Last updated: August 17, 2013 1:38 pm

Should actors act their age?

Mature actors such as Denzel Washington and Vanessa Redgrave continue to be believable in younger roles
Denzel Washington, pictured earlier this year at the age of 58©Corbis

The eternally youthful Denzel Washington, pictured earlier this year at the age of 58

As soon as Denzel Washington, 58, was announced earlier this month to star as Walter Lee Younger, 35, in a Broadway revival of Lorraine Hansberry’s superlative 1959 drama A Raisin in the Sun, there was a blaze of comment on Twitter. “Will the character now be called Walter Lee Older?” someone inevitably asked.

When Vanessa Redgrave and James Earl Jones were announced as Beatrice and Benedick for Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing, which opens next month at London’s Old Vic, similar flares arose: Redgrave is 76 and Jones 82 – and although their characters are awarded no exact ages, the text is dotted with suggestions that this spinster and bachelor retain sufficient vigour to best younger characters in a skirmish not just of wit but of weapons.

The tweet heat over Much Ado, however, was much less scorching – and not merely because the age gap between actors and roles was so absurd as, paradoxically, to make the matter moot. The difference in response, I suspect, has more to do with our early conditioning. I grew up at a time when casting in Shakespeare was an evolving mash-up of attributes. This was notably a matter of colour: it was once thought daring to have Hamlet or Macbeth played by an actor of African heritage.

The age and gender gaps had been crossed long before, and not just in Shakespeare’s time. Sarah Bernhardt played the Dane in 1899, when she was 54, around a quarter-century older than the character as written. Practitioners of Shakespeare, in other words, have long exploded our conceptions of who can play a part believably.

But Shakespeare constitutes an exception. The language keeps us at such a remove that age believability can seem the least of the obstacles that theatregoers must surmount.

However, Scott Rudin, the producer behind the forthcoming Raisin, recently told critic Linda Winer that Shakespeare is not an anomaly. (I doubt he’d back Clint Eastwood as Romeo.) He doesn’t think age matters in casting anything, apparently.

“Classics stay alive because a great actor or a great director wants to do them,” he insisted. After all, Rudin produced last year’s well-received Broadway revival of Death of a Salesman, in which Philip Seymour Hoffman was almost two decades younger than his character, Willy Loman.

Yet it remains true, on stage or on screen, that it is easier for a well-known middle-aged actor to be believable older than younger. Nothing may erase age lines like a flatteringly lit proscenium but, more than mere mortals, stars must contend with collective memory. People over 40 retain images of actors when they were young and we know that, like us, they are no longer vernal. They may have merely to appear in the flesh, in roles however inappropriate, for us to extend our good will to them. But Washington has played too many washed-out men on screen, including his magnificent recent performance in Flight , for me magically to think of him as youthful.

But what about good acting? Doesn’t that dilute the age issue? It can. The text, alas, doesn’t disappear. Cutting a few sentences from the script – if an author’s estate allows it – is an incomplete remedy. Authors make choices for justifiable reasons. Hansberry, for instance, describes the sense of premature weariness that overhangs the lives of the working-class Younger family in postwar Chicago, but it is clear that she wanted her Walter, a frustrated chauffeur, to not only think of himself as a young man but to be believable as one.

The age-defying James Earl Jones and Vanessa Redgrave©Jay Brooks

The age-defying James Earl Jones and Vanessa Redgrave

Sidney Poitier, to whom Washington gave a heartfelt shout-out in his 2002 Best Actor acceptance speech at the Oscars, was 32 when he played Younger in the Broadway premiere of Raisin in 1959, and 34 when the movie version was released.

Unlike Sean “Puffy” Combs – who played the role at its last Broadway outing a decade ago – Washington, I suspect, will not commit his interpretation to a proper film or TV version. He is likely to direct Fences, the August Wilson play that he starred in a few years ago on Broadway, before undertaking a second stab at Raisin.

If Washington in his sixties did, however, choose to film Raisin, he could utilise some newfangled, age-defying technical tricks. As Barbra Streisand, 71, recently remarked about her persistent itch to star in a movie remake of the musical Gypsy as Mama Rose, a character 30 to 40 years younger than she is: “Some people look old at 45. Some people look younger at my age ... I saw CGI of an actor that made him go from 60 to 30.” Echoing Rudin, she added: “What’s [age] got to do with anything?”

In making such statements, Streisand is not merely exercising a star’s prerogative – that stars are ageless, even in an Instagram age when celebrities are captured looking worn while walking the dog. She is reflecting her audience. She and Washington and their producers know that theatregoers of the postwar generation, with their neurotic bristle at ever being called old, are especially susceptible to demands for disbelief regarding age. And since boomers are the ones who can most afford Broadway tickets, I expect Raisin to yield juicy returns at the box office. Regardless of vintage.

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