Twinkle Twinkle, Little Stars
The crazily accelerated career arcs of Hollywood actors.
“It’s a whole new realm,” Kirsten Dunst told me last year, having started her career playing a 12-year-old vampire in 1992’s Interview With the Vampire, clocked up a string of teen ingénue roles (The Virgin Suicides, Crazy/Beautiful, Dick) and almost single-handedly brought the original Spider-man franchise to life, only to find the roles starting to dry up in her late twenties. “For women my age right now, you either have to take some role and make it better, or make it more complicated than it really is, which a lot of people do. But still I read scripts where it feels too young for me or too old for me. I can’t have a 12-year-old kid but I also can’t be like: I’ve never kissed a guy. It’s a weird area to be in when you’re 29. I feel kind of young still.”
Hollywood has always been a Lotusland, exulting in unripened youth and unceremoniously shunting those past their sell-by-dates towards the exit. Charlie Chaplin was a star at 25. D.W. Griffith first screen-tested Mary Pickford when she was just 16. Clara Bow was 18 when she appeared as the quintessential flapper in Black Oxen (1923), a film adaptation of Gertrude Atherton’s novel about grandmothers—“the undesired”—rejuvenating themselves with X-rays to attract the attentions of young men. “In this sweet Elysium, the years are counted for two decades and when 20 is reached, one automatically drifts into an indefinite period known as ‘the twenties,’ ” wrote Dorothy Spensely of Hollywood in Motion Picture Classic in 1930. “One stays, unless possessed of tremendous courage, for 30 or 40 years, or until further face-lifting becomes impractical.”
As Hollywood came of age, so, too, did its stars, the average age of Oscar-winning actresses rising steadily from 33 in the 1930s, to 36 in the 1940s, to 37 in the 1950s, to 40 in the 1960s, to hit a peak of 41 in the 1970s. For men, that peak came during the 1950s, when the average age of Oscar winners was a ripe old 57 and the marquees came crowded with silver foxes and eminences grises like Spencer Tracy, Gary Cooper, John Wayne, and Humphrey Bogart—“the Ike of film actors” as Stefan Kanfer calls Bogie in his new biography of the star, Tough Without a Gun. Bogart was 37 when he got his break in movies, having spent most of his twenties dodging U-boat shells and his thirties playing farce on Broadway. He was 41 by the time he went over big with an audience, in The Maltese Falcon, having buried both his parents, and weathered his first marriage, his face a battle-scarred map of cares past. “To make it completely fascinating, at one corner of his upper lip a scarred quilted piece hung down in a tiny scallop,” noted Louise Brooks. That’s just four years off Ryan Gosling’s planned retirement age. And The African Queen was still a decade away.
It’s hard to imagine Bogart’s career happening today, when even stars of the magnitude of Harrison Ford (69) and Tom Hanks (55) are starting to sweat. Occasionally we get a late-breaking star—George Clooney was 34 by the time he finally made it to movie screens in From Dusk Till Dawn, Jeremy Renner was 37 when he appeared in The Hurt Locker—but more frequently our response to an actor like Ryan Reynolds or Bradley Cooper arriving in their thirties is suspicion: What took you so long? The average age of male Oscar winners, which has for decades hovered around the 50-mark—48 in the 1960s, it rose slightly to 50 in seventies, and 51 in the eighties—dropped to 47 in the nineties and then again down to 45 in the 2000s, tugged down by the victories of Benicio del Toro (34), Heath Ledger (30*), Christian Bale (37), and Adrien Brody, the youngest winner ever at 29 for The Pianist. The tween youthquake has, in other words, left a larger demographic dent in Hollywood than the Vietnam War, psychedelic drugs, Sgt Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band, and the revelation of Luke Skywalker’s true paternity combined. Forget the Tet Offensive. Try the new Twilight movie.
The irony is that if you ask any young actor worth their salt which filmmaking decade they most revere, the answer is almost unanimous—the seventies—but most of the actors that decade turned into stars had been lying in wait for some time: the young turks of the counterculture were decidedly long in the tooth. “Taxi Driver is the ultimate independent-movie performance,” Leonardo DiCaprio told GQ recently. “Playing a character like Travis Bickle is every young actor’s wet dream” but De Niro was 33 when he appeared in that movie, having spent most of his twenties scrounging a living from the dinner theater circuit, making movies that couldn’t find distributors, and gluing the windows of his one-room walk-up together to keep the New York winters out. The stew of alienation and resentment that propelled Travis Bickle across the screen was very real.
Gene Hackman, meanwhile, spent most of his twenties in the Marine Corps, serving as a radio field operator, and later working as a New York doorman before getting his break in movies—he was 37 by the time he appeared in Bonnie & Clyde and 41 in The French Connection. Robert Duvall was 41 by the time he got his big break in The Godfather, after serving as a Private in the U.S. Army and worked as a post office clerk. Dustin Hoffman had worked as a restaurant coat-checker, a typist with the Yellow Pages, and a stringer of Hawaiian leis, and was 30 when he appeared in The Graduate—a good nine years beyond graduation age. Is it any wonder that when placed next to that lot, the performances of today’s young stars can feel experientially thin, both too smooth and too strenuous in their search for imported texture, edge, grit? “The idea is you learn to use everything that happened in your life and you learn to use it in creating the character you're working on,” said Brando of the Method. “You learn to dig into your unconscious and make use of every experience you ever had.” What experiences can these young actors draw on, besides that of having been stars their entire lives?
This moebius paradox has, in turn, become the dominant theme of today’s prize performances. For the most part, DiCaprio’s recent outings have felt like grim-faced self-expurgations, fretful with a young man’s self-war—he hasn’t taken an audience along for the ride since Spielberg’s Catch Me If You Can, a role he disdains—the exception being the final reel of Shutter Island, when you finally felt his protracted apprenticeship with Scorsese paying off. But it’s no accident that Shutter Island shares with Inception a mazy preoccupation with veils of fantasy, and a quixotic search for the real. It is the theme, too, of Black Swan, in which Portman’s ballerina, lacking the experience that would round out her performance as the black swan, tries to speed-dial it, like Trinity in The Matrix uploading helicopter piloting skills. That’s why Black Swan was such a pivotal film for young Hollywood: Overcompensating for experiential thinness was what the film was about.
It’s also why all eyes this year have been on Gosling, “a hot-dog actor of unlimited potential who has clearly watched Taxi Driver too many times,” as David Edelstein wrote in his review of Blue Valentine in New York magazine. After a decade of roles chosen, seemingly, for the opportunity that have afforded Gosling the chance to graffiti his Mouseketeer image—he has played a drug addict, a cross dresser, a blowup doll fetishist—he abruptly reversed tack this year and gave us Drive and Crazy Stupid Love, both roles rich in movie-star emulsion, which channeled not the method naturalism of DeNiro, Brando, or Dean, but the matte minimalism of McQueen, Delon, and Rumble Fish-era Mickey Rourke. “What we tried to do with Drive was: this character had seen too many movies. Too many superhero movies, Steve McQueen movies, action movies,” Gosling told me. “Naturalism is just one style of acting.”
It’s safe to say, in fact, that one consequence of the Tween revolution is to sound the death knell of Method acting. In which case, Gosling’s advice is sound: Actors should accelerate into the curve, not resist it. If you work on the theory that Star Wars reset the cinematic clock, and that Hollywood’s last 30 years have been its first 30 years, replayed at faster speeds and with snazzier effects—the advent of CGI coming at the same 20-year mark as the advent of sound—that puts us in the fall of 1937. The blockbuster hit of the year is Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Director Leo McCarey is about to win an Oscar for directing The Awful Truth starring a 33-year-old Cary Grant, and a 36-year-old newcomer called Humphrey Bogart is drawing rave reviews playing the mobster Babyface Martin in Dead End. The iGeneration may not be able to give us Travis Bickle. But they may yet give us something equally precious: a real movie star or two. Just don't be surprised if they can't order their own drinks.
Tom Shone is film critic of Intelligent Life and the author of Blockbuster: How Hollywood Learned To Stop Worrying and Love the Summer