Box-Office Boomers: The Encouraging Greying of Hollywood

Movies, once inhabited mostly by the young and beautiful, are increasingly using older actors to challenge assumptions about aging.

TriStar Pictures

Once upon a time, the average moviegoer heading to see an action film or a romantic comedy could expect the stars to be, above all, young. In cinematic stories about midnight dalliances in Paris or high-speed chases, the leading men and women were overwhelmingly fresh faces—or faces that hadn’t yet hit 50, or even 40. But if the last decade is any indication, Hollywood has become increasingly comfortable with making films about older characters with complex, interesting lives. They’re in every genre: action films like RED, serious dramas like Amour, and romantic comedies like Hope Springs. They play everyone from transgender septuagenarians (Transparent) to mercenaries (The Expendables 3).

This year in particular, examples abound: Lily Tomlin starred in Grandma as a lesbian poet bonding with her pregnant granddaughter, Liam Neeson reprised his role as a father out for revenge in Taken 3, Al Pacino played an aging rock star in Danny Collins, Meryl Streep played a similar role in Ricki and the Flash, and Robert De Niro outshone his younger counterparts in the new generation-gap comedy The Intern. On the one hand, the trend is a sign that Hollywood is responding seriously to the growing power of older audiences at box offices. But it also reflects a broader cultural shift: These new works are exploring the ways in which growing older has changed, while challenging stereotypes about aging that have been long perpetuated by an industry that loves youth and novelty.

The enormous success of the comedy-drama The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, which featured an ensemble cast playing British retirees, seemed to kickstart the recent upswing in 2011. (That film, and its sequel, which was released this year, earned a total of $221 million worldwide.)

Well before then, classic movies and shows tackled the joys and pains of growing older, from Grumpy Old Men to The Golden Girls to Cocoon. But this new wave of shows and films is different. Those were comedies about older characters trying to live like college students, says John S. Baick, a professor of history at Western New England University. The recent spate of works, by contrast, show actors “who don’t deny their age but rather seek to redefine what it means.” One outcome is that midlife-crisis films are skewing older—to characters in their 60s and 70s instead of their 40s.

This shift is playing out in other ways as well. Once upon a time the standard bachelor-party film would star 30-to-40-year-olds (the Hangover trilogy, for example). But in 2013 came Last Vegas, starring Michael Douglas, Morgan Freeman, Robert De Niro, and Kevin Kline as a group of childhood buddies in their late 60s and 70s who are dissatisfied with their lives and reunite to celebrate Douglas’s wedding. Other buddy films about self-discovery feature older characters: This year’s A Walk in the Woods showed Robert Redford and Nick Nolte, both in their 70s, hitting the Appalachian Trail to renew their friendship.

And the buddy stories aren’t just for men: The Netflix comedy Grace and Frankie tackles later-in-life reinvention from a woman’s perspective. The series stars Jane Fonda and Tomlin as two characters in their 70s who become reluctant roommates and eventual close friends when they’re dumped by their gay husbands. Grace and Frankie sets out deliberately to challenge some of the stereotypes about women growing older, without dodging uncomfortable realities such as death and illness. As the show’s executive producer Dana Goldberg told The Hollywood Reporter, “One of the things Jane Fonda loves to say is, ‘You’re not looking at the last chapter of your life. It’s a staircase. You should keep just moving forward.’ And that’s the story we wanted to tell.” There’s an audience, it seems for that story: The show’s been renewed for a second season.

These films and shows are taking aim at another lame ageist cliché: the pervasive May/December relationship trope, in which an older male star dates a love interest half his age. Enter a spate of age-appropriate romantic pairings: In Danny Collins, Pacino’s character loses interest in nubile groupies and pursues Annette Bening, a witty 50-something. Similarly, Streep’s love interest in Ricki and the Flash is an attractive guitar player her own age played by Rick Springfield. In the The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, Richard Gere’s character falls for the proprietor’s mother, who’s also in her 60s, while Douglas’s character in Last Vegas drops his 30-something fiancée for Mary Steenburgen, who was 60 at the time of filming.

Carole Lieberman, an author and psychiatrist based in Beverly Hills, attributes the age-appropriate love-interest trend to the failure of marriages between Hollywood power players and their much-younger trophy wives. “After their second or third divorce they start recognizing the appeal of women their own age,” Lieberman says.

Whether or not you subscribe to this theory, it’s indisputable that top box-office action heroes today are sporting wrinkles along with their pumped-up physiques. Neeson, now 63, is still avenging the bad guys who kidnapped his daughter in the Taken franchise, and regularly appears in other action films such as Non-Stop and Run All Night. Tom Cruise, now 53, is still making Mission Impossible movies, whose marketing hypes up the fact that Cruise performs his own dangerous stunts. Sylvester Stallone, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Harrison Ford—all action stars in their youth—starred in 2014’s The Expendables 3 as the mercenary team that goes up against the bad guy, who’s played by Mel Gibson.

No recent movie about older characters has managed to rival the box-office success of the Marigold films, but their frequency will likely hold as the U.S. aging population grows, and as long as a healthy chunk of 60-something and older viewers consider themselves frequent moviegoers (last year, that number hovered at 14 percent). And the market extends beyond the theaters to video streaming and home video. Boomers, at 25 percent of the population, are a huge audience for post-theatrical releases, says Sam L. Grogg, a film producer and the dean of the college of Arts and Sciences at Adelphi University. “These are films that make their money from the long tail of home video and streaming.”

If there’s one area where older faces have yet to find a foothold, it’s advertising. Commercials featuring seniors tend to be directly marketing products to seniors: life insurance, denture creams, diabetes drugs, Viagra. But you don’t see older people in everyday commercials for cars, dish detergents, and TVs—all products Boomers buy in as great or greater quantities than Millennials. “Ironically, we did it to ourselves ... we grew up with a cultural emphasis on youth, which we passed down to our children,” says Chuck Schroeder of Senior Creative People, a consulting firm that’s trying to get advertisers to feature more older actors. While film producers tend to be more advanced in age, Schroeder says, product managers tend to skew in the opposite direction and harbor a blind spot for older audiences—ironically, the very group that has more money to spend.

It seems likely though that with the help of Hollywood, Boomers may finally start breaking down barriers in all kinds of media beyond films and television, including commercials. This year saw at least one promising instance: Liam Neeson’s Super Bowl commercial for the video game Clash of Clans—one of the most youth-oriented popular games out there.