'Age will flatten a man," Tommy Lee Jones says in "No Country for Old Men." Yes, it will. It can also deepen, strengthen, and enrich him, too. One look at Jones in "No Country" - or in "In the Valley of Elah" - and you see demonstrated the power of age to bring up as well as bear down.
Jones is 61 now, and in those movies the weight of every minute of his time on earth seems recorded on that face. A moonscape of seams, crags, and creases, Jones's visage doesn't look so much lived in as lived on - a spiritual terrain, an Old Testament geology. Even more than that bark of a voice or big-as-Texas presence, that face is what lends Jones his enormous onscreen authority.
Welcome as that authority is in "Country," it's indispensable in "Elah," a meretricious movie whose ideological self-regard is countered, at least in part, by the ravaged magnificence of Jones's pained, patinated face.
This fall has been an interesting season for aging male movie stars: not just Jones, but also Robert Redford, 71, in "Lions for Lambs"; George Clooney, 46, in "Michael Clayton"; Viggo Mortensen, 49, in "Eastern Promises"; and Dustin Hoffman, 70, in "Mr. Magori um's Wonder Emporium." Their differing responses to the inevitability of getting older - ranging from furtive evasion to forthright embrace - play no small part in the success, or failure, of the movies they appear in.
Usually, it's female stars who are forced to confront the delicate subject of age - again and again and again. Men have tended to get a free pass.
Consider as an illustration of both phenomena the filmography of Audrey Hepburn. Bad enough that she made just five films after 40. Among the actors who got to romance Hepburn in her gamine prime were Gregory Peck, 37, in "Roman Holiday" (Hepburn was 24); Humphrey Bogart, 54, in "Sabrina" (she was 25); Gary Cooper, 56, in "Love in the Afternoon" (she was 27); Fred Astaire, 57, in "Funny Face" (ditto); and Cary Grant, 60, in "Charade" (she was 34). May-December, thy name is Hollywood.
Grant is, of course, the supreme example of how gracefully a male star can age. The young Grant was ridiculously good-looking, to be sure, but with an exaggerated manner and almost-beefy handsomeness that verged on inelegance. It wasn't hard to see the acrobat named Archie Leach peeking out from the masculine ideal now known as Cary Grant. So? So the deeper Grant got into middle age, the more polished and irresistible he became - the better he looked in a tuxedo.
There's a famous story, possibly true. A journalist seeking to verify the actor's age sent him a telegram, "How old Cary Grant?" The actor's reply cagily used telegraphese to put off the reporter: "Old Cary Grant fine. How you?" The joke turned out to be doubly funny, since old Cary Grant was the finest Grant of all.
It's hard to imagine a star more different from Grant than Clint Eastwood. Yet no contemporary actor - not even Jones - better demonstrates the improvement age can bring to a persona. With each movie, the lines on Eastwood's face have been etched more deeply. There's been an accelerated paring away of youthful prettiness into something almost noble. The Clint squint has gone from meanness to near-epic grandeur. Time has eroded him, yes, but to the same sublime effect as on a Zion mesa or butte.
If Eastwood and Jones demonstrate that time (even as it wears away) cannot wither, Redford suggests that custom definitely can stale. He's more or less playing his age in "Lions for Lambs." He's a college professor who served in Vietnam, so he has to be at least 60, and probably older. Yet it's as if he's a superannuated Sundance Kid with tenure. The hair is as thick and golden as ever, the handsomeness little touched by the years.
Partly, that's the benefit of great facial structure (it's always the bones that go last). More than that, though, it's a suspiciously unlined dullness around the eyes that makes him look (there's no polite way to put this) weird. Is it Botox? Lighting? Makeup? Nipping and tucking? The strange thing is, in person, Redford's eyes look normal enough. Whatever the reason, their unblemished deadness in "Lions" helps make his performance all the more wooden - and Redford has never exactly been the most expressive of actors.
Underscoring the unfortunateness of Redford's unnervingly age-resistant appearance is the presence in "Lions for Lambs" of Tom Cruise. It's a good thing they don't have any scenes together or gerontology might never recover. Playing a very ambitious Republican senator, Cruise is the best thing in the movie - certainly the liveliest. Yet he seems so unbearably young. At 45, he suffers from a terminal boyishness that makes him seem like a can of Red Bull yearning to be a bottle of Bordeaux. The risky business of aging can cut both ways.
You'd think gravitas would be no less a problem for someone as good looking as Clooney. But it isn't. Maybe it's as simple as not reaching for the Grecian Formula. Clooney's letting himself go gray was always a smart career move. He still looked great, but now had the aspect of a regular guy. It made him seem more honest - more serious, too. In "Syriana," he added a thickened waist and unbecoming beard (which made him a dead ringer for
Clooney looks a lot better in "Michael Clayton," but he does nothing to disguise the effects of the wringer his lawyer-fixer character goes through: a giant lawsuit on the verge of collapse, a friend losing his mind, a very large debt needing urgent settlement. There are bags under the eyes, a puffy face, a general sense that soon enough the mirror will be as much enemy as friend. The movie ends with a very long close-up of Clooney sitting in the back of a taxi, and there's no mistaking that it isn't just the cab's meter that's running.
If Redford flees from age, and Jones and Clooney embrace it, Viggo Mortensen transcends it. The ground bass of his majesty as Aragorn, in "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy, was a refusal to disguise the character's long years of hard use. The return of this king was as much from hauntedness as obscurity. That same unwillingness to prettify defines his acting in "Eastern Promises."
There's a line from Steely Dan's "Dr. Wu," "I was on the other side/ Of no tomorrow." That's where Mortensen's Russian mob driver exists - "lives" is too optimistic a word - so imprisoned in time as to be somehow beyond it. With his wraparound sunglasses and motorcycle, he could be a post-Soviet version of Arnold Schwarzenegger's Terminator (Schwarzenegger being an actor - and politician - who's taken the Redford approach to advancing years).
"Wouldn't it be funny if the devil looked like you?" a young soldier sneers at Jones in "Elah." Something similar could be said of Mortensen - though the devil should look half as good as he does in the film's astonishing knife-fight sequence in a Turkish bath. The character's literal nakedness makes plain that it actually is Mortensen we're seeing. For any male at the mid-century mark, he is cause for inspiration as well as wonder.
Wonder, if only titular, informs Hoffman's performance as the most aged character seen on screen this or any other season, in "Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium." The toy store owner is all of 243. Oddly enough, this isn't Hoffman's first crack at triple figures. Jack Crabb, the Indian-raised Western pioneer he plays in "Little Big Man," lives to be 121. Hoffman was 33 then, yet through the magic of latex he looked old, seriously, deathly, prune-shriveled old. The curious thing about Hoffman as Magorium, a character twice Crabb's age, is that he looks so, well, good. Does the AARP need a new spokesman? Magic will do that for a man, fictional or real - and when it comes to appearance, there's no magic like the movie-star kind.
Mark Feeney can be reached at email@example.com.