Aging is an unavoidable part of life – or at least it used to be. But this doesn’t seem to be true for today’s celebrities. On the one hand, Hollywood worships the trappings of youth as much as ever, but on the other, it loves some relatively old stars. From Sandra Bullock to Tom Cruise to Will Smith, big stars in their 50s are everywhere you look. So is it simply a great thing that actors’ careers aren’t dead after they hit a certain age now – or does it not really count if we’re embracing middle-aged and older actors if their continued popularity depends on them not looking it?
Aging is an unavoidable part of life – or at least it used to be. But this doesn’t seem to be true for today’s celebrities. While the movie business has always been at odds with letting its stars age naturally, today, celebrity culture holds two contradicting ideas on the matter: on the one hand, Hollywood worships the trappings of youth as much as ever, and on the other, it loves some relatively old stars.
In the recent hit The Lost City, 57-year-old Sandra Bullock goes on a wild action-comedy journey. At one point, she’s rescued by a character played by Brad Pitt, who is 58. Sandra’s former Speed co-star Keanu Reeves is also 57, and he was still The One in The Matrix Resurrections, which he made in-between performing crazy action sequences for John Wick installments.
“He’s so much older. The beard, the hair – it totally works for me.” - Neo, The Matrix Resurrections
Recent Oscar winner Will Smith is 53, and 54-year-old Nicole Kidman – more beloved and busier than ever – received a 2022 Oscar nomination for playing Lucille Ball over a period ranging from when Ball was in her late 20s to early 40s. Big stars in their 50s are everywhere you look; it’s a far cry from the days of actors retiring from leading roles at the first signs of reaching middle age.
Dr. Morris Packman: “You’re 45. You know, if I give you one more facelift, you’re gonna be able to blink your lips. I mean, don’t you wanna be able to play parts your own age?”
Elise Elliot: “There are only three ages for women in Hollywood: Babe, district attorney, and ‘Driving Miss Daisy.’”
- The First Wives Club
But what you’ll notice about all these examples is that they look as fit and wrinkle-free as any healthy 30-year-old.
So is it simply a great thing that actors’ careers aren’t dead after they hit a certain age now – or does it not really count if we’re embracing middle-aged and older actors if their continued popularity depends on them not looking it? And are younger actors finding it harder to break into the business when all the big leads are taken?
Here’s our take on the mixed messages that today’s never-aging celebrities send us about how (and whether) it’s okay to get older.
Ellen Pompeo: “Really all you have in your youth is your looks.”
Juju Chang: “And so when the looks fade what are you left with?”
Pompeo: “Hopefully a fantastic character and integrity and a soul.”
- ABC News Nightline
The Stigma of Aging
The movie and modeling industries have long had a stigma against aging and an emphasis on flawlessness. They’ve known for a long time that people love looking at beautiful people.
Though there have always been some older stars, in the past they tended to be male. Many prominent female stars were forced to step back from their acting careers once they could no longer pass as young and beautiful.
And today’s leading men can be older than ever: 61-year-old George Clooney or 59-year-old Tom Cruise show no signs of retiring or even playing supporting roles.
It’s clear that these days, successful actors stay in demand a lot longer. But to make this possible, they’re also expected to act and look younger than ever. So what kind of effect does this have on viewers, who watch celebs stay youthful while they themselves age? Let’s take a look:
1) First, it sends the message that success comes from keeping up appearances at all costs.
Though plenty of people profess to dislike it when an actor has clearly “gotten work done” (at least if they look noticeably different, what is criticized much less often is the environment in which actors are tacitly encouraged to alter their appearance away from the natural aging process. Women, especially, face pressure to look youthful if they want to keep getting prominent roles – whether that’s through staying unnaturally thin, getting extensive plastic surgery, or maintaining extreme diets and workout regimens.
“You’re so punished in this business. I mean, when people say, ‘Do you think you lost work because of your politics?’ I say, ‘No, it’s because you got old and fat.’” - Susan Sarandon, Oprah’s Master Class
Some male stars – like George Clooney – have been able to embrace the physical changes that come with age and are said to look distinguished and even sexy with some gray hair or wrinkles. At the same time, even many men of our era, especially in the middle-age range, are facing expectations to look and act more youthful, to get surgical help, or to maintain unrealistically muscular physiques. Look at 50-year-olds Dwayne Johnson and Mark Wahlberg, whose punishing workout schedules were circulated online a few years ago.
2) The second issue with this current state of affairs is unrealistic audience expectations.
“You would be forty; old and wise.” - Olympias, Alexander
Hollywood has always portrayed age totally unrealistically, especially for women. In the 2004 film Alexander, Angelina Jolie played the role of Olympias, the mother of Alexander. To be the mother of someone you must be significantly older than them, however, at the time, Angie was only 29, and Colin Farrell (the actor playing her son) was 28, less than a year younger than her.
When older characters on screen are represented by young actors, this creates unmeetable expectations for what real people can expect getting older to look like. Still, as long as we knew Hollywood was casting 20-somethings as older characters, it at least felt more clearly like an illusion. Now, we have the reverse: older actors playing younger – or younger-seeming – characters, while still looking as traditionally attractive as ever! So this puts even more pressure on us, the audience, to try to look like that even as we enter our 50s, 60s, and beyond.
If an actor does age more naturally in movies and TV, they might look like an outlier, or be cast explicitly as an older person, not a glamorous or romantic heroine. And even when movies sort of acknowledge these unrealistic expectations, it’s in a limited way; in the Jennifer Lopez rom-com Marry Me, characters talk about the difficult choices older performers have to make in an unforgiving entertainment industry – without ever actually saying Jennifer Lopez’s actual age, which is 52. Instead, the movie refers only to the challenges facing women who are “north of 35”!
“Now she’s a woman north of 35 in a business that marginalizes women at any age.” - Colin Calloway, Marry Me
The movie also doesn’t mention that her co-star, Owen Wilson, is 53.
3) Another side effect of never-aging celebrities is a clogged workforce.
With a more fragmented film culture, endless viewing options, and less of a collective live-watching experience, it might be easier for new actors to get some work, but establishing a new star is harder than it was 20 or 30 years ago. That’s made even more difficult when so many high-profile leads are taken up by aging stars. Let’s look at Nicole Kidman: she’s a great actress, so of course, she’s always been in a lot of demand. But in the past five years, she’s appeared in a dozen movies and starred in five seasons of television.
“I was trying to connect with the little girl within me.” - Masha, Nine Perfect Strangers, 1x06
Liam Neeson, in the same five-year period, released seven action or thriller movies – and that’s not even counting his smaller or more dramatic roles. Even actors who’d be well past retirement age in most other fields are leading men and ladies – last year, Clint Eastwood became the first major movie star to take a starring role at age 90 in Cry Macho.
The same trend happens with younger actors, too. Emma Stone made her film debut playing an 18-year-old high-school senior in Superbad in 2007 – but she continued to play characters who were around 18 in 2008, 2010, 2012, and 2014. By the time Emma Stone graduated high school for the last time on screen, it had been seven years since the first time she played a high school senior, and she was 24 years old in real life.
Emma Roberts followed a similar trajectory, playing teenage girls for the better part of a decade. So why is it that Hollywood seemingly cycles through the same few actors, when the industry is flooded with young, aspiring actors desperate to be hired?
There’s a clear commercial reason – casting bankable stars, particularly in the kinds of roles audiences already liked them in, feels financially safer. But do audiences really only want to watch something if it’s starring actors they already know? In the end, we all just want a good story, and that’s something that doesn’t require plastic surgery.
The Upside to Aging
At the same time, there are a number of potential upsides to actors sticking around longer than they did 50 years ago.
1) Women aren’t forced out.
The number of big female stars from the ‘50s and ‘60s who had careers over 40 is not especially large. Katharine Hepburn is a notable exception – but too many female stars to count were basically cast aside when they hit a certain age – a practice that continued through the ‘70s, ‘80s, and ‘90s. Elizabeth Taylor, for example, had a remarkable career, being the first-ever star paid one million dollars to play a role for Cleopatra. When Taylor was only 40, Roger Ebert remarked in a review of Hammersmith is Out, “The spectacle of Elizabeth Taylor growing older and more beautiful continues to amaze the population.” But shortly after this remark, Taylor’s career as a leading role took a significant decline, as younger actresses overtook her popularity.
Right now, however, there are a lot of major, popular, beloved actresses still getting leading and romantic roles well over the age of 40: Jennifer Lopez, Nicole Kidman, Reese Witherspoon, Melissa McCarthy, Viola Davis, Amy Adams, Sandra Bullock, and Charlize Theron, among others. Meryl Streep, who is older than any of them, actually had a resurgence in popularity as a box office star later in her career.
“Truth is, there is no one who can do what I do.” - Miranda Priestly, The Devil Wears Prada
Streaming television – where stories that aren’t necessarily as focused on four-quadrant blockbuster appeal – is a big factor that’s led to this flourishing of ripe dramatic material for middle-aged and older actors.
And we’re seeing an expansion of movie roles available to older actresses, too. The 2022 Best Actress category at the Academy Awards was a race between Jessica Chastain, Kristen Stewart, Penélope Cruz, Nicole Kidman, and Olivia Colman, playing characters grappling with motherhood, celebrity image, work challenges, and alienation – and only one is an actress under 40.
2) Aging that reflects reality.
Stars like Stewart, Grant, Hepburn, and others, started to step back from starring roles around the advent of New Hollywood in the late ‘60s. In the decades since then, the average life expectancy in the U.S. has gone up nearly 10 years. In addition to living longer, people now also, for better or worse, tend to work longer. So it’s only natural that movies would reflect that young men no longer look like seasoned business executives by the time they’re 25. It makes sense that actors might maintain a more boyish appearance into adulthood, or that actresses wouldn’t take as many grandmotherly types of roles in their 50s or 60s. Fewer actors also die in their 50s and 60s, as happened, not infrequently, earlier in Hollywood history.
“Don’t worry about getting to your point, I’m going to live forever.” Jack Donaghy, 30 Rock, 5x08
So despite the remaining stigmas about truly looking your age on camera, acknowledging that life isn’t over at 50 is at least a good step in a more realistic direction.
3) Seeing actors across longer careers.
“I’m too young to be old and I’m too old to be young.” - Evelyn Couch, Fried Green Tomatoes
Actors who came up during the New Hollywood movement of the 1960s and ‘70s did continue their careers well past middle age. So this means there are plenty of performances from later in their careers that we might not have seen in an earlier era. Jack Nicholson in About Schmidt, Robert De Niro in The Irishman, and Robert Redford in The Old Man & the Gun, all gave particularly strong performances late in their careers, in roles they could not have taken as younger men.
“You don’t know how fast time goes by until you get there.” Frank Sheeran, The Irishman
The same will probably be true of today’s biggest stars like Will Smith, Leonardo DiCaprio, Amy Adams, Jennifer Lopez, and Brad Pitt – who won his first acting Oscar at the age of 56. There’s something satisfying about following actors across longer careers, and seeing a greater breadth of work from individuals as they age. Ethan Hawke’s appearance has remained relatively similar, but he’s who has naturally matured and reflected on the aging process on screen in movies like Before Midnight and Boyhood. Performers like Meryl Streep, who is known for her range, or Nicholas Cage, who is known for his intense commitment, can do strikingly different and nuanced work – whether that means getting weirder, sillier, or more reflective – as they get older.
Aging vs. Mortality
So is the current state of Hollywood aging a net advantage despite drawbacks like the unrealistic expectations it sets? It’s great to see stars at a variety of ages, taking on a greater variety of characters. But celebrity culture is also so far removed from the experiences of regular people that it feels like a tone-deaf flaunting of the wealth that allows a select few to keep looking forever young.
“It takes a lot of work to look that great. There are personal chefs, there are personal trainers.” - Teri Hart, Cityline
And perhaps the most unsettling problem at the root of this is that there’s a subtle denial of mortality. Sure, it’s fun to watch Tom Cruise do crazy stunts as he approaches 60, but this lack of any change onscreen trains audiences to expect their favorite stars to basically stay the same, in some form or another, indefinitely.
“In our business, it’s cruel. Um, the attention to how you look is cruel and unrealistic, I think.” - Meryl Streep, The Oprah Winfrey Show
The logical extension of this mentality is the use of computers to de-age stars, as seen in the MCU movies, Star Wars franchise, The Irishman, and elsewhere – or even to create them more or less from bits and pieces of programming.
The Star Wars TV shows now have multiple episodes that feature Luke Skywalker set not long after Return of the Jedi. But while this character looks and sounds like actor Mark Hamill did 30 or 40 years ago, Hamill himself isn’t there giving a performance. He’s a combination of a body double and a computer simulation, programmed from his appearance and even his voice from the older movies. Some fans even preferred this uncanny, digital recreation of Luke to seeing Hamill playing closer to his real age in The Last Jedi. Those fans hesitated at the sight of an older, more complicated version of Luke, and longed to instead see their childhood hero, even if it means he has to be “played” by a simulation.
“No one’s ever really gone.” - Luke Skywalker, The Last Jedi
Once these stars pass away, even then they’re still not really mortal – we’ve already seen the use of holograms to have them continue their careers. So there’s a sense that the human behind the star matters less than their image.
Even as Hollywood makes progress toward de-stigmatizing older ages, what actors and filmmakers are in danger of missing is that aging isn’t just a fact of life, but a major advantage that real actors have over CGI or special effects – which, unless they’re truly groundbreaking or beautiful, tend to age much more poorly. Hollywood shouldn’t be afraid of realism. People crave connection. People crave meaning. And what better way to do that than to reflect the passage of time in the stories we tell?
“As I started to get older, I just started to realize that it’s your imperfections that make you who you are.” - Sarandon, Oprah’s Master Class
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