Lily Tomlin, Ian McKellen and other acting elders are stars more than ever
Credit: Glen Wilson
  • Movie

Out with the old, in with the… old?

No one could ever accuse Hollywood of going out of its way to give lead roles to actors beyond a certain age. It’s an industry with the age politics of Logan’s Run — one in which Marisa Tomei has been cast as Spider-Man’s Aunt May — but lately it seems that studios are changing tack. Moviegoers 60 and over account for 13 percent of all tickets sold in North America, a fairly large slice of the pie, and they’ve shown that they’re willing to reach into their wallets for movies that speak to them. Three years ago The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, starring Judi Dench and Maggie Smith, raked in a game-changing $137 million worldwide, inspiring a 2015 sequel that secured another $86 million and dynamited a door that had long been padlocked to aged actors: bankable, above-the-title star.

This year has been especially good for actors holding both SAG and AARP cards. In Grandma (out Aug. 21), 75-year-old Lily Tomlin plays the hard-charging, tattooed, and titular loose cannon who takes it upon herself to help her pregnant teenage granddaughter get an abortion. “I was interested by the idea of a woman in her 70s who’s way more punk rock and transgressive than her 18-year-old granddaughter,” says writer-director Paul Weitz (American Pie). Tomlin, who also debuted her Netflix series, Grace and Frankie, this year with 77-year-old Jane Fonda, hasn’t had a starring role in a non­ensemble feature film since the late 1980s, and this one could land her her first Oscar nomination since 1975’s Nashville.

Blythe Danner — some five decades into a distinguished career — turned in a critically heralded performance in May’s I’ll See You in My Dreams, her first leading film role ever, at age 72. (Tomlin and Danner are both wooed in their respective films by septuagenarian Sam Elliott, proving there’s still plenty of bristle left in that mustache.) And just last month, Ian McKellen, 76, had to age up — to 93, to be exact — to shine at the center of Mr. Holmes as a senescent Sherlock.

Both of those films grossed almost as much as Johnny Depp’s last movie, Mortdecai, and surely cost less. So while Hollywood continues to wage a battle to drag younger audiences away from their smartphones and game consoles, ­studios have discovered that it can be smart to bet on gray. “It’s an audience with a lifelong moviegoing habit,” says Nancy Utley, president of Fox Searchlight, the ­studio behind the Best Exotic Marigold gold mine and the upcoming Youth (out Dec. 4), starring Michael Caine, 82, Fonda, and Harvey Keitel, 76. “They’re less likely to wait for movies to appear on Netflix or iTunes, and they’re more likely to come to a theater.”

As baby boomers continue to age into retirement, they’ll be looking for films that reflect their experiences. (They aren’t called the Me Generation for nothing.) “This audience likes to see [actors] their own age working successfully on screen and still being able to do what they love,” says Utley. This is also the generation that lived through the ’60s, and many of its actors cut their teeth in the ’70s during an age of groundbreaking American cinema, so don’t expect these twilight projects to look like Driving Miss Daisy. “These actors, they’re very idiosyncratic,” says Sony Pictures ­Classics co-president and cofounder Michael Barker. “Their personas are unique to themselves, and we’ve seen them unfold over the years. If, later in life, these roles come out that embrace the totalities of these talents, I think audiences will want to see them.”

And pay for them. That’s a lot of money, even after the senior discount. So for the first time in the history of American film, perhaps we’ll be able to see a whole generation of stars age gracefully—all the way to the end credits.

2015 movie
  • Movie
  • R
  • 80 minutes
  • Paul Weitz