The phrase “You’re not getting older, you’re getting better” is often said with smiling insincerity, a way of cheering up someone who’s blue. However, sometimes the phrase is absolutely correct and the films of 2016 offer plenty of great work from people over 50, and some of whom are considerably older than that. And they’re getting better.
Isabelle Huppert, Viggo Mortensen, and Hugh Grant, for example, have been expert actors for decades, but managed this year to top themselves (in “Elle,” “Captain Fantastic” and “Florence Foster Jenkins,” respectively). Of course the right script, director, and film team are an important part of any performance, but the three actors manage to create characters who are totally original and unlike anything they’ve done before.
In an ageist society — and an industry that puts a premium on anyone who’s shiny and new — it’s hard for actors to sustain a career, much less expand on one. When many stars find success, they hold onto characters and mannerisms that have been crowd-pleasers and, as a result, they become stale or self-parodies.
So it’s especially impressive when an actor grows. Huppert, Mortensen, and Grant may be the best examples of actors who went out on a limb, with impressive results. But the films of 2016 offer many more veterans doing terrific work, including Ralph Fiennes (“Hail, Caesar” and “A Bigger Splash”), Tom Hanks (“Sully”), Meryl Streep (“Florence Foster Jenkins”), Stephen Lang (“Don’t Breathe”), Hugo Weaving (“Hacksaw Ridge”), Sally Field (“Hello, My Name Is Doris”), Jeff Bridges (“Hell or High Water”), Helen Mirren and Alan Rickman (“Eye in the Sky”), Tracy Letts (“Indignation”), and Margo Martindale (“The Hollars”). Upcoming are “Fences” with Denzel Washington and Viola Davis, and “Silence,” with Liam Neeson.
All of them are over 50, but, out of respect for SAG’s efforts to minimize age discrimination (including the so-called “IMDb law”), we’re not getting into specifics.
And the “older-getting-better” rule applies behind the camera as well. Directors Mel Gibson (“Hacksaw Ridge”), Clint Eastwood (“Sully”), Stephen Frears (“Florence Foster Jenkins”) and Paul Verhoeven (“Elle”) have accumulated lots of awards over the years, but their 2016 films are as good as anything they’ve done.
Behind the cameras, film execs can also be discriminatory about age. But smart execs rely on many go-to pros, including cinematographer Roger Deakins (“Hail, Caesar”), sound maven Andy Nelson (“La La Land”), costume designer Colleen Atwood (four films this year, including “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them”) to name a few.
Of course it’s great to see new talent in the spotlight during awards season, including first-time writers, directors, and artisans, as well as some amazing actors who are under 20.
It’s not a matter of age, but talent, and talent comes in many demographics. The cries for more film diversity has been building for a long time. It’s a matter of race, gender — and age. Talk to any actress over 50, and she will confirm that it’s an issue. But along with the cries for diversity are the reminders that it’s good for business: The more voices you hear, the more interesting it is.