At 86, Sophia Loren has won acclaim for her performance in “The Life Ahead” as a Holocaust survivor and former prostitute who bonds with an orphaned Senegalese street kid named Momo.
At 88, Cicely Tyson became the oldest performer to win a Tony Award for best actress for her portrayal of an elderly woman who sets out to see her beloved Texas hometown one last time in “The Trip to Bountiful.” Tyson returned to Broadway for “The Gin Game” at 90, opposite James Earl Jones, who was then 84.
At 82, Christopher Plummer became the oldest actor to win an Academy Award, for “Beginners,” in which he played a widower who comes out as gay. Plummer went on to appear in more than a dozen films in the last decade of his life, including roles as billionaire J. Paul Getty in “All the Money in the World” (2017) and a mystery writer/murder victim in “Knives Out” (2019).
If this be gerontocracy, give me more. In fact, you haven’t had to look very far in recent years to find more. It may seem like a paradox, because our culture could scarcely be more youth-oriented, but getting old has become a good career move, whether on film, on stage, or on TV.
(Or politics: Just ask Joe Biden, who failed twice to achieve the presidency and only succeeded when he was knocking on the door of 80. Or sports: By the actuarial tables of the NFL, you’re a certified geezer at 43, and Tom Brady just won his seventh Super Bowl.)
One hallmark of performances by older actors like Loren, Tyson (who died last month at 96), and Plummer (who died a week ago at 91) is their beautiful economy, as if a lifetime of experience were distilled to essentials: of gesture, of glance, of vocal inflection. Still, there are many ways to craft a glorious final act, and at the moment, we’re getting to see them all as we’re treated to what amounts to the senior Olympics, thespian division.
Ellen Burstyn, 88, is considered a strong contender for an Oscar nomination next month for her performance in “Pieces of a Woman.” Jones, who turned 90 last month, reprised his role as King Jaffe Joffer for the “Coming to America” sequel to be released next month and has starred in four Broadway productions since his 80th birthday (”Driving Miss Daisy,” “Gore Vidal’s The Best Man,” “You Can’t Take It With You,” and “The Gin Game”).
For half a dozen seasons, “Grace and Frankie” has chronicled, and taken seriously, the romantic and career adventures of a pair of odd-couple roommates played by 83-year-old Jane Fonda and 81-year-old Lily Tomlin, who end up living together when their husbands (played by Martin Sheen and Sam Waterston, both 80) fall in love with each other. When it concludes its pandemic-delayed final season, “Grace and Frankie” will become the longest-running original series in Netflix’s history.
So why has the entertainment industry decided that old age warrants sustained attention?
Let’s not overlook the most obvious answer: Increased life expectancy translates into a larger pool of older viewers, and thus a larger potential audience to capture. According to the US Census, the 65-and-older population was the fastest-growing age group in the country over the past decade, swelling by more than a third. At the same time, the under-18 population “was smaller in 2019 than it was in 2010,” according to the Census.
At present, there are more than 70 million baby boomers in the United States, the oldest of whom are 75, and performers like Fonda and Tomlin are extremely familiar names to those boomers. Both are producers as well as stars of their show, enabling them to maintain control over the “Grace and Frankie” story lines and characterizations. The same is true of Michael Douglas, 76, who stars in Netflix’s “The Kominsky Method.” Certain performers retain enough star wattage and clout that they can refuse to go gentle into that good night. Few have remained more active than Clint Eastwood, 90, who has exerted control over his career by directing as well as acting.
Premium cable channels like HBO and Showtime and streaming services like Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu are less dependent on high ratings or boffo box office returns than broadcast networks and movie studios. That frees up writers and other creatives who instinctively want to explore every corner of human experience — and old age is a corner brimming with compelling dramatic possibilities. Some of those stories are predictably grim, as evinced by the spate of movie and TV protagonists battling dementia, such as “The Father,” starring 83-year-old Anthony Hopkins as a Welshman beset with encroaching dementia.
I wonder if the richer roles available to older performers are altering the way younger actors think about their careers. Hopkins played the title role in “King Lear” at London’s National Theatre when he was only 49, and the great Paul Scofield was just 48 when he delivered an unforgettable performance in the 1970 film version of Shakespeare’s monumental tragedy. Yet when I interviewed Denis O’Hare recently, the 59-year-old actor told me he doesn’t consider himself old enough yet to play Lear.
As the parameters of an acting life have lengthened and widened, certain older performers have remained consistently busy: Morgan Freeman, Ian McKellen, Patrick Stewart, Betty White (of course). In the final season of “Downton Abbey,” the single best reason to check in on the Crawley family was the chance to hear the then-81-year-old Maggie Smith deliver frosty witticisms as the Dowager Countess.
But what’s especially intriguing as more and more actors resist a career fade-out is that, for some of them, a fade-in was necessary first. While Diana Rigg remained a presence on the British stage, how often had the general public thought about the former star of ”The Avengers” before she emerged in her mid-70s as the formidable Lady Olenna Tyrell on “Game of Thrones”? Rigg, who died last year at 82, followed “Game of Thrones” by playing Mrs. Higgins in the 2018 Lincoln Center Theatre revival of “My Fair Lady” at the age of 80, earning a Tony nomination.
Or Glenda Jackson, now 84, who took a hiatus from acting for more than two decades to serve in the British Parliament, then resumed performing just six years ago? Since then Jackson has won a Tony Award for best actress in the 2018 Broadway production of Edward Albee’s “Three Tall Women,” commanded the stage a year later on Broadway in the title role of, yep, “King Lear,” and then starred as a woman with dementia in “Elizabeth Is Missing,” presented in December on PBS’s “Masterpiece.”
Sometimes, a late-in-life surge enables a performer to not just burnish but redefine his or her legacy. Take Plummer. While he was one of the most respected actors of his generation on both screen and stage — his performance in “Othello” nearly four decades ago at Boston’s Wilbur Theatre opposite James Earl Jones was the best Iago I’ve ever seen or ever hope to see — “The Sound of Music,” released when Plummer was 36, was the first thing many people thought of when they heard his name (to his dismay). It probably still is, of course, but in his final decade Plummer seemed to be everywhere, a whirlwind of activity, piling up credits.
Then again, we now expect creative people to just keep going — so much so that the novelist Philip Roth made news when he decided to retire from writing before he turned 80. Three years ago, at age 92, Hungarian composer György Kurtág premiered his first opera, “Fin de Partie,” an adaptation of Samuel Beckett’s “Endgame,” after refining and refining it. Tony Bennett, 94, whose diagnosis with Alzheimer’s disease was recently disclosed by his family, kept performing live and recording albums, including one with Lady Gaga, into his 90s, familiarizing young listeners with his music and his gifts as he crafted a final act for the ages.
And now, Sophia Loren is getting Oscar buzz for “The Life Ahead.” Early in the film, a doctor who’s been functioning as Momo’s guardian asks Loren to take the street kid in until the doctor can find him a home. “I can’t keep up. I’m old,” the doctor says. Loren replies tartly: “And I’m a teenager, right?”
Hey, who wants to be a teenager these days? Old age is where the action is.