Luckily, there are filmmakers who recognize the value of these roles and actors (and in the case of Clint Eastwood, his own talents), producing movies that call for career-defining performances from an old-timer or two. In the next few months, we're looking forward to seeing typically strong work from Michael Caine in 'Harry Brown' (April 30), Vanessa Redgrave in 'Letters to Juliet' (May 14) and Robert Duvall in 'Get Low' (July 30). In an industry that is geared mainly to audiences under 40 (and in many cases under 25), movies that feature seniors in more than peripheral grandma/pa roles are a relative rarity. Which is unfortunate for many reasons, not least because veteran actors have been honing their craft for decades and can often deliver sublime performances.
Luckily, there are filmmakers who recognize the value of these roles and actors (and in the case of Clint Eastwood, his own talents), producing movies that call for career-defining performances from an old-timer or two. In the next few months, we're looking forward to seeing typically strong work from Michael Caine in 'Harry Brown' (April 30), Vanessa Redgrave in 'Letters to Juliet' (May 14) and Robert Duvall in 'Get Low' (July 30).
These exceptional actors are all over 70 -- Duvall will be 80 next year -- and the roles seem to be solid ones. (Generally, elderly leading men far outnumber their female counterparts, but that's a whole other issue that will hopefully be redressed as more women become filmmakers.)
Here are our 10 (or so) favorite senior roles/movies featuring characters who are well past general retirement age:
Alvin Straight (Richard Farnsworth) in 'The Straight Story' (1999)
David Lynch surprised many with this sentimental -- but not sappy -- film based on a true story about an ailing widower who drives a lawnmower from Iowa to Wisconsin to visit his estranged brother (Harry Dean Stanton). Alvin befriends various people along the way and refuses to give up despite inevitable obstacles and mechanical breakdowns. Farnsworth, who was nominated for an Academy Award for his performance, died a year after the film's release.
The Cast of 'Cocoon' (1985)
In Ron Howard's affectionate, ultimately moving sci-fi movie, three seniors (Don Ameche, Wilford Brimley, Hume Cronyn) regularly sneak out of their retirement home to swim in a nearby abandoned swimming pool. They become physically rejuvenated, due to the fact that the pool stores cocoons deposited by aliens with whom they soon form a mutually-beneficial relationship. The film's impressive cast also includes Jack Gilford, Jessica Tandy, Maureen Stapleton and Gwen Verdon; Ameche won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar.
Walt Kowalski (Clint Eastwood) in 'Gran Torino' (2008)
Eastwood, a one-man rebuke to ageism, has done some of his best work -- as both actor and director -- in the past decade (he'll be 80 in May). Whether playing a NASA engineer who leads a team of long-retired cronies into space ('Space Cowboys'), a back-from-retirement FBI investigator ('Blood Work') or a tough boxing trainer/manager ('Million Dollar Baby'), Eastwood creates scrappy-but-solid multi-dimensional senior characters. His latest, Kowalski, is a bigoted Korean War vet who begrudgingly mentors a troubled Hmong teen neighbor, ultimately becoming his -- and the neighborhood's -- protector against a local gang.
Daisy Werthan (Jessica Tandy) in 'Driving Miss Daisy' (1989)
Yes, over the years, the film has been spoofed numerous times, but the story of the friendship that develops between an elderly Jewish woman and her African-American chauffeur (Morgan Freeman, in one of his first major roles) in the South during the 1960s still resonates. Tandy won a Best Actress Oscar for her portrayal of high-strung, independent Daisy, a sheltered woman who gradually comes to grips with the social changes of the era, and Freeman was nominated for his equally solid performance.
Nelson Mandela (Morgan Freeman) in 'Invictus' (2009)
In Clint Eastwood's rousing movie about Mandela's partnership with the captain of South Africa's rugby team (Matt Damon) and its unifying effect on the country, Freeman plays the renowned leader beautifully: confident, polite and steely. It's a testament to both Eastwood and Freeman that we believe in the character as a person, not just as the legendary, almost sainted, figure he's become in our collective consciousness. Freeman received a Best Actor Oscar nomination.
Grandpa Edwin Hoover (Alan Arkin) in 'Little Miss Sunshine' (2006)
He may not have logged as much screen time as other cast members, but the Hoover family's porn-loving, heroin-snorting grandpa was one of the most memorable characters in the popular, offbeat comedy. As played by Arkin (who won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for the role), he's not just a naughty, foul-mouthed codger, though he certainly is that, but a loving grandfather and devoted dance coach to young Olive. He's also a complete hoot.
Ethel and Norman Thayer (Katharine Hepburn and Henry Fonda) in 'On Golden Pond' (1981)
This low-key film marked the first-time teaming of screen giants Hepburn and Fonda (it would be his last movie role) -- and the only time he and daughter Jane appeared together in a movie. The veteran duo both won Oscars for their portrayal of a long-married couple whose summer getaway is interrupted by their daughter and her fiancé, who go off on their own, leaving the latter's young son behind. Though Fonda's role as a cranky retired professor facing mortality is the richer one, Hepburn shines equally as his supportive wife. In their hands, these somewhat conventional characters come to life.
Maude (Ruth Gordon) in 'Harold and Maude' (1971)
One of the reasons Hal Ashby's highly unorthodox black romantic comedy became such a cult hit is the fearless performance of Gordon as a cheerfully eccentric 79-year-old who befriends a rich, death-obsessed young man (Bud Cort) and ultimately shows him how to live. (Another is the fabulous Cat Stevens-dominated soundtrack.) The free-spirited Maude remains an inspiration to anyone who feels out of step with the rest of the world.
John and Max (Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau) in 'Grumpy Old Men' (1993) and 'Grumpier Old Men' (1995)
Comedy vets Lemmon and Matthau (who first teamed up in 1966's 'The Fortune Cookie') are in classic form as crusty Midwesterners John Gustafson and Max Goldman, neighbors whose friendship has devolved into a silly rivalry, marked by name-calling and practical jokes. Their feuding reaches its apex when a sexy newcomer (Ann-Margret) moves into the neighborhood, sending their competition into overdrive. (Sophia Loren plays the sequel's sexy newcomer.)
Albus Dumbledore (Richard Harris and Michael Gambon) in the 'Harry Potter' series and Gandalf (Ian McKellen) in the 'Lord of the Rings' trilogy
Maybe it's not quite fair to include supernatural types here, but these two wizards embody many qualities of the elderly -- wisdom, patience -- as well as other, more unusual powers. Played with equal gravitas by the late Richard Harris in the first two installments ('Sorcerer's Stone' and 'Chamber of Secrets') and Michael Gambon in the rest, Dumbledore, the eccentric headmaster of Hogwarts, is a towering presence in the wizarding world, the embodiment of the force for good, and Harry's main mentor. Also noteworthy: Professor Minerva McGonagall (Maggie Smith), deputy head mistress and head of Gryffindor House, another commanding senior presence.
Similarly, Gandalf (portrayed by the excellent McKellen) is a key figure in Peter Jackson's trilogy. An aged and exceptionally wise wizard, head of the Fellowship of the Ring and the army of the West, he stays faithful to his original quest to fight the evil Sauron. Also impressive is former horror flick vet Christopher Lee as Gandalf's antagonist, the power-mad wizard Saruman.
Honorable Mentions: Barbara Covett (Judi Dench) in 'Notes on a Scandal' (2006); Carl Fredricksen (Ed Asner) in 'Up' (2009), Willy and Al (Walter Matthau and George Burns) in 'The Sunshine Boys' (1975), Sully Sullivan (Paul Newman) in 'Nobody's Fool' (1994), Maurice (Peter O'Toole) in 'Venus' (2006)