Yes, there's the slightest of silver highlighting his long locks, and the added distinction those little lines are etching on his face, and that his body somehow defies the gravitational pull — but they're not the reason for my fascination. It's the ironic way the zombie thriller — a cleverly high-minded horror hoot — shows how carefully the actor is working his way through the treacherous terrain of the middle-aged movie star.
I realize it may qualify as heresy to pull the spotlight off actresses even for a moment. They've had to deal with the aging issue forever. Feminist enlightenment hasn't softened the realities of working in front of the camera, and the world at large has hardly eased its focus on the whole youth-equals-beauty mythology.
Which may be why we have overlooked, or underestimated, the pressures aging puts on male stars. Right now, we have an impressive generation of major male stars just getting into the thick of it —
They can learn from their elders (if not always betters). Some major marquee names have struggled mightily —
In this year's
DiCaprio in contrast, who like Cruise found success early, seems eager to take on characters that challenge even if, at times, that means an ancillary role. His smarmy, sadistic Southern bigot in
It is far easier in Hollywood, as elsewhere in life, to make the obvious but wrong choice. I'm sure
So what is to be done as the years tick by?
For the bible on how to do it right, there is no place else to start but with
Robert Redford is another. He hasn't had Eastwood's consistent success behind the camera since the Oscar for his 1980 directing debut,
Whether by choice or circumstance, Warren Beatty, 76, hasn't starred in a film since the 2001 bomb "Town & Country." It may be nothing more than adopting the
But that sort of sea change is rare. Douglas is up next in "Last Vegas," an old-boys buddy comedy with
Sadly, the book on what not to do is being written by De Niro. One of our greatest working actors has lost himself in crummy, mindless comedy. I honestly believe the Oscar nod for "
I'm not arguing against De Niro in comedy. He can be terrific as he was in "Midnight Run" and "The King of Comedy." And getting work isn't his problem either — the actor has five films due this year. I guess the good news is that 2013 started with arguably the worst film of De Niro's career, "Big Wedding," so it has to be uphill from here, right?
Not necessarily. Once movie star men hit middle age, nothing is a given.
Of the fiftysomethings, Clooney and Washington are doing some of the best work of their careers — Clooney in
In strategic terms, actors can't discount the power of today's TV to keep them creatively energized and in front of the public. Dustin Hoffman's most compelling role in a while was his ex-con/racetrack mobster on HBO's short-lived
(And if you've wondered, I'm not mentioning the British Islanders — they start differently and end differently — fecund character actors all the way. If they become "marquee stars" as well —
Meanwhile, the Eastwood heir apparent seems to be Ben Affleck — darkly handsome, strong mainstream appeal, an interest in diverse roles and proven directing chops. The actor has earned that spot the hard way, reversing a career that was flagging in his early 30s by stepping behind the camera for "Gone Baby Gone." It has paid off. Earlier this year he walked away with a best picture Oscar for
For those not inclined to try the directing route, Brad Pitt is the model. The actor has succeeded on screen in virtually every genre: the snarky action of "Ocean's Eleven," the comic drama of
The range of the roles speak to Pitt's versatility but also to his strategic smarts. Pitt works on blockbusters, indie films, with A-list directors like Ridley Scott as often as auteurs like Terrence Malick. Sometimes he dominates the screen. Other times he shares it. Increasingly he produces it, "World War Z" only the latest and director Steve McQueen's much-anticipated "12 Years a Slave," in which Pitt also stars, due later this year.
The actor turns 50 in December primed to make that legendary turning point what it should be — just another day.