- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 13, 2005

Yes, aging male stars have it easier in Hollywood than their female counterparts. But not that much easier. True, their receding hairlines can be endearing, their deepening wrinkles signs of rugged maturity and authority. But if the choice leading roles for women dry up after 40, they probably dry up for leading men after 50.

It’s a youth market out there, a fact that a trio of Hollywood icons has been butting up against now that they find themselves eligible for AARP membership. Yet, Robert De Niro, Al Pacino and Dustin Hoffman — all past Oscar winners, all past 60 — seem to be carving out sustainable new late-career niches for themselves and even managing to land the occasional role in a megahit.

Mr. De Niro and Mr. Hoffman, for example, currently star in the red-hot “Meet the Fockers.” Mr. Pacino’s forthcoming “The Merchant of Venice” reminds us he’s still got “Inside the Actors Studio” cred.

Their secret? Accept the swill that today passes for too much mainstream filmmaking and, better still, cozy up to being treated like caricatures of their old selves.

The industry sporadically finds great roles for older actors and actresses. Last year showcased Annette Bening, fine wrinkles and all, in “Being Julia.” “Sideways” auteur Alexander Payne wrote a brilliantly complex role for the sixtysomething Jack Nicholson in 2002’s “About Schmidt.”

These films, however, are exceptions. The rule? If you’re old, play to how we remember you best.

“Fockers” trades on Mr. De Niro’s bottled-up version of his crazed former roles, while Mr. Hoffman gets some mileage out of his role as a sensitive, nurturing husband and father for a post-feminist era.

The De Niro-Pacino-Hoffman trio dominated American film 30 years ago by teaching us leading men didn’t have to be leading-man handsome. Even Mr. Pacino, two-thirds of tall, dark and handsome, was always considered an actor first, a heartthrob a distant second.

Their films crystallized the iconoclastic mood of a pre-“Star Wars” industry, when screen idols weren’t necessarily heroic or seductive.

Mr. Hoffman walked a morally ambiguous line between protector and vigilante in “Straw Dogs” (1971). Even his ultimate violent retribution was of a decidedly brainy, grad student-y kind.

“Taxi Driver” cast Mr. De Niro as an obsessed loner to be feared. And Mr. Pacino’s “Dog Day Afternoon” (1975) made us care about a bank robber trying to raise cash for his lover’s sex change.

Hardly material suitable for their more traditionally glamorous contemporaries such as Robert Redford or Warren Beatty, according to David Thomson, author of “The Whole Equation: A History of Hollywood.”

The trio “just seemed more ordinary, not quite as pretty,” Mr. Thomson says. “There was a tremendous feeling of grittiness and realism in their work…They were clearly the best of a new generation.”

Mr. De Niro, 61, is the busiest of the three today. From 1990 to 2000 he appeared in 24 features, a Ben Stiller-like pace that shows no sign of abating. His psychological thriller “Hide and Seek” opening later this month is one of three films slated for 2005. Blink, and you’ll miss his mug in the commercial.

Mr. Thomson says Mr. De Niro’s evolution is the “most distressing” of the three. “He’ll do anything,” the film critic and historian says. “It’s not that he’s ever bad or dull, because he’s so skilled, but he does so many drab, routine pictures.”

Maybe. Still, the squinting actor, who once altered his physique for roles in “Raging Bull” and “Cape Fear,” performed a reinvention Madonna would be proud of in the late 1990s. He stopped whacking wiseguys and started swatting our funny bones.

The 1999 comedy “Analyze This” let Mr. De Niro begin to redefine his tough guy persona, much as the hilariously neurotic wiseguy he plays must redefine his own. The following year’s “Meet the Parents” cemented his shift, at least partly on his own terms, thanks to his deft performance. His subsequent dramas, from 2002’s “City by the Sea” to last year’s misbegotten “Godsend,” paled by comparison.

Mr. Hoffman, 67, entered his 60s with all his hair but only a fraction of his star power.

The diminutive actor, whose apathetic and alienated Benjamin Braddock (1967’s “The Graduate”) became a generational touchstone, consistently scored critically and commercially throughout the late ‘60s and ‘70s. Sometimes he was an anti-hero — “Midnight Cowboy” (1969), “Little Big Man” (1970) and “Lenny” (1974). Other times, he was simply an unlikely hero — “Marathon Man” (1976), “All the President’s Men” (1976).

In one of the biggest hits of his prime, “Tootsie” (1982), this most unconventional leading man was a leading woman. In his first Oscar-winning performance, in “Kramer vs. Kramer” (1979), he was a leading mom.

By the mid-‘90s, the actor found himself dangerously adrift. He clung desperately to leading roles in vehicles clearly beneath him, like “Outbreak” (1995) and “Sphere” (1998). By 1999, the two-time Oscar winner began accepting smaller roles, such as his turn in 1999’s “The Messenger: The Joan of Arc Story.”

Any supporting player will tell you he or she can survive — even steal — a failed film. Mr. Hoffman may finally be comfortable in that position, to judge from recent turns in “Finding Neverland” and “I Heart Huckabees.”

Mr. Hoffman in his salad days didn’t suffer fools gladly. He even kidded that image as the testy bit actor in “Tootsie.” Being relegated to second-banana status, or a colorful supporting turn as in “Fockers,” must be a challenge, Mr. Thomson figures.

“He’s never been accused of having a small ego,” he says.

Perhaps it’s not as sad as it sounds. After all, these are the only sorts of roles he would ever have been offered in an earlier era, before this high-strung little actor with a large nose helped shatter conventional notions of what a leading man must look like.

The 64-year-old Pacino’s later years have confirmed a knack for choosing well — minus the occasional hiccup like 2003’s “Gigli.” Mr. Pacino’s choices of late include 2002’s “Insomnia,” “The Insider” (1999) and the underrated “Donnie Brasco” (1997).

Still, his roles since winning the Oscar for 1992’s “Scent of a Woman” have too often been of the scenery chewing sort. It’s not hard to imagine today’s young producers, weaned on Mr. Pacino’s overwrought “Scarface,” lazily hiring him to reproduce the feat once more for them. It’s nostalgia taking the place of creativity.

No, the three are no longer delivering the powerful lead performances of their primes. But then they’re not receiving the scripts they were in their primes.

“We don’t really make too many pictures about middle-aged people,” Mr. Thompson says. “It leaves Clint Eastwood looking even more impressive.”

Yet despite the poverty of worthy, age-appropriate material, Mr. De Niro, Mr. Pacino and Mr. Hoffman still work, still prosper and occasionally even show flashes of their former incandescence.

Maybe they’re no longer stars.

But then they always were — and still are — actors.

And actors needn’t fear the day when they are no longer stars.

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