Aging and Action Authenticity

Curator's Note

The imminent release of The Expendables underlines the continuing presence of aging action stars. 1980s action stars such as Stallone, Willis, Ford and Gibson are hardly without precedent as they keep punching into their 50s and 60s. Indeed they follow earlier action stars such as Wayne, Lancaster, McQueen and Eastwood who all performed middle aged or senior tough guy roles (Astruc celebrated Wayne’s defiant aging in Rio Lobo: “He will enter the grave as he always lived. On horse.”). Stallone stands out as different from more usual patterns of action aging only because he remains defined by a built body. 

The most recent film in the Die Hard series exemplifies a more familiar pattern of aging action. The dogged die hard persona – regular guy who just won’t give up – ties perfectly with a scenario of aging action bodies. Live Free or Die Hard played out an intergenerational scenario of McClane’s aging tough cop at a loss in a digital world, teaming him up with a younger guy who brings expertise but not experience.   The Indiana Jones films worked this inter-generational scenario both ways (Jones as son, then as father).  McClane was already weary in the original movie back in 1986, echoing the tough older guys played by Wayne in films like The Sands of Iwo Jima. Signifying experience, aging male bodies – whether buff or sagging – effectively add to action authenticity.
This sort of longevity only really applies to men – Hollywood’s action women have been young and sexy for over a decade.   With the exception of Sigourney Weaver’s late-40s reprise of her role as Ripley in Alien: Resurrection – her role in Avatar raises a different set of issues  – Hollywood action and adventure tends to allow older male stars a fantasy space it denies to women. While a mid-40s Jodie Foster plays tough in The Brave One, the marks of age as experience-as-authenticity don’t register here. More often women figure in fantastical action scenarios in which their powers are magical, their bodies eroticised; both are rendered through digital effects rather than signs of physical strength.  Experience is effectively erased. 


Now that you mention it, I can think of a number of similar examples. Danny Glover's character is set to retire in the first Lethal Weapon film. The Brave One, of course, is a re-imagining of Death Wish, only Bronson was in his early fifties (and still pretty ripped actually) when he made the film while Foster, as you point out, was in her mid-forties (and also, it must be said, in ass-kicking shape). The last Death Wish film came out when Bronson was 73. But you're right, I can't see Foster making sequels to The Brave One thirty years from now (especially since almost no one saw it). Then there's Clint Eastwood in Gran Tarino at nearly 80 and Michael Caine in Harry Brown at only a few years younger.

I wonder though: How much of this is specific to the action genre (which is pretty masculinist) and how much of this has to do with the larger, oft-cited problem of there being few good roles for women of a certain age in general?

The only counter example I can think of is 65-year-old Helen Mirren as ex-CIA agent Victoria in the upcoming Red, which also stars – wait for it – Bruce Willis.

Hi Matt - action is not that different from other genres in this way.  I could think of so many examples of stars like Lancaster and Eastwood who have/had aged but continued in action and adventure roles.  There does seem to be a shift when it comes to female stars playing figures of authority - Judi Dench in the Bond films is an example that students have cited.  These aren't action roles of course but there is a sense in which older women can do well playing cold or calculating bosses.... 

Lancaster was in his mid-50s when he made The Swimmer. So was Cornel Wilde when he made The Naked Prey. The list goes on and on. A lot of 50+ male stars spend a lot of time running around without their shirts off. But when 57-year-old Diane Keaton's body is seen sans clothes for a split second in Something's Gotta Give, it's a big deal. If she'd have played a boss in a business suit, I bet no one would have batted an eye.

Yvonne - Thanks for continuing this theme week with another great post!

I think you're definitely on to something with your assessment of aging and action authenticity, and it's got me thinking a lot about larger cultural discourses about age, experience, and the breakdown of the body.  More specific to the issues raised by your post, I wonder what you make of Sly's refusal to recognize that his body has, like all bodies, aged.  Is it because his whole career has been based on his body?  Or is he trying, in his own way, to redefine what it means to be a 60+ man?

Your post also made me think of the different ways in which male stars age.  (As Matt pointed out, female aging in films is a whole other issue, and equally as interesting to explore.)  Stars like Eastwood seem to embrace their age.  Though he's always been a kind of curmedgeon, in Gran Torino, Eastwood almost becomes a parody of the "old man," uttering lines like "Get off my lawn!"  Eastwood's action authenticity isn't verified so much through action of the body as it through his mere presence.  He needn't throw any punches; he merely has to scowl and point his finger, and the thugs go running.  Perhaps it speaks to Eastwood's confidence in his long career of portraying simliar personas.  (Eastwood also tangentially continues his tough-guy persona through his directorial efforts.  It's action authenticity by proxy.)

Stallone, in contrast, seems to feel a need to continue to rely on his built body in order to verify his action authenticity.  In the specific case of The Expendables, I'll be interested to see how Stallone's body compares to Dolph Lundgren's.  Lundgren seems to have kept his lean figure much more successfully than Stallone.  True, Lundgren is 10 years younger than Stallone, but he seems to have "aged more gracefully," if I can use such a loaded and problematic term.

This is all a long way of asking you to elaborate on your thoughts about the body and authenticity.  Do we need to see the built body in order to authenticate its ability for action?  Or can the mere presence of a formerly built body remind us of its prior experience?

Drew, you're right that in some ways Stallone is an exceptional figure - a lot of the coverage around his recent movies has been to do with how remarkable it is that he has kept the built body and so on.  Some commentators see that as a refusal to age gracefully, but I think there has always been an ambivalence about built bodies and wonder if it is a reflection of that.  I do wonder what an expectation of graceful aging means for action masculinity - so many 60s and 70s westerns that I recall deal with aging gunfighters who struggle to hold onto the privileges that they had earned.  Movies like Liberty Valence and The Wild Bunch are both bitter and nostalgic in tone.  Rambo by contrast, although it is much more visceral in its violence, doesn't seem that much of a departure from the tone of the earlier films.  The heroes body still guarentees his ability to act in a meaningful way (even though covered).

Incidentally, many action stars playing older roles rely on a sense of experience - the old-timer - which is explicitly set against younger, fitter men and women who may act rashly.  The idea of the curmudgeon tough guy who has the interest of those he commands is a staple of the war movie.

Thanks, Yvonne, for this fine post.  I like your observation that, with stars like Willis, the aging body can work as an asset, just another challenge that our battered hero has to overcome.  I think this sort of hero brings into relief a counter-model or motif of the beautifully bodied hero.  Stallone, in moments, fits this description, with all those aesthetically placed wounds, but Tom Cruise is probably a better instance, particularlly given his interest in marring his own beauty, whether with gray hair in Collateral or a phyisical alteration in Vanilla Sky, Minority Report, or Tropical Thunder.  I wonder if the action star's body might be illuminated productively in regard to the figure of the grotesque?  Maybe the aging of Mickey Rourke?

Your reference to the pairing of older action stars with younger ones has me curious about the periodization of the hyper-masculine action star.  Stallone, Lundgren, Schwarzenegger weren't just big, they were on steroids (imagistically and likely sometimes literally).  There is of course, a wide body of literature on the 80's action star and the hyper-masculine.  But what, then, does the more feminized body of Shia LeBeouf mean for action movies today?  Shia, Mila Ventimiglia (Rocky's office-dwelling son), Robert Pattinson, Zac Efron are all transitioning into more manly roles, but their aesthetic is pretty masculinity.  Perhaps Stallone is continuing to carry the flag of hyper-masculinity because the young action/adventure stars aren't doing it.  Is The Expendables as much a commentary on the past as it is a contemplation/foil of the present?

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