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Oscar goes gray

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Posted: Sunday, February 25, 2007 5:52 am | Updated: 5:37 pm, Fri Oct 7, 2011.

One of Hollywood’s most enduring and iron-clad rules is don’t get old. We’ve all heard the sad stories: 28-year-old starlets resorting to collagen, Botox injections and the surgeon’s knife to keep their good looks.

To those who believe in the immutability of the industry’s obsession with youth, this year’s Oscar nominees are an eyebrow-raiser, to say the least. Seven artists in their 60s and 70s are vying for major awards.

In the directing category, Clint Eastwood, 76, is up against Stephen Frears, 65, and Martin Scorsese, 64. True, directors often enjoy long careers, but since Quentin Tarantino bulldozed into the limelight in the early ’90s, Hollywood’s attention and money have focused increasingly on young Turks, many of whom struck gold in their 20s: Spike Jonze, Kevin Smith, Zach Braff, Robert Rodriguez, John Singleton and Wes Anderson, to name a few.

The performance categories are more surprising.

Two of the five women in the best actress field are over 60: Judi Dench, 72, and Helen Mirren, 61. Fellow nominee Meryl Streep is 57. The best actor category pits Peter O’Toole, 74, against colleagues several decades younger. Same with Alan Arkin, 72, in the best supporting actor competition.

Long-respected veterans can be found on other Oscar short lists, too. Most prominent among them is the legendary cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond, 76, who could receive his second statuette for his work on “Black Dahlia.”

Do this year’s nominations represent a sea change in filmworld predilections? Are producers and studios finally realizing the growing importance of gray power as baby boomers, a huge demographic that has influenced corporate marketing strategies for the last half-century, enter their early retirement years? Or are the 2007 Academy Awards a statistical anomaly — the exception that proves the primacy of youth at the box office?

“The boomer generation has never behaved like any previous generation,” says Ken Dychtwald, author of the bestselling book “Age Wave” and an expert on societal attitudes about aging. “They’re spending a great deal of money at the movies. And they want films that stimulate and challenge them. This generation has a great interest in seeing stories and actors and actresses who resonate with their own experience.”

“There might be something to this,” agrees Ed Fink, chairman of the department of radio, TV and film at California State University, Fullerton. “My suspicion is that (baby boomers) are a part of the moviegoing public that has been underserved. The entertainment industry, like any other, has to make money. If they think there’s profit to be made in marketing older actors to audiences of their generation, then they’ll do it.”

WORSE FOR WOMEN?

While film-industry observers agree that there’s a certain tolerance and often a need for experienced writers and directors, many also point out that the film business is still unforgiving and cruel when it comes to performers, especially actresses.

“In Hollywood, where a starlet’s fame may be briefer than her high school education, the effective career of an actress can be nasty, brutish and short,” Slate film writer Edward Jay Epstein wrote in “The Starlet’s Dilemma,” which appeared last year in the popular online magazine. We asked Epstein if this year’s list of Oscar nominees had caused him to reconsider his opinion. Not one iota, Epstein replies. “Ageism impacts women, not men, and money, not awards.”

Fink is more optimistic. He thinks film audiences are more appreciative of a terrific performance by an older actress than they used to be.

“The more we’re exposed to different media, the more sophisticated we become as viewers. We begin to appreciate a (performance by a veteran actress) for the craft and strength it brings (to a film). Look at the quality of the performances in the best actress category. Judi Dench — the camera just loves her. It’s the same with Streep and Mirren. They’re all beautiful to look at.”

Fink touched upon a topic that’s been taboo until recently in American cinema: You can be 60 and sexy. Actresses such as Mirren and Streep aren’t afraid to exude sexuality. Indeed, Mirren seems to flaunt her sex goddess image. Her daring dress at this year’s Golden Globe award show was one of the evening’s talkers.

The British actress recently attended a tribute to her at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival. Its organizers screened some of her nude scenes. (She has appeared naked in more than a dozen films, most recently in “Calendar Girls,” a movie about a group of middle-aged women who decide to make a risque calendar to raise money.) Speaking to the film festival crowd, she got into the spirit of the event, indulging in some suggestive behavior with the microphone.

FIGHTING BACK

“Older performers are no longer rolling over and playing dead,” Dychtwald says. “In the past, people in the industry reached their 60s and felt they had to either re-engineer their bodies and faces to make themselves appear 45 or admit their time was up. Now, more of them are telling us to accept them on their own terms and celebrate what the years have added to their character.”

In the last few years, artists have been fighting back, speaking openly about what they see as callous treatment by a youth-obsessed industry and even forming organizations to bring attention to ageism in Hollywood.

In 2002, actors Ed Asner, Kent McCord and Peter Mark Richman formed a lobbying group called the Industry Coalition for Age Equity in the Media. It received the support of the Screen Actors Guild and the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists. “There are so many vital people, so many gems of experience, who are lost doing other things because they are rejected in this profession. … I think it’s pathetic,” Richman told a reporter.

While pressure from within is important, Dychtwald says that this year’s nominees simply prove that Hollywood is responding to its age-old master: market forces. But the trend couldn’t happen if the talent wasn’t there, he argues.

“Hollywood is growing up, partly because that’s where the money is and the audience is. But it’s also taking advantage of some remarkably gifted actors and actresses who have an enthusiastic following and have no intention of going away. Look at Jack Nicholson. He’s got a huge fan base. You think he’s the kind of guy who’s going to say, ‘I’m not going to act anymore because I’m too old?’ Not likely!”

Nor is this generation of veterans content to play spinsters and sweet old men, Dychtwald says. “The way Arkin pushed the envelope in ‘Little Miss Sunshine’ was simply amazing.” (The actor played a sexobsessed, heroin-addicted grandfather.) “We’re going to see a lot of that in the future, actors of his generation giving performances that completely surprise us.”

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