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How Unprecedented is 80-Year-Old Harrison Ford's Blockbuster Starring Role? A Statistical Analysis.
What happens to an actor's career as they age? And how Harrison Ford is fighting back.
Intro: Disney Bets Big On Harrison Ford.
Disney has a lot riding on eighty-year-old Harrison Ford. Ford currently headlines Disney's Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny, a ~$295M production that will hopefully end Disney's recent string of box office disappointments (The Little Mermaid, Elemental, Strange World).
As Disney's marketing blitz has escalated over the past few weeks, I couldn't help but wonder whether Ford's seniority would help or hurt the movie's financial performance. On the one hand, Hollywood's fixation with age is petty, an unfortunate side effect of an industry overly obsessed with aesthetics (Harrison Ford is a beloved public figure and is more than just a number!). On the other hand, you don't see many eighty-year-olds leading mainstream movies—especially big-budget blockbusters for revenue-starved conglomerates.
So how big of an outlier is Harrison Ford's octogenarian starring status? How has Hollywood traditionally treated aging actors, and how has that treatment changed over time?
How Much of An Outlier is Harrison Ford's Starring Turn?
Harrison Ford's Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny is the fourth most expensive production starring an actor over 70. And while there are some notable examples of older performers leading big-budget films, we see capital investment drops off quickly.
According to this list, big-budget vehicles starring senior Hollywood talent fall into one of three buckets:
Beloved Intellectual Property: This group showcases numerous Hollywood franchises. There is Patrick Stewart's Professor X from the X-Men series, Ian McEllan's Gandalf from Lord of the Rings, and Ford's Indiana Jones. These actors (and/or their characters) are the figurehead of a lucrative Hollywood series. Whatever aversion studios may feel toward casting these actors is superseded by the commercial potential of their characters.
Animated Films: Animated films leverage an actor's vocal talents and not much else. Voice actors have limited involvement in the film's production, and their performances are often irrelevant to the movie's marketing, like Craig T. Nelson in The Incredibles or Ed Asner in Up.
Movies Starring Clint Eastwood, Directed by Clint Eastwood: Clint Eastwood continues to make movies and continues to cast himself in these movies. Good for him.
When we look at actors with repeat starring roles over the age of seventy, we find a small cohort of legendary Hollywood talent.
You have to admire seventy-nine-year-old Robert De Niro's tenacity. The man is starring in more than one movie a year. That said, beyond De Niro, there are few examples of Hollywood veterans earning frequent starring roles.
This data begs numerous questions, like when does an actor's career trajectory change, and to what extent does age impact how an actor's film is received?
When Does Age Impact An Actor's Career?
Harrison Ford has maintained a steady workload as a supporting cast member over the past decade. Ford has reprised his role as Han Solo and Rick Deckard in the Star Wars series and Blade Runner 2049, respectively, taken supporting work in Age of Adaline and Ender's Game, and even showed up for a cameo in Anchorman 2 (a decidedly un-Harrison-Ford-like role).
Aging actors often transition from leading players to supporting castmates as they age, as Hollywood has charted a clear path from 30-year-old superhero savior to seventy-year-old nurturing grandparent. We see an actor’s cast ordering slowly increase as they exit their 40s, and we observe a noticeable spike once a performer hits their 70s.
For example, Harrison Ford starred in a string of big-budget action films like The Fugitive, Clear and Present Danger, and Air Force One in the 1990s—while the actor was in his fifties—but slowly transitioned to supporting work in the early 2000s.
Furthermore, movies starring older Hollywood talent perform worse at the box office, likely due to audience preference or lack of investment in that actor's work—two mutually reinforcing factors.
Consider Marvel's Cinematic Universe of superheroes, a crop of performers with unparalleled visibility in the most capital-intensive movies. How many leading Marvel actors are over the age of sixty? Not many. The MCU's most senior lead actors include seventy-four-year-old Samuel L. Jackson, fifty-eight-year-old Don Cheadle, and fifty-eight-year-old Robert Downey Jr. That said, Cheadle and Jackson are typically cast in supporting roles, while Downey opted out of Marvel movies altogether (coincidentally before the age of sixty).
Wouldn't it be fun to see an older Marvel protagonist? Just imagine septuagenarian Thor's search for his AARP card or Ant-Man's battle with the injustices of Medicare, or maybe they should bring back the X-Men series with a seasoned Professor X. Sure, these particular movie pitches are in jest. Still, there is room for Marvel (and Hollywood) to expand its formula with a dash of casting novelty.
And while Hollywood casting is overwhelmingly biased against aging actors, the past two decades have demonstrated slow-moving progress toward an age-blind industry.
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Is Hollywood Getting Older?
In the 1970s, films like The Godfather, Star Wars, and Jaws provided a model for high-cost, higher-revenue, and highly-marketed movie bets—an easily replicated formula that produced some of cinema's most iconic films (which were then turned into franchises). Hollywood's blockbuster golden age spawned a generation of well-known actors, and audiences formed a strong attachment to these performances.
Whether it's Harrison Ford's Han Solo, Robert Downey's Iron Man, Meryl Streep being delightfully Meryl Streep-y, or Tom Cruise doing Tom Cruise stuff, people repeatedly pay to continue their relationship with an actor or character. But what happens when these actors grow older? Would studios abandon a high-performing Hollywood veteran exclusively due to age? Increasingly, the answer is no.
The last twenty years have witnessed a slow rise in the average age of leading actors.
Looking at a breakout of leading actors by age cohort, we find an increase in starring performances from actors in their 50s and 60s over the last two decades.
While role selection has grown for actors between 50 and 69, there has been a nominal increase in role selection for those over 70. Perhaps there is an implicit cut-off for starring roles, as filmmakers demonstrate a myopic focus on early adulthood and middle age.
And yet the last three decades have seen a notable uptick in box-office gross for films starring actors over 70.
This increase is likely driven by sequels featuring older actors in iconic roles (i.e. Lord of the Rings, X-Men, etc.). Cinephiles typically complain of franchise films and sequel fatigue, but there do appear to be some minor positive effects regarding age representation (keyword: minor).
Final Thoughts: Tom Cruise, Harrison Ford, and Their Brands.
This past week Tom Cruise proclaimed his desire to continue making "Mission Impossible" movies well into his 80s, just like Harrison Ford. Media coverage reduced the story to clickbait. Yet Cruise's statement challenges Hollywood's complicated relationship with age.
A fundamental tension exists between an actor's brand and age. Personally, I love Tom Cruise movies, and I would enjoy seeing him jump out of planes, fly planes, or explode planes, for as long as feasibly possible. What can I say? I like Tom Cruise's brand.
At the same time, what would a high-complexity plane stunt look like involving an 80-year-old Tom Cruise? I'd watch it. But would others watch it? And would studios want to invest hundreds of millions of dollars?
Producers have increasingly invested in familiar commercial properties over the last two decades. The formula is simple: [known brand] + [big budget] + [a lot of marketing] + [a dash of overseas box office] = [success]. This need to provide audiences with the familiar extends beyond story development to casting decisions. Actors like Sandra Bullock, Leonardo Dicaprio, and Robert Downey Jr. have a career of box office success—the kind of success that can bring people to the theater (much like a video game adaptation or highly-anticipated sequel).
Harrison Ford's eighty-year-old starring turn may be an outlier—today. But Ford is the vanguard for a generation of aging actors with a resume of unprecedented commercial wins and iconic characters. Maybe the need for built-in marketing will outpace Hollywood's obsession with aesthetics. Maybe Tom Cruise will make Mission Impossible 13, arthritis be damned.
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