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Old Stars, New Tricks: What the Mid-Life Crisis Movies of Burt Lancaster, Rock Hudson, and Charlton Heston Taught Us About Getting Old.

Getting old ain’t easy, especially in Hollywood.

And let’s face it, some actors simply refuse to do it.

Older actors playing younger roles is nothing new (see: entire cast of Grease), it’s practically been industry standard since the birth of the moving picture.

But the late sixties brought something new, films dealing with men in mid-life crisis. The term itself, first coined by Canadian psychoanalyst Elliott Jaques in 1965, is described as “a transition of identity and self-confidence that can occur in middle aged individuals, typically 40 to 60 years old, causing feelings of intense depression, remorse, and high levels of anxiety, or the desire to achieve youthfulness or make drastic changes to their current lifestyle or feel the wish to change past decisions and events.”

Sounds about right.

Burt Lancaster, Rock Hudson, and Charlton Heston were solid industry leading men whose previous characters never really knew things like the doubt or fear associated with mid-life crisis. Their characters escaped prisons, struck oil, and were always very smooth with the ladies.

But just as Hollywood began to change, so did its leading men. Younger actors like Robert Redford, Warren Beatty, and Steve McQueen began to emerge literally changing the face of the film before our very eyes. While only a decade earlier Lancaster, Hudson, and Heston would have been number one on the call sheet, by the late sixties the silver screen was quickly becoming far less silver.

Instead of this being an end for the three legendary leading men, something amazing happened.

Each actor turned in the best work of their entire career playing characters that all called for them to be what they’d actually become: old. Between 1966 and 1968 Hudson, Heston, and Lancaster made films that not only discussed the nature of getting old but truly examined the existential question of lost youth.

By 1966 Rock Hudson’s matinee idol status had begun to wane. Ten years earlier, he received a much-deserved Oscar nomination as Bick, the handsome husband to Elizabeth Taylor and rival to James Dean in the George Stephen’s classic Giant.

Two years later Hudson’s star continued to rise when he was named Look magazine’s Star of the Year. Hudson’s devastatingly Clark Kent type good looks easily led him into romantic comedy. Hudson was often cast opposite Doris Day in light bedroom comedies like Pillow Talk, Lover Come Back, and Send Me No Flowers, among other similar harmless fare. But by 1966 Hudson, now over forty, longed for something more substantial. This would come with the now cult classic film, Seconds.

Seconds, directed by John Frankenheimer, is about a middle-aged banker who agrees to a secret procedure to fake his own death. The procedure comes with a brand-new identity complete with plastic surgery to change his face.

Hudson’s character Tony later suffers guilt at running out on his past life but soon realizes going back isn’t so easy. Hudson lobbied hard to play Tony but Frankenheimer felt he was too lightweight for the role, favoring Kirk Douglas or Lawrence Olivier instead. But Hudson and his agent persisted and he eventually won the part. Hudson considered this his favorite role and he’s amazing in it. Watching Hudson go from hapless banker to an artist, stomping grapes with his bare feet, is a marvelous spiritual transformation. The grape stomping scene, which some critics found pornographic, also represents a spiritual awakening in Tony.

The obvious parallels to Hudson’s own private life with Tony are hard to ignore. Rock Hudson’s homosexuality was still a well-crafted carefully guarded studio secret back in 1966. Not being able to be who he really was in public may have been hard on Hudson’s soul but great for his performance as Tony. Watching Tony’s sheer longing for more is both heartbreaking and inspiring. Seconds was far more than a high-concept low-level science fiction film that many people had visceral reactions to at the time of its release. It was clearly far ahead of its time and has since grown into required viewing at most film schools. Seconds is available on Criterion collection with many cool extras.

One year later in 1967 came a western many people often overlook, Will Penny.

Charlton Heston was 44 years old when he played the title role. Will Penny is about an aging cowboy who takes a job on a cattle line. Part of Penny’s job is to run off anyone squatting on the land, but once he discovers a mother and her young son living in his assigned cabin, he ends up falling for the family he never knew he needed.

Later when a preacher and his wretched kids discover them, Penny must defend them to the end. You wouldn’t normally think a typical western good vs. evil story is about mid-life crisis, but the values of Will’s life come alive for him later in life like a switch suddenly turned on. Penny’s value system becomes triggered and show him who he really is.

Like Hudson before, critics and Heston alike considered Will Penny his best work. Despite being a hardened cowboy Heston’s Penny is introspective, hesitant, and kind. He loves Catherine, played by the excellent Joan Hackett, but doesn’t think he truly deserves her or this new life that they clearly both deserve. Heston’s Penny is every bit as heartbreaking as Hudson’s character Tony as they both struggle with notions of manhood and old age.

Despite great critical acclaim as Penny, Heston would not generally seek out more vulnerable roles moving forward. He followed up Will Penny by playing astronauts, quarterbacks, airline pilots, post-apocalyptic vampire hunters, each of whom saved the day. Charlton Heston continued to age throughout the seventies but with the exception of Will Penny his characters never seemed to for many more years to come.

The following year in 1968 came without a doubt the best and subsequently darkest film ever made about mid-life crisis, The Swimmer.

The Swimmer is about Ned Merrill, played with exceptional intensity by Burt Lancaster, who decides to swim across the entire valley one swimming pool at a time. I described this film to someone once who said, “So it’s about a guy swimming back to his house one pool at a time? Sounds boring.”

Spoiler alert, it isn’t. As a matter of fact, The Swimmer is tense, devastating, existential, painful, and sometimes delightfully cringeworthy. Rarely have I squirmed watching a man unravel the way Ned does, one pool at a time.

Burt Lancaster at 52 was the oldest of the three actors at the time he played Ned Merrill. He was also, and this is no knock to Hudson or Heston, far and away in the best physical shape. Then again, he had to be. Lancaster’s costume consisted of a very small tight-fitting pair of swim trunks.

Walking around nearly naked the entire movie is a feat rarely seen by a male actor. Frank Perry the director, objectifies Lancaster’s body to a near uncomfortable level throughout the film. Ned’s self-made journey through a river of backyard pools at first appears to be one of self-discovery before we slowly discover something is actually very, very wrong. It really must be seen.

Once again like Hudson and Heston, Lancaster regarded this as the finest work of his career, and once again, was right. His work is even more impressive once you discover Lancaster was actually somewhat afraid of water prior to shooting this. Although he was a natural athlete, swimming wasn’t Lancaster’s strong suit so he hired Olympian Bob Horn to train him.

The reception of The Swimmer was lackluster at the time but like the other films has morphed into a true cult hit. The ultimate sad nature of Ned’s journey likely influenced the Mad Men series on AMC.  John Hamm’s Don Draper character even takes up swimming in later seasons of the show. There is a fantastic Grindhouse Video DVD/Blu-ray edition of The Swimmer and it’s often a favorite on TCM. Like both Seconds, and Will Penny, The Swimmer should be in every movie buff’s collection.

There are other reasons to seek these films out besides their cultural significance as mid-life crisis films. Seconds is the only film of the three in glorious black and white. While this is format is for the most part long behind us, the deep shadows and contrast of the images intensify the danger of what we are seeing. Frankenheimer’s use of fishbowl lenses and closeup expressions would almost be too much to take in color. It’s every bit as brilliant as Frankenheimer’s previous film Manchurian Candidate in style.

In addition to Heston’s wonderful performance in Will Penny it’s also chock full of some of the greatest character actors going. Besides the aforementioned Joan Hackett, Donald Pleasance, Bruce Dern, G.D. Spradlin, Clifton James, Anthony Zerbe, Luke Askew, Slim Pickens, Ben Johnson, and an early film role for Lee Majors grace the screen in Will Penny.

The Swimmer for its own part boasts the first dramatic role for a young Joan Rivers. She is one of the many women Ned encounters on his way to his final reckoning, this one coming at the expense of a pool party he wasn’t invited to. If you’re a Rivers fan this is a must see mostly because she is simply not the Joan we all know. Her character has none of the confidence and quick wit Rivers was later became known for and is nearly unrecognizable although still very beautiful.

In the years that followed other older stars followed suit doing their own version of mid-life crisis films with varying degrees of success including Gregory Peck in the highly underrated I Walk the Line (1971), William Holden in Breezy (1973 directed by Clint Eastwood), and what has become the most controversial mid-life crisis film in all of cinema, Marlon Brando’s Last Tango in Paris (1972). Each of these films did far more than teach us how to simply grow old. They held a mirror up to nature in an extremely real-life and often sad portrayal of male fragility.


Fred Shahadi is an award-winning filmmaker, television writer, and playwright living in Los Angeles.
He is the author of the sci-fi JFK conspiracy novel
Shoot the Moon.

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