Top 10 Performances By Actors Over 60

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)

royaltenenbaums_gene-hackman_top10films, Top 10 FilmsGene 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-amour_top10films, Top 10 FilmsEmmanuelle 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)

the-iron-lady_film_meryl-streep2, Top 10 FilmsMeryl 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)

Limelight-Charlie-Chaplin-1952_top10films, Top 10 FilmsCharlie 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)

Harry Brown, Film, Michael Caine, Daniel Barber, Top 10 FilmsMichael 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)

JackLemmon_glengarry-glen-ross_top10films, Top 10 FilmsJack 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)

as-good-as-it-gets_jack-nicholson_top10films, Top 10 FilmsJack 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)

The-Straight-Story-David-Lynch_top10films, Top 10 FilmsIn 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)

On Golden Pond, Katherine Hepburn, Henry Fonda, Top 10 FilmsIt’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)

Harold and Maude, Hal Ashby, Top 10 Films, Ruth Gordon, Top 10 FilmsRuth 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.

Written and compiled by Daniel Stephens

Over to you: what are your favourite performances by actors over 60?

Discover More: The Top 10 Films of: Meryl Streep, Charlie Chaplin & Michael Caine. Also, check out Top 10 Quirky Films featuring Harold and Maude and the Top 10 Films about Husbands and Wives featuring On Golden Pond

About the Author
Editor of Top 10 Films, Dan Stephens is usually found pondering his next list. An unhealthy love of 1980s Hollywood sees most of his top 10s involving a time-travelling DeLorean and an adventurous archaeologist going by the name Indiana.

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  1. Avatar
    JB Reply

    Love Harold and Maude, The Straight Story, As Good As It Gets and Glengarry Glen Ross – some mighty fine performances from veterans of the business. I’m guessing Sly Stallone and Arnie weren’t on the short list!

    • Avatar
      Dan Reply

      …haha, unsurprisingly Schwarzenegger and Stallone didn’t cross my mind!

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    Shala Thomas Reply

    No Christopher Plummer for Beginners??

    • Avatar
      Dan Reply

      Really enjoyed Beginners. Good choice!

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    Rodney Reply

    Jessica Tandy in Driving Miss Daisy?

    Jack Nicholson in About Schmidt?

    James Whitmore in Shawshank Redemption?

    • Avatar
      Dan Reply

      Jack Nicholson was definitely a consideration for a few roles but my favourite – just – is As Good As It Gets despite About Schmidt being my preferred film. Tandy and Whitmore are great choices…Tandy’s real life husband Hume Cronyn would be another good one.

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    Mark Reply

    Clint Eastwood in either Gran Tarino (78), Unforgiven (62ish) or A Perfect World (63ish)

    Chris Walken in 7 Psychopaths (69)

    • Avatar
      Dan Reply

      Can’t argue with the inclusion of Clint Eastwood. Of the three films mentioned I would probably pick Gran Torino. Really enjoyed that film. Some of his recent efforts have been a bit hit and miss (Hereafter, for example, was one I wasn’t fond of) but when they work like Gran Torino and Million Dollar Baby they are some of his best movies.

      Christopher Walken is great! That’s another good addition.

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    Neal Copeland Reply

    Peter O’Toole – Venus.

    • Avatar
      Dan Reply

      Of course! Very good film, really great platform for O’Toole.

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    Mark Walker Reply

    Nice list Dan. For a second I was bit disappointed that Jack Lemmon wasn’t #1 but I hadn’t even thought of Ruth Gordon. Excellent choice! She is absolutely marvellous in Harold & Maude. Such a fantastic little film.

    • Avatar
      Dan Reply

      …the order of the top 5 was especially difficult. I love Lemmon but Ruth Gordon was the inspiration behind the list so she had to be number one. Thanks for commenting Mark.

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    Chris Reply

    Jack Nicholson did win for As Good As It Gets, though I personally prefer his performance in About Schmidt- nice to see Nicholson playing someone different to his usual persona, and someone his own age.
    How about Bruce Dern for Nebraska?

    • Avatar
      Dan Reply

      About Schmidt was on my shortlist. It’s definitely my preferred film but I love all Alexander Payne’s work since he made Election. I agree that it’s great to see Nicholson reeling in some of that eccentricity we’ve seen throughout his career for Schmidt. It’s another exceptional performance from a brilliant, enduring talent.

      And yes, Bruce Dern for Nebraska is definitely a consideration, as is June Squibb from the same film.

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    Andina Reply

    Jack Nicholson in About Schmidt was also great. Bruce Dern and June Squibb in Nebraska. And Christopher Plummer in Beginners.

    • Avatar
      Dan Reply

      All great choices. I seriously considered Nicholson in About Schmidt for this top 10.

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    Shane Reply

    Great list! Love all those performances – Jack Lemmon (Glengarry), Fonda/Hepburn (Golden Pond), Gordon (Maude), Hackman (Tenenbaums)

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      Dan Reply

      Thanks for taking a look Shane. Who would be in your top 10?

      • Avatar
        Shane Reply

        Hackman (Unforgiven) / Freeman (Million Dollar Baby). Also, numerous Meryl performances and Takashi Shimura (Ikiru).

        • Avatar
          Dan Reply

          Hackman in Unforgiven was on my shortlist! I should have found a spot for Freeman though, one of my favourite actors.

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    jjames36 Reply

    I haven’t seen 8, 7, 6 or 3. But I agree on the four I have seen. Especially your #1. She was so excellent.

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      Dan Reply

      Ruth Gordon is terrific. I also really like her macabre, unsettling turn in Rosemary’s Baby. I can’t believe she made her debut in 1915 (it was an uncredited part as an extra but it shows just how long she was around the industry).

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    jackdeth72 Reply

    I’ve never understood why a role tailor made for Dame Helen Mirren was given to Meryl Streep in The Iron Lady !

    Would also include Heist for Gene Hackman.

    Michael Caine’s Harry Brown is an excellent choice

    • Avatar
      Dan Reply

      I’m not sure I’d question the decision given Streep’s brilliant performance. But I know what you mean, Mirren did an excellent job with The Queen.

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    Evan Crean Reply

    I didn’t see Harold and Maude until two years ago and I couldn’t believe what I had been missing. What a tremendous film and performance by Ruth Gordon. I’m also glad to see Jack Lemmon’s turn in Glengarry Glen Ross, Riva’s in Amour, and Hackman’s in Royal Tennenbaums here. I agree that Hackman gave some of his most memorable performance in his later years, especially in Tennenbaums where he’s absolute riot. But I also admire his decision to retire. He didn’t want to be typecast and continue playing the same cranky old man character, so I completely get where he was coming from there.

    • Avatar
      Dan Reply

      If you haven’t already, I’d recommend some other Hal Ashby films to see too. My favourite of which is The Last Detail.

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    Alex Raphael Reply

    Wonderful article dude. The Glengarry Glen Ross film has some of the best acting I’ve ever seen. To be able to do such superb dramatic and comedic roles means your taste in Jack Lemmon is well placed. Ellen Burstyn in Requiem for a Dream would be one I’d highlight.

    • Avatar
      Dan Reply

      Thanks Alex. Jack Lemmon is, without any doubt, one of my favourite actors. He had to be on the list. What’s great is his longevity. There aren’t many like him in Hollywood.

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    Eric @ The Warning Sign Reply

    Great list. I imagine it was difficult to whittle this down to just ten. I’m glad you highlighted Jack Lemmon in Glengarry Glen Ross, one of my favorite films. His performance was so good it inspired one of the most memorable Simpsons characters — Gil Gunderson.

    • Avatar
      Dan Reply

      Thanks Eric. Yes, it was tough to go for just 10. My shortlist wasn’t very “short”! 😉

  15. Avatar
    Neal Damiano Reply

    I would add one more to this great list – Paul Newman in The Color of Money, outstanding acting from the man. Nice to see Jack Lemmon here for his amazing performance as Shelly the machine Levine in Glengarry Glenross.

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    Alex Withrow Reply

    Great list. I recently rewatched Glengarry Glen Ross and Lemmon just kills me in that film. His begging in his final scene is devastating.

  17. Avatar
    Lukey Luke Reply

    Brilliant top 10. Incredible performances by a bunch of great actors.

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