‘How old Cary Grant?’

Humphrey Bogart, 43, in ‘Casablanca’

We talk of old movies and new movies, and we think we know what we mean. But how old are the characters in films? Take Rick in Casablanca. Humphrey Bogart was 43 when that picture opened 70 years ago but, by today’s standards, he seems older. I don’t simply mean that a guess might put him at 50. It’s a matter of his seeming to have lived and acquired experience. Isn’t Rick middle-aged (in a rugged, attractive way)?

More or less, Tom Cruise was also 43 in Collateral (2004). He had styled grey hair in that film as he went about killing people, but he could have been Rick’s younger brother, cool but not rugged. Will Cruise bother with middle age, or just go from young to dead?

Nicole Kidman was 45 in last year’s television movie Hemingway & Gellhorn, set when war correspondent Martha Gellhorn was going from her late twenties to her late thirties. At 45, Bette Davis was three years past playing Margo Channing, the Broadway star worried about her age in All About Eve (1950). To us now, doesn’t that Margo seem about as old as Meryl Streep (who is actually 63, an age never reached by Bogart, Clark Gable or Gary Cooper)? And how old was Clark Gable as Rhett Butler in the 1939 epic Gone With the Wind? Take a guess (answer at the end of the piece.)

A greying Tom Cruise, 43, in ‘Collateral’

Of course, Cruise and Kidman are pretenders who have access to the best make-up and most favourable lighting ever known. I don’t think Casablanca bothered to be generous to Bogart, though he was expected to wear his toupee. But it’s black-and-white and as harsh-looking as war and the desert. On the other hand, Kidman had the benefits of a little soft focus, benign colour lighting and ample cosmetics as Gellhorn. Plus, most of us look better than our ancestors did in 1943. Kidman undoubtedly exercises hard and eats carefully. Bogart smoked most of the time, on screen and off, and he was dead at 57 from cancer of the oesophagus. But he only went to the doctor when actress Greer Garson heard him coughing at a party and thought it sounded bad.

Nicole Kidman, 45, as thirtysomething Martha Gellhorn

One of the great gifts for movie stardom (denied to stage actors) is that the moment in time can go on forever, or for as long as film stock or digital lasts. Bogart has been dead 55 years, but he’s still there on our screens in Casablanca looking as good as Rick. The children of Nicole Kidman can look at their mother in To Die For and laugh at how audaciously gorgeous and fresh she looked in 1995 (she was 28 but looking younger).

Movie has always been a kind of Dorian Gray process. Many of you were not alive when Bogart died, but you can revel in his early middle age (especially when he acquired the 19-year-old Lauren Bacall) – and hardly ever find a picture of him where he looks young. The same applies to Spencer Tracy. Were they born old? Another question: how old were Tracy and Mickey Rooney when they did the 1938 film Boys Town together? (Remember Rooney is still alive today.)

The comparison of young and old, the stretching over 50 years, is one of the most touching things in Michael Haneke’s film Amour. If you’re 18 and uneducated about movies, the film will still affect you. But if, say, you’re 70, it has an extra resonance. It’s the story of an elderly couple, still married, still in love, granted the minor irritations that come with habit and endurance and being old. One of them falls ill. That’s the whole story.

But the couple are played by Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva. Both are in their eighties now, and they look it. Still, a seasoned film-goer knows and recalls Trintignant from late 1960s films such as My Night with Maud and A Man and a Woman. He wasn’t quite a beauty (like Alain Delon or Marlon Brando) but he was very handsome and appealing. Riva, I think, was truly beautiful: she was the French actress in Japan in Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959). That character is more than just a natural beauty; she’s exemplary in her sensitivity, her feelings and her memory.

Emmanuelle Riva, aged 32, in ‘Hiroshima Mon Amour’ (1959)

The source of affection in the veteran film-goer is that we know the past of these two players and appreciate how far they have changed physically. There is no flinching from what ageing does, or from the ways in which physical imperfections are carried on by flaws in behaviour. These people have given up on the burdensome task of being likeable. Ironically, and at a more profound level, that only makes them more sympathetic. Hence the greatness of Amour and the understanding that “love” does not fade away just because it abides.

Both Trintignant and Riva were in semi-retirement before Haneke lured them to work again; now they have acclaim and, in Riva’s case, an Oscar nomination. There was a time when one could reasonably deplore the absence of films about older people. Actresses in particular faced tough careers past the age of 40. As they grew older, Bette Davis and Joan Crawford were reduced to the grotesquerie of What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962) Even Katharine Hepburn ended up with “old lady” parts, as opposed to the alert, funny woman she was in life. It will be interesting to see what happens to Kidman, Julia Roberts and Cate Blanchett as they close in on 50. They are all mothers in life, but when does that show in their movies? Still, I would argue that the two best actresses in film today are Meryl Streep (63) and Isabelle Huppert (59).

Meryl Streep, 63, in ‘Hope Springs’

In Britain, there was a time when Judi Dench and Maggie Smith (both 78) were unquestionably young and what is called “sexy”. They are still around. Dench appeared in Skyfall last year, Smith was in the last Harry Potter. Both appeared in the Exotic Marigold Hotel and Smith is currently in Quartet, set in a home for retired opera singers.

Their movie careers flourished as they became Dames and not just dames. In fact, Jean Brodie, Smith’s first Oscar role in 1969, was like 30 going on 50. As a kid, Dench was not as photogenic as, say Claire Bloom or Sarah Miles. But in an undoubted maturity she has made it clear that older women have passions and the will to enact them. Julie Christie did great things when she was young but her best work may be as the victim of Alzheimer’s in Away from Her (2006), in which a wife simply forgets her loving husband.

Gloria Swanson, 51, as the faded movie star Norma Desmond in ‘Sunset Boulevard’

A movie about Alzheimer’s? Once upon a time that would have been unthinkable. In the old days, people might go eccentric or crazy in a dramatic or melodramatic way – like King Lear, Baby Jane, or Gloria Swanson as Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard (made in 1950 when Swanson was 51, the age of Meryl Streep in Adaptation). But the real afflictions of age – the loss of mobility, independence or reason – were neglected. One honourable exception was Make Way for Tomorrow (1937), a film about a couple (Victor Moore and Beulah Bondi) who must go to separate retirement homes because their grown children are unwilling to look after them. Today, the “make way for tomorrow” code is archaic and politically incorrect. People of 70 run marathons, head big companies, go off with 30-year-olds (or younger) and generally out-think everyone else around.

There are rumours that people past 70 have sexual relations, though the movie industry would prefer that they run marathons or major corporations. Their bodies, they feel, are not quite as camera-friendly as they were. But if pensioner bodies are body-friendly, they’re going to get it on in movies sooner or later. I recall a startling but pioneering moment in Robert Altman’s 3 Women (1977): Mr and Mrs Rose are seen making love. They were played by a real married couple – John Cromwell and Ruth Nelson (he 90, she 72) – and it felt as if they were having a good time.

Bette Davis, 42, as Margo Channing in ‘All About Eve'

Will story material pick up on this trend? Recently, I thought of doing a new Bonnie and Clyde, where the couple are in assisted living – that polite but disempowering modern phrase. They get sick of this and escape to rob banks or casinos. I thought of offering it to Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway – what a return! They are 75 and 71 now, but then I thought they might be hurt. It wouldn’t be a joke, though. Why shouldn’t such people run wild, and how does storytelling omit such characters and their natural appetite for sex and violence (and a nap)?

Of course, there’s another possibility: that living longer will become such a threat to younger people and overcrowding that some form of rationing or regulated death will be required. We’ve had that as science fiction in the past, and so much of that material returns in real life.

Cary Grant, aged 55, in ‘North By Northwest’

Maybe oldies can buy extra time by marrying young people. Don’t forget that in 3 Women, there was an 18-year gap between Cromwell and Nelson. That’s a way of life in Hollywood and a sign of how deeply the men in power believe in staying young, or acting childish. Bogart was old enough to be Bacall’s father and there was a time in movie history when the great generation of male stars were paired on screen with young women who adored them: Gary Cooper and Grace Kelly in High Noon (1952); Fred Astaire and Audrey Hepburn in Funny Face (1957); Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint in North by Northwest (1959); Clark Gable and Marilyn Monroe in The Misfits (1961). Going in the other direction is still much harder, which teaches us how prejudiced show business can be. Harold and Maude (1971) was a notable exception, where Ruth Gordon (75) seduced Bud Cort (23).

Olivia Newton-John, 29, as high school student Sandy in ‘Grease’

There are still aspects of senior life that our movies (and television) are reluctant to spend time and money on. Old people are seldom murderers or terrorists; they are not champion sportsmen or secret agents. Yet in most of those career choices age might be a great assistance because it’s less likely to be noticed. But the bloom of youth is still desirable. Promiscuity outbids incontinence (no matter how alike they are). In Last Tango in Paris (1972), Maria Schneider took off all her clothes for much of the film, time enough for us to see how ravishing a body in first bloom can be. Marlon Brando was only 48 and never more attractive. But he declined to undress, and he had his way. He got $250,000 for the film (and 10 per cent of the profits); Schneider got $4,000. Why? Because the movie business knows there have always been glorious young women prepared to be naked.

Still, life expectancy mounts steadily and there are medical possibilities in sight that might prompt another leap forward. So there are reasons to think or hope that movies (and our culture in general) will have more respect for mature experience. However, there is another possibility: that old people may turn out as immature and foolish as the young.

Clark Gable, 38, in ‘Gone with the Wind’

A few movies play with the elixir of eternal life – Cocoon (1985) for one, and Frank Capra’s Lost Horizon (1937). There, the dream is proposed of never ageing, never growing ill, never dying. Medical science is closer to that tricky paradise than it was in 1937 or 1985. But can our society stand the loss of death? And will life be as precious without it? There’s one more film worth mentioning: John Frankenheimer’s Seconds (1966), in which wealthy people can buy into a whole new lifespan only to find that it’s a scam and a new kind of hell. Growing old was meant to be hard. It’s the natural spur to memory and the last intimation of a culture that believes in immortality – a condition that is impossible without death.

David Thomson is the author of ‘The Big Screen: The Story of the Movies and What They Did to Us’ (Allen Lane)

Answers: Clark Gable was 38 when he shot ‘Gone With the Wind’. When they made ‘Boys Town’, Spencer Tracy was 38 and Mickey Rooney 17

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