even got started: these days, 46 might as well be 78. Robert Downey Jr. may have been around that age when he stepped into Guy Ritchie’s new Sherlock Holmes franchise, but part of Downey Jr.‘s appeal seems to be his eternal frat-boy demeanour: a self-conscious summoning of the idea of youth, even if not its actual presence. The BBC revival Sherlock (2010–) was certainly more comfortable with a younger, more modern, internet-trendy Holmes in Benedict Cumberbatch. I doubt anyone would be surprised if a few incarnations down the track, the “young” in Barry Levinson’s 1985 Young Sherlock Holmes is rendered somewhat superfluous.
The elevation of youth and the creation of opportunities for new faces is vital, but it often seems that it’s more about the image of progress than the real pursuit of it; in a media and cultural environment that’s trained its audiences to be happily superficial, young faces represent little more than basic marketability rather than new ideas and forms of expression. No surprises there, but it’s a shame if a de-emphasis on adult roles results in a lack of real-world “grown-up” concerns in high-profile popular culture.
Certainly plenty of vocal online Gen-Xers and now-ageing Gen-Ys seem content to claim their generations’ narratives in what are essentially children’s stories, re-visiting again and again the same old tales of kids discovering their unique greatness, finding amazing powers that make them “special”, fighting mean ol’ bullies, getting the girl, and so on, almost as though such a refusal to leave the cultural realm of childhood will offer a protective counter-identity to the conservative and consumerist “adult” world that most of us are unavoidably sucked into (“I may work for a multi-national, ethically-bereft, profit-obsessed, human-rights-ignoring corporation, but isn’t my Batman retro-zombie faux-vintage day-glo collectible pillowcase awesome!?”).
While youthful reinvigoration of culture can seem nice, the relevance of the “non-adolescent” starts to diminish when the overall tone shifts towards the young. Just as older unemployed people can find it difficult to get a hold of meaningful employment opportunities, plenty of not-quite-established artists in the realm of popular culture may find their initially-bright spotlight pointing elsewhere before they’ve had a chance to fully explore the limits of their art or profession. While a culture of youth is still presented like it’s an upset to the established order, that’s usually far from the case: “youth culture” is the perfect marketing label to slap on the old conservative ideologies. Pretty new faces to say the same ugly old things.
Not that it’s all roses for the young out there, with rampant exploitation of young workers, highly insecure job positions, and an ever-increasing monopolisation of wealth going on. As Stephen Marcie writes in Esquire’s “The War Against Youth” : “The recession didn’t gut the prospects of American young people. The Baby Boomers took care of that” (26 March 2012). While the problems of “gerontocracy” are real, the constant re-packing of younger and younger faces for the mainstream popular consciousness is – perhaps counter-intuitively – part of maintaining that power imbalance. Such social and financial divisions are easier to maintain if we’re all happy to keep seeing ourselves as – and acting like – kids.
Of course, perhaps that’s just the standard not-too-nuanced and somewhat hyperbolic cry of despair at the hollowness of consumerism, but it’s still it’s a scary thought that the threshold for what’s considered to be “old” might be dropping: especially when length and (hopefully) quality of life are increasing.
There’s a lot to be gained by established powers if people’s voices can stop being heard once they pass a certain threshold, especially if that’s when awareness of social inequality begins to rise: if you’re still complaining after you’ve hit 25, then you’ve probably done something wrong with your life, seems to be the implied wisdom. On a cultural level, pop culture generally seems to suggest that, once people pass a certain age, they’ve more or less rid themselves of pesky things like emotional and personal conflicts worth exploring, if not emotions altogether. In a short scene from great TV series Lou Grant (episode “Takeover” from 6 December 1977), Nancy Marchand as newspaper owner Margaret (Mrs.) Pynchon points out what really shouldn’t be a surprise about the presence of emotion in the old:
There are still plenty of places for older actors and stars, but like Downey Jr. (or those bloated crime savants on detective shows), the best way to stay relevant may be to deny the years and appeal to youth-obsessed grown-ups: a slightly more subtle cultural version of the classic sitcom “Rock ‘n’ Roll Grandma”.
Older faces in pop culture obviously don’t automatically equate to “adult” concerns. Brooks Barnes in the New York Times points out that “older faces on screen draw an overlooked crowd” for grey-fuelled The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (starring 77-year-olds Judi Dench and
Maggie Smith) (23 May 2012), but as Chris Barsanti wrote in PopMatters, both The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel and The Avengers opened at the same time and offered essentially the same non-problematised pandering to the perceived desires of their target age ranges (14 May 2012). As Barsanti rightly asks of both films: “These are both films that know their audiences, perhaps all too well… what is there to talk about really?” Pap aimed at different ends of the age range remains pap all the same.
It’s sad to see interesting and exciting actors, artists and performers struggle to get real, substantial work when the wrinkles become harder to airbrush away and the trendy attitudes become harder to convincingly maintain. Aside from the actors themselves, this can also relate to the kinds of stories we can tell about the characters we know. Part of the appeal of certain actors in the modern environment is the absolute identification with a role. Gillette may have been a definitive Holmes for his time, but we don’t have much to draw on when we consider his ownership of the role (only a radio recording survives of his Holmes). Today, with especially rigid control over modern cultural “product” (to use the ugly corporate language) and its global distribution, there’s limited room for multiple interpretations of characters, meaning that characters can often become inseparable from the actors that portray them.
Sylvester Stallone may have led a bit of an old folks charge with Rambo (2008) and Rocky Balboa (2006), but such reclamations of star billing seem to require enormous amounts of cash and social capital (and Human Growth Hormone?). The quality of Stallone’s films may have been questionable (actually, I think they’re not too bad), but it’s always welcome to see mainstream cinema take an opportunity to revisit its icons from a new perspective rather than simply abandoning them for a newer version. Thanks to the current “reboot” trend, our heroes never have to really grow (despite the constant flurry to praise the often meaningless “character arc”): changing actors means the characters stay perpetually young and their most basic conflicts never need to be surpassed. More interesting but less marketable character-actor combinations may find themselves abandoned as hints of age (or mere change) appear on the actors who, for a moment, “owned” a character.
Gillette may have been close to 80 when he performed his farewell tour, but one of the modern day TV detectives didn’t have as much luck. Peter Falk’s affable detective Lt. Columbo failed to return for a swansong when age stood in the way, and it’s always lamentable to hear that one of the most expressive and enjoyable female actors in the fantasy genre, the still-young and vibrant Lucy Lawless, might be seen as too old to be marketable for any return of Xena: Warrior Princess. While neither of these might seem to be great artistic losses, it’s interesting to think how these characters might have been approached by a sensitive creative team had they been given the opportunity to grow with their actor-“owners”. (Columbo may not have strayed from its formula, but the names behind Xena – including Rob Tapert and Sam Raimi – have always been much more interested in character than their unique Three-Stooges-melodrama style might suggest). In any case, after some initial eye-rolling, it soon becomes completely understandable why actor Huang Hoang felt the need to sue Internet Movie Database for revealing her age and, as a result, instantly reducing the amount of work available to her (actually demonstrating this inherent bias against actors due to age in order to claim damages will be the tougher task).