Robert De Niro doesn’t look the way we’re used to seeing him in the new film Everybody’s Fine, in which he plays a widower trying to reunite his family shortly after the death of his wife.
Sure, the acting legend has played older characters before. He helped reinvent his screen persona by playing the stern father in the Meet the Parents films, and in last year‘s Righteous Kill took some ribbing for the numbers on his birth certificate.
But in Everybody’s Fine, De Niro seems older, more frail, as if he were just another grandparent trying to make sense of the world around him.
Bill Newcott, movie editor with AARP The Magazine, says De Niro’s performance in the film features something other, younger actors, can’t hope to convey.
Older people understand “the more you know, the more you don’t know,” Newcott says, and De Niro‘s performance showcases a vulnerability that will connect with movie goers of all ages.
“As great an actor as De Niro is, he couldn’t bring [that vulnerability] to the role until he had that life experience,” he says.
Yet the actor initially balked at playing Frank, the lead in Everybody’s Fine. Director Kirk Jones says De Niro, now 66, initially wanted to postpone playing the character for another seven years because he wasn’t sure he was old enough to play the part.
De Niro‘s contemporaries, like his Righteous Kill co-star Al Pacino, often resist roles that align with their age, but it‘s for mostly commercial reasons, he says.
“There’s still a systemic ageism in Hollywood that’s very difficult to get past,” says Jones. “Fourteen year olds rule the world in the first weekend of box office, and Pacino knows that.”
So while Pacino might look a little silly running around like a 30 year old, sporting jet black hair, in last year’s 88 Minutes, those roles provide the best exposure—and bucks—for the actor.
“The really good roles are written for younger characters,” he says, with older thespians reduced to playing wizened characters who serve as a Greek chorus of sorts for the main stars.
Matt McDaniel, Head of Production at Yahoo! Movies, agrees, saying actors realize their age can limit the range of roles they can tackle.
That means job insecurity, plain and simple.
“Some actors may think they're too young to play the grandparent part, but most just don't want to play the same thing over and over,” McDaniel says.
Clint Eastwood‘s sleeper hit Gran Torino walked the fine line between showing an acting legend’s age and proving you’re never too old to fight back.
The film worked “because Eastwood showed off that he was older but just as tough as ever,” he says. “Audiences seem to really embrace it when stars can embrace getting older without it slowing them down.”
Actors who embrace their age on screen sometimes get rewards beyond box office glory. Clint Eastwood earned a Best Actor nomination for his work in
Million Dollar Baby, and Jack Nicholson was similarly honored for playing a widower in
About Schmidt, McDaniel notes.