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2015 Awards Season Respects Its Elders

You don’t have to keep a running tally of all the plastic surgeons in the Beverly Hills phonebook to know that Hollywood places a higher priority on youth and beauty than age and experience. 

And, yet, during the season of potential gold statues and a last-chance box-office bonanza at year's end, the film industry often reconsiders the value of hiring talent that possesses an established reputation, a long-standing fan base—and even a few wrinkles—when it comes to stocking trophy shelves and padding the bottom line.

Exhibit A: “Star Wars: The Force Awakens.” Disney did not have to bring back 64-year-old Mark Hamill as Luke, 73-year-old Harrison Ford as Han Solo and 59-year-old Carrie Fisher as Leia from the original trilogy that wrapped up a long time ago and far, far away in 1983. Boffo ticket sales would be guaranteed even if the cast only consisted of such newcomers as Daisy Ridley and John BoyegaBut, by including these beloved senior citizens in the cast, its makers have made the new edition a multi-generational must-see like no other in the history of cinema. I know I am not the only ancient boomer out there who bought tickets for an early showing on December 17. 

Last week's Screen Actors Guild nominations also confirmed that those with considerable mileage on their careers can be hot commodities when it comes to showbiz honors as well. “Trumbo,” a biopic about a blacklisted screenwriter that primarily takes place in the 1940s and ‘50s, collected the most nominations in the film categories with three. Besides Best Ensemble, the SAG equivalent of Best Picture, voters went for Bryan Cranston, 59, in the title role of Dalton Trumbo and Helen Mirren, 70, for her supporting work as gossip maven Hedda Hopper. Mirren also made the cut in the Best Lead Actress category as a woman who escaped the Holocaust in “Woman of Gold."

However, the Golden Globes folks really took a shine to AARP-eligible contenders with their Best Picture nominees. Not only did they allow two septuagenarians in the form of George Miller and Ridley Scott to sneak into the directing category, but Miller’s “Mad Max: Fury Road” is up for Best Dramatic Film and Scott’s “The Martian” is vying for Best Comedy or Musical. 

True, save for Cate Blanchett, 46, nominated for a Golden Globe for “Carol,” all the competing female leads in a movie drama are 30 or younger. That, as we know, is pretty much Tinseltown business as usual. But the Globes did find room for Lily Tomlin, 76, in “Grandma” (who also showed up as a candidate for Best Female TV Comedy lead as a neo-hippie artist on Netflix’s “Grace & Frankie”) and Maggie Smith, 80, in “The Lady in the Van” among the ranks of lead actresses in a comedy or musical film. And, besides Mirren in “Trumbo,” Jennifer Jason Leigh, 53, of “The Hateful Eight” and Jane Fonda, 77, of “Youth” got their due in the Best Supporting Actress category. 

Respect was also paid to elder gents as the Globes voters also placed Cranston among the film drama leads. The Best Actor in a Comedy candidates included Al Pacino, 75, in “Danny Collins” and Steve Carell, 53, in “The Big Short.” And, in the Best Supporting Actor corner is none other than Sylvester Stallone, 69, whose nod for his latest round as boxer Rocky Balboa in “Creed” comes 39 years after he got his first (and, until now, only) Globes acting nomination for the film that started the saga, “Rocky.” Joining him in the category is Mark Rylance, 55, of “Bridge of Spies,” an English stage actor just being discovered by U.S. audiences who also is nominated for his work on TV’s “Wolf Hall.”

Will the Oscars—aka the one movie award that will always be mentioned in a celebrity’s obit—similarly respect their elders this year? They should, considering that the average ages of lead actor and actress winners in the past 10 years are 46.2 and 40.8, respectively. A bit on the spring chicken side, but not overtly so.

But, as is the case with any business, money is at the root of most decision making. As the Motion Picture Association of America notes in its report on the film industry in 2014, the marketplace for older moviegoers is thriving. Last year, the share of tickets sold to the 40-49 and 50-59 age groups reached all-time highs, while the share bought by 60-plus (13%) rose to its highest point since 2011.

It’s not that retirees don’t want to watch pretty young people, too. But cinema is often at its best when it reflects the lifestyle and concerns of its audience. Why not show what life is really like these days for people in their golden years, many of whom remain vital way beyond the age of 65? With many businesses saving costs by laying off or marginalizing senior employees, it might help if Hollywood sets the standard for the rest of us. It has become the norm on TV to turn graying performers into gold as small-screen stars. Here’s hoping the movie business continues to realize that age can co-exist with beauty.  

Susan Wloszczyna

Susan Wloszczyna spent much of her nearly thirty years at USA TODAY as a senior entertainment reporter. Now unchained from the grind of daily journalism, she is ready to view the world of movies with fresh eyes.

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