Acting Well Beyond Your Age

Tonight on TCM, Neil Simon’s The Sunshine Boys airs, a comedy about two old Vaudeville performers getting back together for a televised benefit.  One of those performers is played by George Burns who, it turns out, was the right age for the part.  For his performance, he won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor, becoming the oldest winner in the category at the time, and as of this post, still.  The other performer is played by Walter Matthau who wasn’t even close to the right age.  Hell, he wasn’t even out of his fifties yet but he was playing a character well into his seventies, perhaps even eighties.  Matthau had played older before (in Jack Lemmon’s Kotch) but this time he was playing directly up against someone who was the actual age he was only pretending to be.  Did he succeed?  Yes, I’d say so but it’s such a broad comedic performance, it doesn’t require a nuanced portrayal of old age as much as a stereotypical, grouchy portrayal, something Matthau would actually play in his actual old age.  When actors play older than they are, much older, it can go either way but sometimes, they do such a good job you’d swear they fast-forwarded to their old age for the performance.  Here are my top three “acting older than their age” performances.


I do think one can be too young to play very old.  When I was in high school, I played Grandpa in our production of You Can’t Take it With You and I’m sure I thought I did a fine job playing a 70 year old man but I am now equally sure if I could look at that performance today, I’d be shaking my head and rolling my eyes at the ridiculous clichés of old age I most likely leaned on.  At the age of 17, how could I possibly understand what it’s like to be older?  But at 25 or 26?  Hmm…

Orson Welles was that age when making Citizen Kane and portrays Charles Foster Kane in old age admirably well.  It’s true, the more I watch it now, the more I see a young man acting old than I see an actual old man, but still, I think he does an excellent job.  The makeup certainly helps, although it’s nowhere near to what Welles actually looked like as he aged but that’s a guessing game and the way it does look is great.  His walking is a little too stiff (perhaps my nearly 90 year old father-in-law, who stills hikes and bikes, is biasing my outlook on this, but Welles’ older Kane seems to move a little too slowly for his age) and he pauses a lot when he talks as an older man, another fall back many use, but all in all, it’s a great older character performance.

Beulah Bondi basically made a career out of acting older than she was so I could list any number of performances here but the one that takes top prize, and also ranks as one of the great “much older than you are” performances, is her role in Make Way for Tomorrow where, at the ripe old age of 48, she played a septuagenarian so convincingly that, watching it again only a few weeks ago on TCM, I couldn’t make myself accept that she hadn’t even hit 50 yet.  The makeup is superb but her voice, her movements, her gaze – all of it – seems like a dozen grandmothers I’ve met a dozen times.  Not just a great old age performance, a great performance period.


My favorite “older than you are” performance, though, also takes a near top position in my own personal list of the greatest performances in the history of cinema: Roger Livesy as the title character in The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (well, kind of, his character is actually named Clive Candy).  His enthusiasm of youth gradually turns to bluster in old age in a process of aging that, throughout the course of the movie, seems as natural as actually watching a time-lapse of someone getting older.  There’s no point where he seems to be a young actor pretending to be old.  He doesn’t walk a little bit too slowly, he doesn’t slow down his speech patterns too much, he doesn’t resort to a breathless, gravelly voice.  He, somehow, just becomes older.  What a great actor.  What a great performance.  (It should be noted that his co-star, Anton Walbrook, does such an exceptional job that it also makes any short list of great older than you are performances – by the way, if you haven’t seen this movie yet, correct that as soon as possible).

There are many more “older than you are” performances, some good, some bad.  I’d be interested in what other reader favorites might be.  I restricted this list to the golden age of cinema but I’d be a liar if I didn’t reveal that F. Murray Abraham’s older Salieri in Amadeus is one of my favorite performances in the movies.   And I like Dustin Hoffman’s stab at playing extremely old in Little Big Man, too.  Except for Beulah Bondi, most of these were necessary because the character ages in the movie and it’s easier to have a young actor play old than the other way around.  In Make Way for Tomorrow, they could have simply hired an older actress but I’m glad they didn’t.  I can’t imagine asking Beulah, or any of these actors, to act their age, especially when going beyond it yields such timeless (and ageless) results.

6 Responses Acting Well Beyond Your Age
Posted By LD : January 23, 2015 2:48 pm

One of my favorite actors that played older in a couple of roles in the same year, 1958, is Burl Ives. He won a best supporting Oscar in 1959 for his role in THE BIG COUNTRY and then of course as Big Daddy in CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF. He was 49 and in CAT he was just one year older than Jack Carson who played his son and just 16 years older than Newman.

Posted By Bill : January 23, 2015 3:25 pm

Welles the director overshadows Welles the actor in Kane, robbing himself of credit. It’s an indelible performance. Easy enough to imagine it’s more than one actor. ‘Course the real Orson didn’t age as much as become more expansive in every way, the reverse of the steadily diminished Charlie Kane.

Posted By george : January 23, 2015 9:25 pm

Robert De Niro’s old-age makeup in ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA is one I remember … although the real De Niro didn’t get heavy or bald as he aged.

Posted By doug n : January 23, 2015 9:29 pm

I think Walter Matthau’s hang-dog face made him more acceptable in older roles like the title character “Kotch” and his turn in “The Sunshine Boys” than if he had had Paul Newman/Tony Curtis -type leading man looks.

And kudos for bringing up Roger Livesy’s incredible transformations in “Colonel Blimp”.

Posted By Bill : January 23, 2015 9:37 pm

De Niro in AMERICA was one of my prime examples of bad make-up/bad performance. Just sort of slumped, with his mole dyed grey. Tho he looked masterful next to James Woods’ sharing of scenes.

Posted By george : January 23, 2015 11:30 pm

Sorry, Bill, but I think De Niro’s performance and makeup were superb. Again I’m reminded that AMERICA remains one of the most polarizing movies ever made.

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