As these incredible performances prove, there is a place in cinema for actors entering their twilight years. Sometimes, things do get better with age. Daniel Stephens looks at a selection of great turns by actors over 60.
10. Gene Hackman (The Royal Tenenbaums, 2001)
Gene Hackman made the decision to retire from acting in 2004 which was a shame given that he had produced some of his finest performances in his sixties and seventies. Many will remember his turn as Sheriff “Little” Bill Daggett in Unforgiven alongside Clint Eastwood, as well as other dramatic performances in Crimson Tide, Absolute Power and Enemy of the State. But he did some great comedic roles during the 1990s and 2000s such as The Birdcage, Get Shorty and Heartbreakers, the stand out of which remains Wes Anderson’s unique, offbeat dramedy The Royal Tenenbaums. Absurdist humour prevails in true Wes Anderson style. Hackman plays the titular Royal who leaves his wife and young children before returning many years later, after each of his children have enjoyed career success and then downfall, to win their affections back through sympathy by faking a terminal disease.
9. Emmanuelle Riva (Amour, 2012)
Emmanuelle Riva became the oldest nominee for the Best Actress award at the 2013 Oscars. She was 85 years old when she appeared in Michael Haneke’s Amour, a film in which she plays an elderly woman paralysed after a recent stroke. She was nominated for numerous accolades including winning a BAFTA, becoming the oldest person to achieve the prize.
8. Meryl Streep (The Iron Lady, 2011)
Meryl Streep produces an incredibly believable personification of Margaret Thatcher in Phyllida Lloyd’s biographical drama about the political and personal life of the former British Prime Minister. Streep’s performance, which she accomplished having only just turned 60, was widely praised as one of the best of her career.
7. Charlie Chaplin (Limelight, 1952)
Charlie Chaplin is terrific in this largely forgotten film about a once famous stage clown whose career has struck hard times. Turning to drink, Chaplin’s character Calvero has little to hope for until he helps a young dancer (Claire Bloom) regain her self-esteem after a suicide attempt. The film was largely ignored on release due to Chaplin’s alienation from the USA but has since been recognised as one of his finest achievements. The autobiographical nature of the film, particularly the depiction of the diminishing star of a celebrity, gives Limelight a relevance that resonates. It is also fascinating to see, and importantly hear, the famed silent film star perform in a “sound” picture.
6. Michael Caine (Harry Brown, 2009)
Michael Caine is underrated as an actor. Many of his critics fail to acknowledge his ability to deliver both dramatic roles and comedic ones, sometimes simultaneously, and quite seamlessly, like for example, The Man Who Would Be King. His cockney jack the lad persona seen in Alfie, The Italian Job and Gambit alongside his far less lavish turn, when compared to James Bond, as a British secret agent in the Harry Palmer films, has perhaps seen his films become more memorable than his performances. In Harry Brown he delivers one of the best performances of his career.
You could, somewhat unfairly, call it a geriatric Get Carter. As the titular character, he plays an aging former Royal Marine who, following a number of instigating factors, decides to take matters into his own hands to clean up the downtrodden, crime-ridden streets of his neighbourhood. Despite his age, Caine maintains the steely edge he had as a younger, vengeful crime-fighter in Get Carter, and is more than a match for the feral youth soiling his local streets.
5. Jack Lemmon (Glengarry Glen Ross, 1992 & Grumpy Old Men, 1993)
Jack Lemmon is one of my favourite actors so it comes as no surprise that firstly he appears on this Top 10 Films list and secondly I pick two examples to highlight. Indeed, Lemmon turned 60 in 1985 so you could choose from a handful of good performances before his final film The Legend of Bagger Vance in 2000. But it was the two films he released in 1992 and 1993 that really stand out. In Glengarry Glen Ross, where David Mamet adapts his own stageplay for the screen, Lemmon plays a veteran real estate salesman who has hit a barren patch. The pressure to hit target and save his job bubbles fiendishly beneath the surface of a defiant exterior. His measured performance has a sense of tragedy to it, not just in its representation of a salesman under pressure but an ageing man at the tail-end of a career where he was once top dog (the curtain slowly coming down on a Hollywood star).
Similarly nuanced is his performance re-teaming with friend and The Odd Couple co-star Walther Matthau in Donald Petrie’s Grumpy Old Men (this was Lemmon and Matthau’s sixth film together). Released as a cheerful Christmas movie in 1993, it sees two lonely, elderly neighbours, once close friends, playfully fight for the affections of college professor Ariel Truax (Ann-Margret). As a celebration of long-term friendship and life on the other side of 60, Grumpy Old Men delivers with a warm heart and plenty of laughs.
4. Jack Nicholson (As Good As It Gets, 1997)
Jack Nicholson, like the Duracell Bunny, just keeps going and going. He had only just turned 60 when James L. Brooks’ As Good As It Gets was released in 1997 but the larger-than-life actor, who was born in New Jersey before becoming one of Hollywood’s most recognisable residents, is as lively as ever as curmudgeon Melvin Udall. This funny, bittersweet tale focuses on the lives of Nicholson’s New York City novelist, his artist neighbour (Greg Kinnear), and a single mother (Helen Hunt) struggling to make ends meet while caring for her asthmatic son.
3. Richard Farnworth (The Straight Story, 1999)
In David Lynch’s most accessible movie, Richard Farnworth turns in one of his finest performances as World War II veteran Alvin Straight. The film depicts the true story of Straight’s 240-mile drive from Laurens in Iowa to Mount Zion in Wisconsin after he hears of his estranged brother’s stroke. The journey is made interesting (and treacherous) by Straight’s poor eyesight leaving him unable to get a driving licence. He therefore uses a six-miles-per-hour lawn tractor to get him there.
2. Henry Fonda & Katharine Hepburn (On Golden Pond, 1981)
It’s possible to pick a couple of performances from Mark Rydell’s terrific film about an aging married couple who retreat each summer to their holiday cottage on a lake called Golden Pond. The film deals with a variety of relationships such as that between Fonda’s somewhat distant, belligerent father and his daughter, played here by his real life daughter Jane Fonda. We also see the sun setting on a beautiful, long-term marriage, while, conversely, a new and unlikely friendship blossoms between Fonda and the teenage son of his daughter’s new fiancé. The 12 Angry Men actor and Hepburn make a great on-screen couple – both received Oscar wins for their performances. This would turn out to be Fonda’s last role.
1. Ruth Gordon (Harold and Maude, 1971)
Ruth Gordon, playing Maude, brings a grand appreciation of life to a young man named Harold who is obsessed with death in Hal Ashby’s excellent black comedy. The film, like much of Ashby’s work, couldn’t find a following on release but has since become a cult favourite that is now widely appreciated by critics for its unique and offbeat approach to romantic drama. Gordon, who was born in 1896 and first appeared in film in the 1910s during the silent era, was 75-years-old at the time of Harold and Maude’s release. She brings a vitality to the character of Maude that could be described as youthfulness despite her age, particularly in relation to Harold’s downtrodden disregard for a life still in its infancy. Gordon’s performance is, without doubt, a big reason why the film has such a large following today.