By Oliver Lyttelton | www.oliverlyttelton.com February 15, 2013 at 4:15PM
For screen actors, age is an inescapable physical characteristic that's difficult to mask -- though people certainly try. To complicate matters, it's easy for some of the characters that they play to be primarily defined by their years relative to the other members of the cast. But today, we come not to condemn tales like "On Golden Pond" that thrust twilight years to the forefront, making it the primary focus of the overall narrative. Instead, during this time before the end of awards season, we come to praise a few actors and characters that garnered recognition during their respective years that were able portray something beyond a number on a birth certificate.
One of the best late-career examples of transcending the conventions of these characters is Ruth Gordon, who through "Harold and Maude," left a lasting portrait of a woman with the vitality of someone a half-century her junior. But some of that groundwork was laid by playing Minnie Castevet in Roman Polanski's "Rosemary's Baby," a role that drew recognition from the Academy in 1969.
In the film, when Rosemary and Guy move into their New York apartment, one of the first things mentioned during the walkthrough is the how a dresser in the hallway couldn't possibly have been moved by the frail old tenant who had lived their previously. This recognition of fragility makes Minnie and her husband Roman seem all the more spry upon their arrival. For the Castevets, the only other characteristic that may bely the gap in years between them and their new housemates is the speed of their walk. In an early-film dinner scene, Minnie attacks her dinner with the ferocity of a lionness. Gordon's friendly enthusiasm could easily have come across as patronizing and overly matronly. But Minnie's level approach to the Woodhouses is an indication of how she's able to seduce so many willing accomplices to join the sinister passion project we discover later.
In fact, the only infrequent references to the Castevets' age comes from conversations where the two aren't present. Terry, the recovering drug addict who lives with them before her untimely demise, describes them to Rosemary as surrogate grandparents. That description isn't based on age, but the compassion and generosity the couple showed her, regardless of the motive. In the closing sequence of the film, there's a reference to Minnie being too old to be the mother of the new "child" that's developed from her sinister workings. The audience doesn't buy that for a second. After all, even though it's Rosemary's husband who's the actor, Minnie's been running circles around him the whole time.
Another example of an Academy-recognized role that deals with a performance-within-a-performance element is May Robson's turn in Frank Capra's 1933 film "Lady for a Day." Before we even delve into who Robson's Apple Annie really is, we see young nightclub owner Missouri Martin belting out a song that culminates with the line "I want a man!" Apple Annie has no such predicament (or desire, apparently). Aside from making a living as a street fruit vendor, Annie learns that, after years of being apart, her daughter Louise is coming to New York with her socialite fiancé. Recognizing the social predicament of having someone with the status as a raggedy apple seller entertain and gain approval from a lofty Count's son, Annie's friends band together to help her craft the real-life version of a persona she's maintained in decades of letters to her daughters.
So, in Depression-era "My Fair Lady" fashion by way of Damon Runyon, she becomes Mrs. E. Worthington Manville, complete with an elegant finger wave. The transformation is not one designed to make her appear younger, but more stately. It's a change motivated not by vanity or a desire to reclaim some lost sense of vigor, as we've seen her verbally hold her own with individuals in all walks during her brief screen time on the streets. After Louise arrives and her fictional status has been initially established, mother and daughter share a tender moonlit moment on the grounds of the estate where Annie is staying. There, the last step of Annie's transformation becomes complete. The two women are lit as if both were starlets bathed in an evening glow. Even though after the daughter leaves, the two women will be separated by an entire generation and multiple rungs on the social ladder, one of the film's most genuine moments is the one where the two are on equal footing.
As the illusion starts to unravel around Annie and she is about to confess the charade to Louise, the community of people who helped set up the idea of Mrs. E. Worthington Manville (the mayor included!) all rush to her aid, lending her enough credence and peace of mind to send her daughter and soon-to-be son-in-law back home with a sense of contentment about her situation. It plays out like a rough draft of another rallying climax that Capra would perfect in "It's a Wonderful Life." As with George Bailey, Annie's friends and acquaintances offer their support not out of pity for her situation, but the good will she's earned through perserverance and good dealings with those who populate her daily life.
One character who, in the late 1970s, would have inhabited those same circles of privilege without having to change anything regarding his circumstance is Charles Kingsfield, Jr., the professor played by John Houseman in James Bridges' 1973 Harvard Law School drama "The Paper Chase." When Kingsfield's students discuss the man behind the lectern, the discussion never turns to his age in relation to his fellow instructors. Instead the emphasis stays on his authority and his uncanny ability to make a significant percentage of his pupils rethink their chosen profession. Kingsfield's front-of-class monologues have the precision of someone who not only takes pride in their delivery, but a well-worn feeling of being adequately rehearsed.
Rather than paint Kingsfield's obsession with legal perfection as a by-product of old-age craziness, Houseman's direct and controlled performance shows that Kingsfield is thorough at best, but only a tad eccentric at worst. The hushed, reverent tones with which the students talk about their teacher's dismantling of unprepared students is merited, as we see him dress down about a half-dozen first years over the course of the film. In one scene, where two students manage to break into the school library, they can see through a clear floor that Kingsfield is quite literally walking above them.
Hart, our guide through Harvard Law's treacherous first-year waters, comes to share in that obsession with the law. With a passion that often supercedes that for his girlfriend (who has Kingsfield connections of her own), Hart's main preoccupation is with becoming Kingsfield's heir apparent. He studies the professor's own notes from his days at university in an attempt to remove the disparity of time and knowledge. Here, Kingsfield's vast array of experiences aren't something to scoffed at or dismissed as merely achievements of the past, but examples to be strived for.
When the pressures of romantic involvement and classroom expectations bubble over for Hart and he snaps at Kingsfield in the middle of a lecture, Kingsfield turns Hart's insult around so deftly that when Hart returns to his seat, the only sheepish one in the room is the instigating student. At the year's end, after the final discussion of contract law, Kingsfield's students give him a standing ovation. It's a sign of respect not only for the professor as an elder, but more for his superior methodology and wisdom.
History can sometimes complicate the idea of a character distancing him/herself from their age, as any discussions of the past invite some form of comparison between an individual's circumstances at the present and at a given time in the past. One performance that manages to sidestep some of those difficulties is Laurence Olivier's nominated role as Ezra Lieberman in 1978's "The Boys from Brazil." When we meet Lieberman, his primary concern is not with hunting Nazis regrouping in South America during the Carter administration. Instead it's with paying his rent, a piece of introductory characterization that in modern film conventions seems usually reserved as the scourge of lovesick, struggling twenty- and thirtysomethings.
The film has a notable protagonist bait-and-switch. Opening with Steve Guttenberg's Barry Kohler as the man undercover, there's a certain sense that this fearless investigative young chap will be our leader in uncovering this Paraguay-based plot to rekindle Nazi Germany. But, a half-hour in, Kohler is unceremoniously eliminated by Nazi operatives, leaving Lieberman as the torchbearer to expose the secret plan. In order for the aging Lieberman to succeed, he must literally follow in the young man's footsteps, picking up where Kohler left off. His ability to overcome this conspiracy is directly linked to his ability to overcome a stereotype.
Lieberman's age does prompt one moment of self-reflection. When poring over photographs of the men that he's taken upon himself to track down, he snags his sister's cigarette, arguing that "after all I've been through, one puff won't hurt me." He acknowledges that senility may curb his effectiveness at stepping into the task left by Kohler, but he doesn't dwell on it, hardly ever speaking of it again. Lieberman's foil, the despicable doctor Joseph Mengele (Gregory Peck), enjoys one flashback sequence detailing his WWII activity. But Lieberman, despite his own memories of wartime horrors, never gets that same visual representation of the past. During the final showdown between the two men, there's an inescapable physicality to their fight to the death. It's not simply a Mexican standoff where one man waits for the other to flinch. It's hand-to-hand combat, where the pent-up tension between the two men finally manifests itself in visceral form.
In all of these roles, the emphasis remains not on the debilitating effects of old age, but the benefits of having acquired the assets that can accompany it. There's nothing morally or artistically wrong with showing the physical toll that life can take on an individual; indeed as Emmanuelle Riva has shown us, when handled with grace and precise craftsmanship, the results can be harrowing. Whether these actors are taking material and bringing to it that added depth or working from an undeniably solid foundation of a script, there's an admirable quality to what they were able to produce. With many of these cases, the magnetism of their roles becomes such that the films around them feel empty when their characters are forced to disappear from the screen for extended periods of time. Performances like this leave not only a legacy, but a reminder that every once in a while, it's comforting to see those men and women for whom age is not the defining characteristic.
Through February 2013, Indiewire is taking a closer look at how the over-60 audience is served by the movies made for them as well as profiling the actors and filmmakers who are their peers. It's part of a partnership with Heineken, which is sponsoring the "Heineken 60+ Challenge" that reaches out to the creative community to film, photograph or write their observations on the lifestyles and preferences of the 60+ age group. The goal is to help Heineken create innovative products to suit this golden generation.