My post today is inspired by Daniel Soufi’s article for El País “Salvar el mundo por no jubilarse: los héroes de más de 60 años llenan las pantallas de cine” [Saving the World to Avoid Retirement: Over-60 Heroes Fill the Cinema Screens]. Soufi wonders why ageing male actors are still playing action heroes and names Will Smith (54), Nicolas Cage (58), Keanu Reeves (58), Brad Pitt (59), Tom Cruise (60), Antonio Banderas (62), Mel Gibson (66), Denzel Washington (68), Liam Neeson (70), Jeff Bridges (73), Sylvester Stallone (76), and Harrison Ford (80) as examples of this peculiar phenomenon. Soufi quotes another journalist, Alberto Olmos, who has invented the label “retromasculinity” to describe a type of nostalgic masculinity that does not fit younger male stars, like Tom Holland or Timothée Chalamet. The nostalgia for this retromasculinity might explain the very long careers of these ageing male stars, a dying breed in almost a literal sense.
Even though the tough female hero is now common, the action movie is a staple of men’s cinema that was consolidated in the 1980s with the rise of ‘musculinity’, to use Yvonne Tasker’s word. She and Susan Jeffords were the first to describe how on-screen masculinity was rebuilt in that decade along harder lines, both in behaviour and in bodily appearance, during Ronald Reagan’s mandate (1980-88). Soufi names Chuck Norris, Jean-Claude Van Damme, Sylvester Stallone, Bruce Willis, Steven Seagal and Arnold Schwarzenegger as the type of actor that became then famous for their muscles rather than their acting skills. The display of muscled male anatomies has in fact increased to the point that practically all male actors train in gyms for that shirtless shot that is so much in demand in current films. Yet, it is clear that the muscled male body does not convey today the same impression of relentless masculinity that the 1980s male stars embodied. Perhaps the difference lies in the fact that 1980s action movie actors set a standard, whereas later male actors are imitating that standard without truly believing in it.
Hypermuscled or not, displaying white hairs and wrinkles, the men Soufi names and others above 50 (Vin Diesel and Jason Statham are 55, Dwayne Johnson is 50) are performing physical feats on screen very much outside the range of average men their age. A muscled man in his 30s can be a model for other young men in the audience, but in my view far from being models these ageing action men are becoming pure fantasy even for themselves. I am willing to believe that Keanu Reeves still performs all his stunts, but I very much doubt Harrison Ford has performed any of his in the new Indiana Jones film (to be soon released). The effect, in any case, is not so different. Few 50-something men watching Reeves will feel that they could move as swiftly as he does if only they hit the gym; as for the 80-year-old men watching Ford on screen, I must wonder what they feel for I can hardly imagine. The 80-something men in my family are mainly concerned with staying alive; saving the world in an action movie is as fantastic for them as travelling to the Moon. Here’s a good joke: Sean Connery was 69 when he played Harrison Ford’s father in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. Ford was then actually 57, only 12 years younger, but the film’s comedy depended on how old Connery was for adventure. Now the hero, as noted, is 80.
If we consider the age gap between Dwayne Johnson and Harrison Ford, we can see there has been a generational renewal in the action movie, which can be extended to the superhero movie, in which even Tom Holland (26) participates, and other young actors. Nobody can deny that Ryan Gosling (42) and Ryan Reynolds (46), and the three Chrises (Evans 41; Pine 42; Hemsworth 39) have consolidated their careers in and outside the action movie, together with a number of other 40-something male actors. They are not, however, as iconic as the 1980s and 1990s actors were, for reasons that are hard to me to explain. I still see myself putting a poster of Keanu Reeves on my office wall (he has always been my man), but why should I put a poster of the Ryans or the Chrises? I believe that Hemsworth is as close as possible to what a charismatic male film star could be, but despite his beauty, nice personality, correct acting skills, sense of humour and great image as a family man, something is missing which prevents him from being the megastar Harrison Ford is in spite of lacking many of his qualities. This is not a matter of whether any of the younger male stars are credible in violent action or superhero movies, for they all are, but an indefinable something else.
Reading recently Paul Newman’s fascinating The Extraordinary Life of an Ordinary Man: A Memoir I was reminded that male film stars are also constructions whose iconicity is never natural. Newman presents himself as an insecure man who only understood his value as an icon when he met Joanne Woodward. Even so, their apparently successful marriage concealed a long history of alcoholism on his side, which Newman only started overcoming when he hit 50 and freed himself from the weight of the icon ‘Paul Newman’. The last male star whose photo found a place in my office, Sam Worthington, in 2009, when Avatar was released, seemed to me to have that kind of iconic charisma (also to director James Cameron, who cast him when Worthington was a nobody), but he suddenly faded. In a recent interview, Worthington (now 46) explained that sudden fame made him quickly lose his balance, plunging him into rampant alcoholism and bolstering a sense of entitlement that almost destroyed his career. Only his wife’s support saved him. So much for male iconicity, then.
I am thinking that perhaps these ageing male stars are not that happy still being iconic action men, though, surely, they must love the money that goes with it. As Soufi notes, Neeson only became an action man in his 60s, when the brilliant career he had followed after playing the lead in Spielberg’s Schindler’s List (1993), when he was 41, took that peculiar turn. There is much talk about how difficult it is for ageing female actors to be given interesting roles past 40, but the fact is that this barrier was crossed long ago and we are seeing many women in their 50s and even 70s (Susan Sarandon is 76) playing great roles. My impression, however, is that just as the women are welcome to playing older women provided they still look great, ageing male actors are also being prevented from playing average men their age. That is to say: audiences just don’t want to see stories about ageing people on the screen. The young simply reject them, whereas older audiences (call us boomers, if you want) are happy to see ageing men and women provided they don’t appear in films about the problems of ageing. The men must look active, the women must look great. This is not at all a fantasy of empowerment but a mixture of nostalgia and fear of one’s mortality.
As happens, I love action films with male leads but I cannot sustain any longer my suspension of disbelief when the hero is too old. One line of argumentation suggests that the problem with action films is that the type of white heterosexual masculinity they used to celebrate is now toxic, and, therefore, no younger male actor can play it safely. The sub-genre can only survive, the argument goes, if women play the lead. Prey (2022), the latest instalment in the Predator franchise, followed that path by casting Native American Amber Midthunder (then 20 though she plays 15-year-old Naru) as the hero fighting the monstrous predator (in a script by two men). I loved the idea of having the extraterrestrial monster clash against Native Americans in the early 18th century, but I did not believe for a second that tiny Naru could fight him alone. That was ridiculous. The film needed to update Arnold Schwarzenneger’s iconic macho role in the first Predator (1987) but a chanced was missed to have Naru fight the creature together with her male peers. I would have loved to see that kind of collaboration.
To conclude this rambling post, I believe that action films offer good escapist fun though they are indeed in need of renewal, either by casting more charismatic, younger male leads (perhaps non-white, or queer) or following a collaborative model (Rogue One comes to mind). No tiny, skinny women please. Funnily, I personally feel uncomfortable watching men past 60 play action roles but I am not sure what other roles these ageing movie male stars should play. Perhaps it is their fault for making limiting careers choices, unlike others like Tom Hanks (66) or Ralph Fiennes (60). I don’t know if this is a matter of talent or a matter of the roles they are being offered. As for the younger actors, I believe we need more like the late Chadwick Boseman, a talented man nobody would accuse of embodying toxic masculinity. Clearly, the older generations of action movie male actors are not retiring because they have no rivals among their younger peers, a situation many will celebrate as an end to the reign of white heterosexual masculinity but that I see as a worrying lack of newer, attractive male icons. You may think they are not needed, but I think they are very much necessary if only to prevent the rise of far more toxic alternatives. You all know who I mean.