Part of the magic of Hollywood movies is that the larger-than-life heroes and heroines up there on the screen don’t age and wither and deteriorate like the rest of us do. In fact, it may be that one of the reasons we go to the movies, at least in youth-obsessed America, is to bathe in a cinematic fountain of perpetual youth. If they’re not getting older and flabbier, maybe we won’t either.
The bargain we seem to strike with the movies is that if they keep our screen gods and goddesses free of age and blemish, we’ll continue to adore them and shell out money to go see them. As the movie audience grows younger each year, the last thing they want to see is a bunch of old farts with bald heads and beer bellies up there huffing and puffing around on the screen. So it seems only logical—indeed, financially imperative—that the people who impersonate these heroes for us shouldn’t age and bloat and wrinkle. By and large, the last thing we want is for our aging movie heroes to act their age.
One of the wonders of modern entertainment is that we always have our store of old movie memories to fall back on. So when Sean Connery moves into his fifth decade of stardom, seducing all the women, killing all the men, and blowing up all the buildings without wrinkling his tuxedo, we’re happy and find our own feeble powers correspondingly enhanced. When we see Gene Kelly dancing with his grin undissolved by the rain, some part of us—however decrepit we may be—keeps thinking, “I can do that, too.” When we gaze enraptured at Ingrid Bergman, with her eyes glistening at Bogey, as luminous and dewy as she was the last few hundred times we’ve seen that scene, we know, in our infatuation with her flawless loveliness, that we’ll remain young forever.
But the gender rules for aging in the movies are far from fair. While the powerful men that rule Hollywood and make the casting decisions may overlook their own age and state of deterioration when casting male leads in romantic roles, they don’t grant such passes and bestow such kindnesses upon aging actresses. As actresses approach 40 (even marvels of youth and beauty like Julia Roberts and Gwyneth Paltrow), they tend to fade from the screen, while old men on screen still get to flash their worn charm. Audiences often go along, tolerating certain aging stars out of a primitive loyalty to the macho invulnerability we admired in our youth.
Until recently, Robert Redford and Clint Eastwood were still doing romantic leads, even though they were far older than Julie Christie, who retains her romantic beauty far better than any of those guys. But in Away from Her, Christie was reduced to playing an old lady deteriorating from Alzheimer’s and living in a nursing home—the kind of role inconceivable for any of the elderly-stud stars.
There are some old guys of the silver screen who still have the chops, but they’ve learned how to relax into age, rather than fight it tooth and nail. This year, Harrison Ford, at 65 (the age of Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger) is breaking box-office records as the fourth reincarnation of Indiana Jones. He’s our longest-surviving adventure hero, the man who’s sold the most movie tickets in history, as the star of George Lucas’s Star Wars trilogy, and Stephen Spielberg’s Indiana Jones trilogy, and the likes of Blade Runner, Witness, and Fugitive. Ford was first seen as an overaged adolescent in American Graffiti and the Star Wars films. But since Indiana Jones in 1981, he’s grown up and become emblazoned forever on the heart of every boy and every man who’s sought to do his duty and cop a few thrills.
Ford isn’t a big, majestic man like Charlton Heston and John Wayne, nor an especially handsome one like Gable, Errol Flynn, or Denzel Washington. He isn’t trapped inside his sagging muscles like Schwarzenegger. With his beat-up face and squinty eyes, he’s distinguished chiefly by his engaging grin and an inescapable vulnerability. Before he came to the movies, he was a carpenter, and that may be the secret of his appeal: he humbly puts things together and makes them work.
In 1981’s Raiders of the Lost Ark, set in the 1930s, Indiana Jones was a respected professor of archaeology, who’d just returned from outrunning a house-sized boulder in a booby-trapped cave in South America, wearing his fedora and carrying his whip. He found that the Nazis were unearthing the Ark of the Covenant and decided he must stop it. Indy repeatedly risked his life: facing a Saracen with a twirling scimitar, dropping into a pit of snakes, or hanging on to the underside of a truck racing through the desert. But the central emotional tension of Raiders was between Indy and Karen Allen, playing a tough, audacious woman who delighted in drinking large men under the table. She competed with Indy through each adventure, always holding her own and loving the erotic tension that just left Indy worried as she tried to seduce him. A weather-beaten, sexy adventurer, Allen had eyes the size of Bette Davis’s or Susan Sarandon’s and a smile as wide as Cinemascope. In Raiders, she triumphed as Ford’s partner, rival, and equal. But Allen wasn’t to be seen in the next two sequels, and both suffered from her absence.
In 1984, in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, Ford, along with a wisecracking Vietnamese boy and a shrieking night-club floozie played by Kate Capshaw (the future Mrs. Spielberg), sailed from a crashing plane in an inflated life raft into the Himalayas, where they slid down a ski slope and plunged over a gigantic waterfall. They came upon a village that beseeched Indy to find their lost children and the luminescent stones that gave the village its fertility. While in India, Indy and his cohorts were feted to a feast of snakes, eels, and eyeballs before they fell into a mine shaft, where they raced runaway trains. In the film’s climax, they wrecked the temple where the fertility rocks were being displayed, but neither the sets nor the plot had sufficient reality to coax us into suspending disbelief.
In 1989, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade found Indy coming to the rescue of his father—Dr. Jones Sr., played by Sean Connery in an inspired bit of age-inappropriate casting. (At 59, he was only 12 years older than Ford.) The repartee between the Jones boys kept The Last Crusade alive, as Dad repeatedly insulted Junior and sat around waiting to be rescued by his undaunted son.
The end of Last Crusade was shot in the spectacular city of Petra in the Jordanian desert. But much of it took place inside an artificial “cave of dangers.” These set pieces were so expensive they had to be used up slowly, which made the movie drag. The adventure sequences were spectacular and nail biting, but the interludes when the cast stood around talking awkwardly seemed undirected. As a director, Spielberg has always seen life and movies through the eyes of a 12-year-old boy. Here he gave the kids the thrills they wanted to see, but without the connecting plot for the expendable adult contingent.
The latest film in the Indy franchise, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, has opened to great fanfare. Gray-haired Harrison Ford is in fabulous shape, belying his 65 years—scampering up and down cliffs with abandon, outrunning an atomic-bomb test, and beating up armies of steroidal Russians. He can even stand up to a commie witch, the ubiquitous and mysteriously beautiful Cate Blanchett.
But the excitement of the new film is the presence of Karen Allen in her old role of Marion Ravenwood, at 56 just as spunky, beaming, and beguiling as she was in Raiders of the Lost Ark. In real life, Allen has been knitting, raising a son, and running a gym all this time. Here she completes Indiana Jones, and is quite his equal and partner.
The latest film takes place in 1957, 19 years after Indy and Marion last saw each other. The latest addition to the Indy “family” is Shia LaBeouf, a Disney juvenile who plays Marion’s son, a 20-year-old adventurous greaser, who refuses to attend school, rides a motorcycle daringly, and models himself after Marlon Brando, Edd Byrnes, and James Dean.
The plot of Crystal Skull is as unlikely as any of the others, the fun rides are just as outrageously heart pounding, the snakes just as big, the waterfalls bigger, and the ants even more totally devouring. But the exposition is a bit livelier, thanks to Allen, cocky but articulate LaBouef, and John Hurt as a babbling, psychotic explorer, long a captive of the Peruvian Indians. Ford is the straight man, rarely speaking, and then always softly and humbly. As usual, in Indiana Jones movies, the final battle totally destroys the set and all the archeological artifacts. As everything goes up in smoke with a thunderous boom, the surviving cast sails off laughing.
Ford has a unique position in the pantheon of today’s mostly cartoonish cinematic male heroes. As Indiana, he isn’t omnipotent or fearless in the face of challenges, and is surely the most unaffected of movie superheroes. He does what he does without gimmicks or fancy toys like the ones Q always gave James Bond. Indy has a whip and whatever he picks up off the ground when he’s attacked. He’s a variant of Homo habilis, i.e., “Handy Man as Hero”—the resourceful man who can do what’s required without unnecessary bravado or theatrics. Unlike any of the bigger-than-life models of masculinity, he’s an example of what a guy can be if he needs to. While other superheroes of his tradition grow old and flabby—even as they pretend to endless studliness—Ford is no more than, but never less than, he ever was—which is quite enough. Although New Yorker film critic David Denby dismissed Ford as a “sexless dud,” huge crowds of moviegoers of every age have gathered for this reunion of Ford and Allen.
Increasingly our screen heroes are heavily muscled, invulnerable men in tights who can stick to the sides of buildings or fly through the air without flapping their arms. Our adventure films seem more and more like computerized comic strips—movies chockful of special effects in which people are an endangered species. In fact, one wonders what’s going to become of kids who grow up with computer heroes. Will they all fall in love with blow-up dolls?
Ford and Allen’s age doesn’t keep them from falling in love or into bed, and this doesn’t scare audiences away. What Harrison Ford, with his rough, homely glamour, does is enable these massive, multigenerational audiences to accept the liberating reality that we all—whatever our age—get our thrills from the same things. One of those things is seeing Indiana Jones in love.
Frank Pittman, MD, was a longtime contributing editor to The Family Therapy Networker.