Tough Enough to Act One's Age
Charles Bronson: 67 years old
Director J. Lee Thompson showed up twice in Retro Remote’s previous list on sensitive portrayals of childhood in film, but he’s probably better known for films like The Guns of Navarone (1961) and, in his later days, those seemingly-interchangeable movies where an ageing Charles Bronson displays his particular essence of mandom by shooting an assortment of criminals, punks, and hoodlums. Bronson was a real star as a younger man, from guest roles on TV series to starring in serious films, and placed his own unique stamp on genre pieces in the way that other major stars had similarly defined their genres.
The appeal in the trashy thrillers he ended up in is, without doubt, simply Bronson himself – his films with Thompson range from enjoyable (10 to Midnight, 1983) to awful (Death Wish 4: The Crackdown>, 1987), but there’s something oddly appealing in seeing an increasingly weathered Bronson still taking centre stage, even if the films aren’t very good. After all, Bronson’s face was half of his basic appeal, and the lines of age seem to belong on his brutal visage. The peak of Bronson’s “old man” ridiculousness perhaps comes in the dull Death Wish V: The Face of Death (1994), simply because Bronson is really starting to look and act his age by this point, even though he still manages a pretty respectable kill-count at 70 years old.
Hidden in the midst of the Old Man Bronson shoot-fests is a not-that-good but surprisingly interesting (in context) entry by Thompson, that still sees Bronson dishing out all kinds of dubious “justice” (one questionable example within moments of the film’s beginning), but that also exhibits some awareness of Bronson’s recurring character type and the function of these films as divisive and simplistic xenophobic tracts. While the story of Bronson pursuing a child prostitution ring is standard stuff, we also have a weird side-plot of a Japanese businessman in America who seems perpetually befuddled, sexually frustrated, and too weak-willed to be able to take real control of his environment. While he attempts to molest Bronson’s daughter on a bus, the story really concerns the efforts to track down his own daughter, kidnapped by the prostitution ring.
Drawing on a number of Japanese stereotypes that will be entirely recognisable to Western audiences, it’s unlikely that the film is really aiming to be culturally sensitive in any meaningful way or to truly explore the Bronson character’s xenophobia, but it’s a slight – if not entirely successful – maturing of the formula in the uncovering of the simple, misguided and feeble machinations that may lie behind some of the crimes and criminals that Bronson so easily and conveniently blows away. Instead of the snickering killers, Bronson is contrasted with a confused and enclosed young man, who draws sympathy and anger in reasonably equal doses (if anything, his assault on Bronson’s daughter is uncomfortably downplayed – an attempt at a balanced view, or just a retrograde understanding of “casual” assaults?). The problematic nature of Bronson’s “kill ‘em all” formula is hinted at, fairly bluntly, and the racism Bronson expresses – while no doubt pleasing some of the core audience – always seems to indicate a character out of control (Bronson’s character does seem intentionally ridiculous at points).
It’s hardly nuanced stuff, but in its raw confusion and simple genre context, it seems more honest (in its confusion, anyway) than Clint Eastwood’s celebrated, but manipulative, pandering, soapy, and silly Messiah-complex Gran Torino (2008). In fact, unlike Eastwood’s own blatant social propaganda “kill ‘em all” pieces, Bronson’s best vigilante films often included hints of a mild uncertainty in his methods, and the ugliness of his films’ violence-ethic sometimes seems more honest than Eastwood’s cool, manipulative fascism (though it’s now trendy to overlook this). Here an ageing Bronson seems to slip under that questioning eye before relapsing, perhaps inevitably, into the ‘80s-‘90s car-chase explosion medley. Kinjite is trash, but feels like it’s on the verge of something a little more serious, and a little more capable of questioning its violent and trashy foundations, as well as those of its near-septuagenarian star.
Lillian Gish: 61 & 93 years old
Bette Davis: 79 years old
Vincent Price: 76 years old
Lillian Gish had her start in film near the birth of the artform, most famously working with D. W. Griffith, a collaboration that began when she was 19 years old. Expressive and sincere, Gish’s performances can still connect with audiences who (needlessly) resist the stylistic changes in cinema’s various eras. Gish’s career can hardly be contained in a mere paragraph or two, but it’s enormously pleasing that she continues to have opportunities to take key, powerful and atypical central film roles despite entering an age that Hollywood still barely has any real time time for, especially when it comes to women, who face an unacceptable lack of decent roles regardless of their age (so much for the progressive times we supposedly live in).
Gish was around 62 when she appeared in Night of the Hunter, and it’s a role that places her in a position of strength that is nevertheless defined purely by warmth, nurturing care, and a protective, non-judgemental instinct, shepherding the growth of her young charges in opposition to the controlling and prurient power employed by the sham preacher played by the equally wonderful Robert Mitchum. Gish may wield a shotgun and not be afraid to use it, but it’s clear that her real strength is knowing how to put it down and draw people closer together rather then forcing them away. It’s an image of non-aggressive strength, poise and power that’s too rarely lauded in mainstream media, and that sadly remains under-appreciated and underpaid in society, whether embodied by women or men.
Gish’s showdown with Mitchum, whose terror is rendered almost ridiculous in the face of Gish’s warmth, is one of the great confrontations in film history. I tend to agree with the great critc Danny Peary: watching Night of the Hunter, I get all teary a third of the way into the film just anticipating Gish’s upcoming presence.
But heck, Gish was only 61 in Night of the Hunter and wasn’t even close to being done. In 1987 at the age of 93, Gish starred with a 79-year-old Bette Davis and a 76-year-old Vincent Price in Lindsay Anderson’s The Whales of August. Somehow, Gish manages to be the most spry of the bunch, delivering a performance that asks for no concessions due to age.
Though not without controversy (her continued defence of D. W. Griffith and The Birth of a Nation (1915) remains highly problematic), Gish is a key figure in film’s history (Victor Sjostrom’s 1928 The Wind is one of my favourites, incidentally) and can no more be overlooked than Griffith himself. Sadly neglected, Whales of August‘s casting alone makes it one of cinema’s most valuable treasures, and may have made Gish cinema’s oldest leading lady, along with one of the most enduring.