Putting the Silver in the Silver Screen

Putting the Silver in the Silver Screen

Two show biz types in NYC set out to solve a murder in their apartment building.

A comedian reinvents her act after being fired from a casino gig in Las Vegas.

A CIA spook goes on the run when a Middle Eastern leader comes gunning for him.

What do they all have in common? Those characters are all in their 70s. (As are the actors playing them.)

Everyone knows that diversity is a cause celebre in Hollywood these days, as it should be, and it’s nice to know that one under-appreciated group is definitely having their moment. The group? Senior citizens.

The senior moment, if you will, is all the more significant as the shows that I described atop are not only starring 70-somethings, but the demographics for the shows are broad, as popular with those in their 20s as their 60s. Those three shows—Only Murders in the Building, Hacks, and The Old Man—critical favorites, too, with the Emmys showering the first two shows with 17 nominations each. (The Old Man will be eligible next year.)  

It's all the more meaningful as septuagenarians are the leads in all three of those shows. In the past, actors and actresses in that age group were usually relegated to mere supporting roles. Not here. The lead roles of the amateur sleuths in Only Murders in the Building are played by Steve Martin, 76, and Martin Short, 72. The aging comedienne dishing out the stand-up in Hack is played by Jean Smart, 70. And Jeff Bridges, 72, is doing a majority of his stunt work as the retired spy brought back to fight in The Old Man.

Ageism is a real prejudice in Hollywood, and too often aged characters in film and TV are presented in less than flattering ways. Frequently doddering, occasionally foul-mouthed, usually overly randy, seniors too often are mined for easy laughs. But now, actors and actresses in their 60s, 70s, and 80s are heading all kinds of vehicles, playing dramatic and comedy parts of substance, and appearing in roles as layered and deep as any roles in town. Some, like Jane Fonda at 84, have stronger careers than actresses half her age.

So, what happened? Weren’t careers supposed to be ‘over’ for actors at 60 and actresses at, gulp, 40?! Well, there are many factors that can be credited for such paradigm shifts, starting with the different times we’re in. People today are living longer and healthier lives, and old age isn’t what it used to be. In fact, getting older seems to be getting pushed back more and more with each new year. To many, 70 is practically the new 50. And because people are hanging around longer, it stands to reason that the big and small screen are going to reflect such. Additionally, if an actor has had a flourishing career for over 40 years in show biz, he or she is likely to be eminently castable at any age.

Talent often transcends age.

Another reason that there’s more and more silver in the hair of those on the silver screen is that the more character one has, the more interesting their stories are. People who’ve lived longer and experienced a lot are generally going to make for stories with more depth than a typical younger character of only 18-22. It reminds me of what the late, great John Mahoney said once when he was asked why he was so successful at getting cast when he started out acting in his mid-40s. He said that it's due to already having lived a lot of life. At his age, he had plenty of wisdom to draw upon and apply to the characters he was auditioning to play. Wise words, seemingly embraced by those greenlighting projects in Tinsel Town quite often these days.

Additionally, as the content needs of multiple streaming platforms and hundreds of cable networks become greater and greater, the storytellers in Hollywood must now mine newer places for stories after exhausting the same old reservoirs for far too long. Studios used to clamor for stories with leads under 30, but if their focus is that narrow these days it shows a genuine lack of imagination. It also shows that they don’t understand audiences are aging, and that younger people aren’t as beholden to film and TV the way previous generations are.

Granted, vehicles for younger talent may still be the watch words to most in the biz, but the vocabulary is broadening significantly now.

And, as any fan of literature, theater, film, or television will tell you, a good story is a good story. No matter who it’s about. Does one have to be a prisoner to appreciate Cool Hand Luke, or an Englishman to enjoy The Darkest Hour? Is Eyes Wide Shut only for the elite, The Grapes of Wrath only for the poor? As a film critic, I see all kinds of movies each month, and all I want to see is a good story. The genre, star, or age of the lead doesn’t matter.  

Thus, it’s great to see septuagenarian leads, and it’s also great to see such stories not shy away from the issues of age. The amateur sleuth angle of Only Murders in the Building is a big part of the show, but so are the themes of loneliness and obsolescence. Bravely, the show deals head-on with the fears of being past one’s prime, as evidenced by the fears of the inactive show biz types Martin and Short are playing. Not being seen, heard, hired, cared about, or even acknowledged is a worry of everyone as they get older. Aging out of the mainstream can be a terrifying and lonely place and the whodunnit brilliantly explores such anxieties.

Ultimately, fears of being shunned are shared by more than just those over 65. Everyone wants to be appreciated and loved, no matter what their age, and such themes make Only Murders in the Building quite universal. The series, so popular that it was renewed for a third season, just three episode into its second, taps into the nation’s love of true crime, of course, but it also has its finger on the pulse of anyone fearing getting lost in today’s frenetic society. And God knows the chaos of climate change, an activist Supreme Court, the January 6 hearings, and burgeoning inflation is aging us all anyway.

It's good that Hollywood has matured and is now embracing more diverse stories including those about those in the autumn or winter of their years.

Drama, comedy, dreams, fears—everyone experiences them, no matter what their age. And I applaud anyone and everyone who keeps going and going, treating age as just a number as much as they can. Look at William Shatner, an actor who’s 91, yet one who continues to star in show after show. He’s boldly going where few actors have gone before. And thankfully, Hollywood is going along with him.

*Feature Image: Only Murders in the Building by Jeff York

Jeff York is an optioned screenwriter, film critic, illustrator, and ad man. He’s also a member of the Chicago Indie Critics, SAG-AFTRA, and a cat lover.
More posts by Jeffrey York.
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