Why Do Actors Lose Their Fastballs?

Actors shouldn’t decline. At least not until they reach somewhere around Kirk Douglas age. Not until they lose brain function and the ability to control their bodies. The craft of acting seems like something you should be able to perform at a high level until fairly late in life.

Actors aren’t like athletes. They aren’t even like musicians, who need to be able to hold notes or maintain some dexterity to move their fingers nimbly.

But some actors and actresses clearly lose whatever innate ability they once possessed, or at least stop honing their skills until they begin to deteriorate. Others, meanwhile, actually improve until they’re dead.

In an attempt to look at why certain thespians age well while others don’t, we’re going to look at some prominent, aged Oscar winners of the last 40 years as case studies. Is there a common thread that determines who gets better, who gets worse, and who stays the same? For now, we’re focusing solely on the male of the species, because too few decent roles exist in Hollywood for ladiez of a certain age — we have a small sample size problem, as Nate Silver would say.

Gene Hackman
Hackman has aged about as well as anyone, acting-wise. He was a great actor when he was youngish (winning an Oscar for The French Connection at age 40), and he maintained his skill set well into old age. He’s likely retired now (he hasn’t made a film since 2004), but his late-period performances include Get Shorty, Heist, The Royal Tenenbaums and Unforgiven — each of which came after his 60th birthday. Maybe Hackman is like the rare athlete who knows exactly when to retire — a Sandy Koufax or Mike Mussina — maybe he sensed that he was starting to slip, and got out while the getting was good. But a Gene Hackman performance at age 70 was just as reliable and impressive as a Gene Hackman performance at age 35.

Marlon Brando
An extreme case in that Brando seemingly lost his mind in his advancing age. His behavior grew eccentric even before winning the Oscar for The Godfather, but he really went off the rails in the Apocalypse Now era. Stories about his antics on set became legendary, and his choice of films became ever weirder and more infrequent. He never really lost the ability to act, but it definitely seemed like he was playing an elaborate prank on us at various points in his career (Don Juan DeMarco; The Island of Dr. Moreau). The case of Marlon Brando hints that external factors may play a role in an actor’s ability to age well, at least in the case of successful actors — how they deal with celebrity and wealth matters as much as the maturation of their skills.

Jack Nicholson
Jack Nicholson used to act. Now Jack Nicholson vamps and mugs and plays “Jack Nicholson” the majority of the time. The guy from Chinatown and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest died, probably around the time of A Few Good Men. The problem is: the more Nicholson-y he acts, the more successful he is, the more award nominations he receives and the more critical praise he gets. He’s not a terrible actor by any means, he’s still capable of a relatively nuanced performance — he just doesn’t show that side of himself much anymore. It’s hard to blame him: if everyone laughs each time you fall down, you’re going to keep falling down.

Dustin Hoffman
This is an instance where Hoffman seems to have simply lost his desire to make good movies, and replaced it with a desire to do anything for a buck. Hoffman seems to be re-defining his brand as “wacky older guy.” He was probably a bit overrated even in his prime (Tom Cruise ran rings around him in Rain Man), but now there’s really nothing to see here. Interestingly, Hoffman’s worst latter-day work has crossed paths with a couple other declining actors on this list: he joined Al Pacino in Dick Tracy, and Robert DeNiro in the abortions that are the Meet the Parents sequels.

Robert DeNiro
UGH. The poster boy for decline. For collapse. For attrition. Robert DeNiro was a great actor. The best. I even liked him in Awakenings. And whatever he used to have inside him, whatever strand of DNA that guided his decisions, movie to movie and scene to scene, that DNA has mutated into something grotesque and frightening. He’s sold himself out so many times, made disgusting, hacky material like Analyze That and Meet the Fockers so often, that his acting muscle has atrophied. The sad thing is that DeNiro still thinks he can deliver a great performance when called upon, but much like Patrick Bateman in American Psycho, he’s…just…not…there.

Paul Newman
Newman is proof that it can be done, that actors needn’t fall into an inexorable state of disrepair after they pass middle age. He was 69 when he made Nobody’s Fool, and gave a performance that can stand with any in his distinguished career. He was 77 when he gave a solid turn in Road to Perdition, and 80 when he did Empire Falls for HBO. You don’t need me to point out how great Paul Newman is — just that he reached a similar level of fame and success as DeNiro and Brando, and managed to keep not only his wits about him but also his ability. He found a way to deal with the sycophants and the agents and everything else, and maintain.

Michael Douglas
In terms of sheer acting talent, Douglas was never quite at the level of some of the other guys on this list. But he can carry a movie, and he’s massively charismatic. He’s coming up on 60 now, and he hasn’t really lost a step yet. We’ll obviously have to see how things transpire, but films like Wonder Boys and Traffic seem like good indicators he won’t turn to schtick as he gets older.

Al Pacino
Was it Scarface where things started to turn? Was it the “Attica! Attica!” chant in Dog Day Afternoon? It certainly happened well before Scent of a Woman, when the Academy reinforced Pacino’s worst instincts. Watch The Godfather sometime. Watch Serpico. See how subtle he used to be, how low-key. Then watch Insomnia or Any Given Sunday. Even when the material’s there, Al’s not. He’s become a ham. And to watch what’s happened to him and DeNiro has been so sad, like watching an AIDS victim get progressively weaker and thinner. If Hackman and Newman can maintain their grace and integrity, why can’t Al and Bob?

Jeff Bridges
The Dude is in Douglas’s age range, so there’s still time for things to take a turn for the worse — but so far, so good. Bridges is growing more interesting as he ages, leaving behind some of the flat affect of his youth. Interestingly, he only has one live-action project lined up right now, and that’s not due to come out until 2013, so he’s avoiding the typical post-Oscar rush to make as many movies as humanly possible (see: Nic Cage).

Of the 9 “great” actors on this list, 5 definitely declined as they got older. The common thread seems to be laziness, or lack of hunger. Only Brando went truly batshit insane — the others just grew apathetic, or too pleased with themselves. Maybe they legitimately just became worse at acting, but I doubt that happened until they stopped caring. Age in and of itself shouldn’t cause a decline in that particular skill set. You don’t see respected character actors (say, M. Emmet Walsh or Edward Herrmann) get shitty at their jobs. The decline has more to do with fame and money and awards than with the aging process. So be careful, middle-aged actors like Tom Hanks and Sean Penn. You face a crossroads.

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Filed under Film Has AIDS, The Dilemma

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