Silver-Haired Stars Are the New Box-Office Gold

From a Wall Street Journal story by Ellen Gamerman headlined “Harrison Ford Is 80. He’s Proof: Silver-Haired Stars Are the New Box-Office Gold”:

It could have been a pickup line at a gym, but instead it was a question at the Cannes Film Festival. A woman wanted to know how Harrison Ford, 80, prepared to go shirtless in the new Indiana Jones movie. “I think you’re still very hot,” she said. “How do you keep fit?”

“I’ve been blessed with this body,” he told her. “Thanks for noticing.”

This summer belongs unapologetically to old men.

Ford hoists his famed franchise on his shoulders for the fifth time this month with “Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny.” In July, Tom Cruise, 60, old enough for a senior discount at many movie theaters, sprints into “Mission: Impossible—Dead Reckoning Part One.” On streaming, Arnold Schwarzenegger, 75, saves the world in “FUBAR.” By Labor Day, Denzel Washington, 68, will be delivering vigilante justice in “The Equalizer 3.”

“These movie stars literally invented blockbusters in the ’80s,” says Richard Gelfond, chief executive of IMAX, the entertainment technology company. “There is a reason these old men are still around.”

Celebrities from the ’80s have a link to most every generation alive right now. Studio executives call them holdouts from a time when scarcity ruled and streaming was naught. Big stars released a movie a year, an original story with their name above the title on the marquee. Then they disappeared so everyone could miss them before they came back and did the whole thing all over again.

The star-making machine is very different today. With superhero movies, it is the comic hero and the studio that audiences remember, not always the star, who is often wearing a mask. Social media, which overexposes newcomers at their first dash of celebrity, means these actors barely have the time to register before another comes up behind them. Their fame can reach far but it can’t always run deep, leaving studio executives looking elsewhere when they need that one star who can single-handedly fill a movie theater.

So, like the first ones at an early-bird buffet, older actors are getting lots of the good stuff.

In “Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny,” Indy grouses about his aches and pains while climbing a rock wall in pursuit of an ancient doorstop related to Archimedes, time travel and World War II. But any serious senior moments are a bluff, like when he meets an Aryan of a certain age.

“My memory’s a little fuzzy but your face rings a bell,” he says. “Are you still a Nazi?”

When IMAX’s Gelfond asked Ford at the movie’s Cannes premiere party if he would mind seeing himself six stories high on screen, the actor didn’t hesitate. “He said, ‘Nah, I am who I am,’” Gelfond says. Calista Flockhart, Ford’s wife, said he would be handsome at any size.

Being a grumpy old man on screen doesn’t lend itself to much in the romance department. And these movies tread carefully around the love lives of their aging stars.

Ford’s rakish Indy, an archaeology professor so dreamy that a female student in the 1981 film blinks at him with the words “Love You” written across her eyelids, is now chaste. Yes, he hangs onto young co-star Phoebe Waller-Bridge when the two jump out of a plane, but over drinks he won’t lock eyes with her for even a nanosecond extra. The alluring woman half his age is his goddaughter. Nothing to see here.

Cruise has more game in next month’s “Mission: Impossible—Dead Reckoning Part One.” Without a gray hair on his head and his cocky grin still in place, he shines over longtime franchise co-stars and age-accurate humans Ving Rhames and Simon Pegg.

Cruise’s Ethan Hunt has chemistry with two beautiful women who are much younger than him, but still older than ingénues. He gives one a hug on a Venice rooftop. But it’s no “Mission Impossible: II” double-entendre bathtub scene from 2000, when a burglar in a skimpy dress asks him, “Do you mind if I’m on top?”

Last summer’s “Top Gun: Maverick” brought Cruise back into the red-hot center of the blockbuster conversation when it became the fifth-highest grossing film ever in the U.S. He was anointed by no less than Steven Spielberg for single-handedly rescuing the movie business. “You saved Hollywood’s ass,” the director can be heard telling Cruise on video from an Oscars lunch earlier this year. “Seriously, ‘Maverick’ might have saved the entire theatrical industry.”

The 2022 summer movie season raked in more than $3.4 billion, a figure that inched the movie industry closer to the $4 billion summer haul just before the pandemic, according to Comscore. “Top Gun: Maverick,” which earned nearly $1.5 billion worldwide over its full theatrical run, was a big part of that success, drawing fans of the 1986 original and new audiences.

Such success shows the power of nostalgia in this era of entertainment overload.

Netflix is betting big on Schwarzenegger, or, as his showrunner calls him, “225 pounds of muscle and positive energy.” He plays a CIA officer in the new action-comedy series “FUBAR” who is too good to retire.

The Rolling Stones’ “Sympathy for the Devil” can be heard under the opening shots. The same song plays during the “Indiana Jones” trailer, making it the official anthem of baby boomers who click on action content.

“Hi sweetheart,” Schwarzenegger’s Luke Brunner says as he gives a light kiss to a younger woman. “Where’s my grandbaby?”

Schwarzenegger’s enthusiasm rubbed off on the cast and crew, says “FUBAR” showrunner Nick Santora. He came to set with all his lines memorized, performed physically demanding scenes and never complained once about the workload and the months he spent on location in Ontario, Canada. The actor plays a character a decade younger than him.

“He’s going to bury us all,” Santora says.

Male action stars aren’t the only legacy acts. Ellen Barkin, 69, alongside Pierce Brosnan, 70, leads the new Netflix action comedy “The Out-Laws,” arriving in July. The actress insisted on doing many of her own stunts in the movie, including part of a heist scene where her character is masked and in a full body suit. “You couldn’t even tell it was her,’” director Tyler Spindel says.

Brosnan’s fitness, Spindel adds, was evident from the first handshake. “I thought my hand was going to crumble like a potato chip.”

Entertainment research company NRG polled 3,613 people ages 12 to 74 earlier this year to see if audiences truly want to see these older heroes. Its findings: 19 of the top 20 movie stars respondents report most wanting to see in theaters are over 40 years old. The 20th, Chris Hemsworth, turns 40 in August. Cruise had the highest seat-filling potential, followed by Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and Tom Hanks. Morgan Freeman, 86, made the top-20 list, while 20-something rising stars Timothée Chalamet and Florence Pugh did not.

Even Gen Z viewers are fine with older stars in theaters. Tom Holland, 27, their highest-ranked young actor, was 10th on that generation’s list, with men their parents’ age ranking above him. The only other young stars in Gen Z’s top 20 were Zendaya, 26, Jennifer Lawrence, 32, and Jenna Ortega, 20.

In the waning days of summer, Washington will be fighting thugs in “The Equalizer 3.” The movie trailer includes high-action sequences, though one of its more memorable moments has Washington’s retired intelligence officer leveling an opponent from a comfortable sitting position. “That’s the median nerve that I’m compressing,” Washington says while squeezing the hand of a younger man writhing in pain. “That’s a level three.” With a level four, he says, his victim will dirty his pants in the worst possible way.

For many moviegoers, it is hard to remember the actual age of the more boyish stars now tied to their franchises. Keanu Reeves is 58, a decade older than when the first “John Wick” film came out. The fourth “John Wick” in the spring offered a natural end point to the $1 billion franchise. But word of a possible fifth film in early development soon followed.

In 2005, the average age of an action-movie leading man was 39. A decade later, it was 47, and so far this year it is 55, says Bruce Nash, who runs entertainment data site The Numbers.

Not all audiences are so tolerant of the tricks it takes to make an actor look invincible. When Liam Neeson, 71, starred in “Taken 3” in 2015, viewers dissected a scene where the actor, then in his 60s, jumps a fence. They counted more than 10 camera cuts to create a six-second effect. “MOTION SICKNESS,” one YouTube commenter wrote.

Once action heroes hit big, it is hard to kill them off. Rambo was originally supposed to die at the end of “Rambo: Last Blood.” But while shooting the 2019 film, the creative team was so gung-ho about Stallone as the older ex-soldier that they left open the possibility of a return. Thinking back on it, “Rambo: Last Blood?” might have been a more precise title.

“It’s relatively clear that he doesn’t die,” says director Adrian Grünberg. “Just in case.”

Stallone, now 76, did his own horseback riding in the film. The production assured jittery insurance executives that the actor could ride. “He’s not going to chop heads off from a horse at full speed,” says Grünberg. In the movie, Stallone makes his stallion walk backward in a corral and then steers the animal in a teacup ride of endless circles.

Still, he was realistic about his physical limits, Grünberg says. In one scene, Stallone drops to the ground and chops the leg off a man through a small porthole in a tunnel. But the actor couldn’t get to his feet quickly enough to complete the moment, so a stunt guy with good knees and a Stallone mask did it for him.

At the end of the movie, Stallone cuts a man’s beating heart out of his chest and shows it to the guy. Then he heads to the porch and takes a breather in a rocking chair.

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