No matter what creative direction the world’s prestige filmmakers seem to be headed, every awards season seems to highlight a handful of legendary actors hoping for one last shot at Oscar glory. It goes without saying that with only four statues to hand out, the results are often littered with disappointment. Peter O’Toole’s failing to take home a statue on his eighth try in 2007 for “Venus” and June Squibb’s lack of a win for “Nebraska” in 2014 are classic examples that show no matter what your age, the nomination is often the win.
Despite tough odds, every so often the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences will indeed give the ultimate recognition to the accomplishments of the senior set, such as “Beginners” star Christopher Plummer, who in 2012 became the oldest competitive academy winner at a spry 82.
If everything holds to form, 2016 may turn out to reflect the talent and increasing influence of older actors in the Oscar race more than any year in recent memory.
Based on the number of contenders waiting in the wings, February’s Oscar telecast could feature more acting nominees over the age of 65 than those under 40 — consider these notable contenders and their ages at the time of the awards: Jane Fonda, 78, (“Youth”); Sylvester Stallone, 69, (“Creed”), Lily Tomlin, 76, (“Grandma”); Maggie Smith, 81, (“The Lady in the Van”); Robert De Niro, 72, (“Joy”), “45 Years’” costars Charlotte Rampling, 70, and Tom Courtenay, 79; and even the ageless Samuel L. Jackson, 67, (“The Hateful Eight”).
While the academy always seems to take a liking to an up-and-coming ingénue or a bright smiling young man, the increase in AARP-qualifying contenders won’t be a one-time blip on the awards circuit. Two-time Academy Award winner Michael Caine, a potential lead actor nominee for Paolo Sorrentino’s “Youth,” is working just as regularly today as he was a decade ago.
“I saw an article about this that said older people have gotten fed up sitting at home watching television and are going out to the cinema more and more often,” Caine says.
To punctuate his point, the octogenarian notes that “I just made a movie called ‘Going in Style’ — a comedy — where the three leads are me, who is 82, Morgan Freeman, who is 78, and Alan Arkin, who is 81. People must be going to see these pictures with older people. They don’t make them for fun.”
Another example of that success is “Mr. Holmes,” a drama in which the 76-year-old Ian McKellen is the popular detective trying to solve one last case in the twilight of his life. It ended up as the biggest art house hit of the summer and the second-highest-grossing picture ever for Roadside Attractions. Caine’s countryman believes audiences of all ages know what they “are getting with these old timers” and he finds their enthusiasm for his peer group gratifying.
“They are reliable. They’ve got track records and they’ve still got the energy to deliver,” McKellen says. “These are leading parts we get to play. We’re not just tucked away in some corner of the movie playing some grumpy old grandparent at the kitchen as the youngsters go off and enjoy the rest of the film.”
McKellen is keenly aware of how times have changed in other aspects of the business as well. He points out that 20 years ago one of the heroes of his youth, John Gielgud, at the age of 93 changed his agent, telling him at the time, “I needed to get representation that will get me work.”
“The trouble is when you’re 93 there is no insurance company that wants to insure you because they think you’re going to die on the job,” McKellen says. That no longer seems to be the case as he adds, “Now it does seem to be changing a bit and I’m a beneficiary of it.”
Another unexpected hit this summer was the Sundance Film Festival drama “I’ll See You in My Dreams,” which, shockingly, provided Blythe Danner, 72, with the first motion picture leading role of her career.
At first the Tony- and Emmy Award-winning actress wasn’t sure she had the stamina to carry the film over a planned 18-day shoot. She recalls, “I got the script and the first thing I felt was, ‘I don’t know if I can swing this in every scene.’ I don’t want to hurt the film.”
Danner was impressed by director and co-screenwriter Brett Haley, however, and eventually discovered that playing the role of a Los Angeles widow at a tipping point in her life could be both “cathartic and liberating.”
“Even though I like to do characters that are very different from myself I often find those most challenging,” Danner says. “This one was a combination of doing that and also digging into myself much deeper. I mean, you do that anyway with any role, but it was so personal having lost my own husband. A lot of it rang so true that it was easy in a way.”
Like Caine and McKellen, Danner now has a prominent seat on the awards circuit merry-go-round, having already received a lead actress nomination for the 2015 Gotham Awards.
Whether more accolades come her way or not, she’s proud the chatter about an Oscar nomination has given her a chance to toast an incredible five decades in show business.
“For me that is all I want or need,” Danner says. “My daughter sort of pressured me into going down this route of all this celebration. And I said, ‘OK, I’m celebrating my 50th year in the business and it’s very gratifying.’”