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Seasoned actors’ summer success

SOME might remember summer 2008 as the season of “The Dark Knight.” Others will declare it the moment chicks flexed their muscles and brought hordes of cosmo-drinking mamas into the cineplex.

I’m going to remember 2008 as “Revenge of the Geezers.” OK, this is Hollywood, so by “geezers” we’re talking about anyone over, say, 40, the merely thinking-about-Botox generation. Those who prefer e-mail to texting, which as anyone 25 or younger knows is the dividing line between the truly young and the poseurs squashed into True Religion jeans.

Who are the success stories of the summer?

Robert Downey Jr., 43; his onetime girlfriend, Sarah Jessica Parker, 43; Harrison Ford, 66; and let’s not forget film’s grande dame, 59-year-old Meryl Streep, she of the many storied accents, who’s coasting toward a Robert De Niro-size career reinvention, spearheading the “Mamma Mia!” assault on the globe, singing and dancing her way to what some say could be a $400-million worldwide gross. Yowser!

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Coming off her deliciously nasty turn in “The Devil Wears Prada,” that’s two summer hits for Meryl, who unlike some of her Oscar-winning compatriots (mmm, Sally Field, perhaps?) hasn’t been reduced to hawking Boniva and other osteoporosis drugs.

And the summer’s not over. We’ve still got 72-year-old Woody Allen’s “Vicky Cristina Barcelona,” a way more potent and hilarious vivisection of young love than the bitchy angst-fest on the “Gossip Girls,” and “Swing Vote,” 53-year-old Kevin Costner’s attempt to reclaim his feel-good, “Field of Dreams” crown and a film he financed out of his own pocket. (There’s nothing rarer in Hollywood than a star willing to put up his own money, and Costner, unlike Mel Gibson, doesn’t claim God is in his back pocket.)

OK, I admit it. I’m over 30, and I find all these success stories inspiring, right up there with my other favorite pastime this summer, cataloging amazing elderly athletes, like 53-year-old golfer Greg Norman and 41-year-old Olympic swimmer Dara Torres. (In fact, my friend at the Los Angeles Times library, Vicki Gallay, found a raft of spry contenders in this year’s Olympics: 57-year-old trap shooter Susan Nattrass, 61-year-old equestrian Ian Miller, 43-year-old rower James Tompkins, and 50-year-old world champion sailor Iain Murray.) At least in sports, the only barriers to success are physical ones.

Everyone knows what happens to people over 40 in Hollywood.

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They kill you.

Just joking.

But according to 2006 statistics from the Screen Actors Guild, the latest available, women older than 40 nab just 26% of all roles for women. (Men older than 40 get 40% of the male roles, though I’m convinced that’s because every blockbuster needs a platoon of doughnut-eating cops). Writers, at least, get to work until they’re 50, and then Hollywood assumes that the gray hair makes their brain cells atrophy. Those ages 51 to 60 account for less than 20% of working writers. Directors get a little more leeway, but then again, most of them start later.

I’ve been mulling over why Downey, Parker and Streep are having career resurgences after decades in the business. Parker was Annie on Broadway back in 1979. Downey began appearing in his father’s films at the ripe old age of 5 and made his first non-nepotistic appearance in John Sayles’ 1983 flick “Baby It’s You.” Streep made her professional stage debut in 1971 and her film debut in “Julia” in 1977.

Of course, there’s an obvious answer: It’s the talent, stupid.

And then there are the not-so-obvious answers. They never got too hubristic. They never jumped on couches, proselytized about offbeat religions, or broke their covenant with the audience -- even Downey, who despite his junkie past never hurled cellphones at hotel clerks or acted bratty in public. They weren’t too proud to do TV. They’re funny, and they’re survivors in these uncertain economic times when surviving is an admired art. What’s the main plot line of the “Sex and the City” movie? It’s how Carrie bounces back from utter humiliation.

Also, Downey, Parker and Streep developed their readily identifiable artistic personas before Hollywood’s star-making machine completely ran off the tracks.

Everyone’s a star these days, with the Paris Hiltons getting the same stature as the Oscar winners.

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It’s not only the Us magazine democratization -- or diminution -- of celebrity, where no-talents are famous and every star gets his feet of clay held up for microscopic inspection (a process bent on destroying the mystery necessary for great stardom). It’s that Hollywood has spent the last decade trying to figure out a formula for films that are movie-star-proof, ergo, no one has to shell out hefty chunks of the gross to those darned performers. Now spectacle is king.

With the sole exception of Heath Ledger’s riveting, maniacal turn as the Joker in “The Dark Knight,” I don’t think Hollywood has been particularly kind to young performers this season. They have to compete for moviegoers’ attention with all the crash, boom, bang, often playing parts as complex as door hinges. Even Christian Bale, who now tops the biggest hit of the summer. I used to think he was talented, particularly his haunting performance as a kid in “Empire of the Sun,” but I think Christopher Nolan must have poured antifreeze into his veins to tamp down any personal inflection for this stint as Batman. OK, it’s hard to act with only the bottom half of your face and sporting some weird voice-distorter, but still. You know it’s bad when the best evidence for Bale’s beating heart is his recent four-hour stint at a London police station, for an alleged scrap with his mother. (Bale’s lawyer has denied all the allegations.)

I wonder if Bale is next in a growing line of talented actors like Tobey Maguire and Hayden Christensen, whose whole persona is swallowed up by his blockbuster alter-ego.

My theory is that great audience-connecting stars have a capacity for joy. There’s Johnny Depp, a journeyman star until his diabolical, mascara-wearing Jack Sparrow gobbled the screen, or Angelina Jolie, probably the biggest female star in the world at the moment, who does bad-girl glee like no one else. Ford, Bruce Willis, Will Smith, even Tom Cruise launched their careers with irreverence, and Julia Roberts has her own idiosyncratic specialty of smiling through tears.

That’s part of the reason Downey, Parker and Streep are strutting out of the summer with their reputations and earning power enhanced. That’s why after decades in the business Streep is finally shedding her reputation as being too classy for the masses. Finally, as she heads toward her seventh decade on the planet, Streep might be getting some commercial wings.

This is the summer that Downey, Parker and Streep remembered that a movie star’s highest calling is to entertain ... and have fun.

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rachel.abramowitz@latimes .com

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