Curtains Must Fall

“We’re all forgotten sooner or later,” Burt Lancaster allegedly once said. “But not films. That’s all the memorial we should need or hope for.”

It hit me as I read this that there’s never a formal announcement that a person of talent and accomplishment has been forgotten or written off. The fact of an actor being “over” tends to slowly leak or drip into collective consciousness. It’s a very gradual, almost imperceptible process, but it tends to kick in because they haven’t made a film of any perceived value in so long that people have mentally crossed them off the list.

People sense this or privately acknowledge it, but no one ever says it. It’s the same thing as when an actor has a terminal illness — it’s considered ungracious to mention in mixed company. And yet there’s always that moment when suddenly everyone knows and accepts the fact that a given actor is all but done, unplugged, out of the game.

Sometimes “over” results from a combination of an actor having chosen poorly to the point that they’ve diminished their brand, or sometimes life itself decides to diminish it without their input or say-so. Sometimes it’s a matter of an actor having enough money to cruise in style for the rest of their lives, so they don’t seem to care as much as they used to. (A meandering life can be intoxicating if you’re loaded.) Sometimes they’ve gone over the age hill and aren’t being offered well-written roles in quality projects any more.

This latter is happening, I fear, to poor Harrison Ford right now. Why else would he make a piece of TV-movie shite like Extraordinary Measures? My heart goes out to him, and I’m hoping that The Dying of the Light, a Paul Schrader-written thriller to be directed by Denmark’s Nicolas Winding Refn (Bronson), will be a rejuvenator.

If you’re Robert Duvall or Eli Wallach or Lancaster or George C. Scott, you’ll keep at it (and in mostly half-decent projects) until you drop. Some actors simply choose to work in anything rather than sit home and wither. What a comedown it was for the great James Stewart when he starred in The Magic of Lassie (’78). And yet acting in a crap film has to be better than doing nothing.

I find it astonishing that millions choose to step away from the grind and the challenge and just chill when they reach a certain age, actors and regular Joes alike. That’s like asking for it. I believe in dying at your desk, or, failing that, keeling over on a street in Paris on your way back from a great dinner with friends. I speak as a son who finds it difficult to control his emotions when he visits his mother in her assisted-living facility.

One immensely comforting thing about writing Hollywood Elsewhere is that I know I’ll never be forced or pressured to write a Hollywood column-equivalent of The Magic of Lassie. I regard HE as the writing-candor equivalent of a combination of The Fog of War, Duck Soup, The Big Sleep, I Heart Huckabees, Kiss Me Deadly, Cinema Paradiso, Wild in the Streets, Point Blank, Sweet Smell of Success, The Harder They Fall, A Serious Man and The American Friend.

It sounds a bit cruel to ask this, but who is more or less over as we speak? That sounds cavalier and insensitive, I realize, and yet people talk this way at industry parties all the time when the mood strikes.

67 thoughts on “Curtains Must Fall

  1. George Prager on said:

    Off the top of my head…Kevin Smith, Edward Burns, Eddie Murphy, Faye Dunaway…

  2. I was going to mention Faye Dunaway, too, given her way high profile in the ’70s. She should be the grand dame of Hollywood right now, but she probably burned way too many bridges along the way, given some of the fabled stories. Still, it’d be nice if she had one last plum role.

  3. This latter is happening, I fear, to poor Harrison Ford right now. Why else would he make a piece of TV-movie shite like Extraordinary Measures?

    Haven’t seen it, but I’ll assume he took it because it was a non-action role.

  4. Back in the day, I thought Goldie Hawn was like that. Apparently there was a market for Goldie Hawn movies, because they sure kept coming, but honestly, the last thing I saw her in was Private Benjamin and she must have made a dozen movies after that, of which I can’t even think of more than 1 or 2. She was like the romcom Chuck Norris, a genre unto herself that nobody you knew ever went to see.

    The problem with this thread, though, is that until a few months ago Quentin Tarantino would have been on the list.

  5. A few off the top of my head:

    Billy Crystal.

    Meg Ryan.

    Rob Reiner.

    Mel Brooks.

    Jennifer Lopez.

    Dustin Hoffman.

    Andie McDowell.

    Burt Reynolds.

    Bridget Fonda.

    Madeleine Stowe.

    The entire cast of The Breakfast Club.

    And very possibly Nicole Kidman and Keanu Reeves.

  6. I’d second Edward Burns. Chris Tucker for sure, though I have asked the higher powers to not have him show up again in some forty ninth version of one of his films.

    And then…whatever happened to James Olson? I don’t necessarily think he fits in with a fade out, more a dropped-off-the-face-of-the-earth scenario.

  7. “The problem with this thread, though, is that until a few months ago Quentin Tarantino would have been on the list.”

    Very true. For example, pre-Avatar, I might have said Sigourney Weaver. Pre-Damages, I probably would have included Glenn Close.

    Allow me to also throw into the mix somebody whose working days appear to be over but may not be: Jack Nicholson.

  8. Few actors have that much control over their career as if they have the ability to pick and choose projects. The question is if they’re walking away or getting sick of the frustration of hearing no from everyone except the next Cannon Films group for projects that will end up on Betataps in Brussels.

    And the nature of today’s TV landscape has really ruined chances for an aging actor to get decent guest starring gigs unless they want to play a child molester on Law and Order SVU or an elderly psycho killer on CSI Miami. Back in the ’70s, they could always call up Aaron Spelling to see if he can give him a week’s work on Love Boat, Hotel or Vega$ (created by Michael Mann).

    Also it depends if the actor has a hobby or grandkids. Siting around the house might not be their scene, but it beats having some punk ass kid producer keep screwing you on your hotel room.

  9. Tarantino wouldn’t have belonged on this list. The Kill Bill movies aren’t that far in the past. They received many rave reviews, including Roger Ebert. And combined they did over 300 worldwide and were very profitable.

    Death Proof was a bomb. But lets try not to have such short attention spans people.

  10. I really wish that GENE HACKMAN didn’t retire back in 2004 … especially with WELCOME TO MOOSEPORT serving as his swan song.

  11. I disagree, drbob, on the Nic Cage scenario. He has a great agent who continues to get him lead gigs in middling flicks that almost always are profitable – but never big hits. His well publicized spending habits may drain his cashflow, but if he ever gets a grip on his finances, Cage can have a LONG career as a go-to eccentric character actor on the order of Christopher Walken, Dennis Hopper or Willem Dafoe who may not play leads, but always reliable Hollywood support (Richard Dreyfus has been trying, but hasn’t etched out a “marketable” character persona yet) or drift into small indie leads.

    Speaking of great character actors with long careers, I was so happy to see Eli Wallach listed in the trailer for the new Wall Street flick. THAT’S what I’m talking about! The man is ALWAYS watchable.

    Oh, and to answer Jeff’s query: Chris O’Donnell and almost the entire cast of BATMAN & ROBIN (sans Clooney, of course).

  12. Josh Hartnett, Chris Klein, Thora Birch, Wes Bentley, Mena Suvari, Skeet Ulrich, Jason Biggs, James van der Beek, Shannyn Sossamon, Patrick Fugit…

  13. Manning,

    Funny post. What do they all have in common? They all showed potential but never amounted to much. But I think Jeff Wells was talking about actors who were actually stars but dimmed over the years as they aged. Your group of actors never reached the level of stars (or even half a star) and never will.

  14. Michael Keaton.

    Renee Zellweger.

    Orlando Bloom.

    Warren Beatty (although we’re still talking/reading about him).

    Tim Robbins.

    Dan Aykroyd.

    Darryl Hannah.

    Diane Keaton.

    Uma Thurman.

    Barbra Streisand.

    And, other than for Sundance-related matters: Robert Redford.

  15. What is Martin Brest doing at this very moment? Watching golf? Working out? Shoveling snow? Braising some ribs? Hey, Marty…whassup?

  16. The whole concept of “over” is utter hogwash. There are only actors and roles. Sometimes, the actor picks the right role, connects with an audience, and then becomes popular. Some are good enough to keep the string going longer than others. But others disappear, are considered over, then find the right role and are right back in the spotlight again.

    John Travolta was “over” before Pulp Fiction.

    Robert Downey Jr. was “over” before Iron Man (or at least Kiss, Kiss, Bang, Bang).

    Prior to Little Children, was any actor ever more “over” than Jackie Earle Haley?

    Lancaster is right that actors do fade away. You need only watch an old Bugs Bunny cartoon to know that. But this whole “over” thing is ridiculous.

  17. Kathleen Turner.

    Antonio Banderas.

    Catherine Zeta-Jones.

    Kevin Costner.

    Laura Dern.

    Michael Douglas (Wall Street 2 notwithstanding).

    Jamie Lee Curtis.

    Anjelica Huston.

    Joe Pesci.

  18. With everything that has been posted above it’s poignant that John Wayne’s last effort – “The Shootist” was a good one and he remains the only star of Hollywood’s golden age to remain in the Harris Poll’s Top Ten of America’s Favorite Actors (he has never fallen off the list since its inception in 1994 – for 2009 he ranks at 7).

  19. Jennifer Hudson is not even an actress. She was a jobbing singer before Idol and Dreamgirls, and post-Oscar got two relatively suitable supporting roles in Sex and the City and as Forest Whitaker’s daughter. She then worked on her first album, and as it was released half her family was murdered!

    In no way does she belong on this list.

  20. Jeff, it’s interesting how you look at your blog, your work. You’re an excellent writer, but do you seriously consider this blog as a “life’s work?” I’m not trying to be inflammatory or, heaven forbid, begin another Purge, but I’m wanting your thoughts.

    Look at what authors like MarkTwain produced in literature in his lifetime; does the pop culture commentary here really compare to what Twain accomplished? Or what about Salinger, who produced only one culturally-significant book? Does HE even compare to that?

    Perhaps it’s the transient nature of blogs and “e-writing” that makes me think of it as less significant (and I sincerely hope you’re backing up your writing in some way). But truthfully, if you slumped over at your desk and died, would your pop culture writings here mean much more than a passing commentary on a by-gone moment?

    Again, I’m not trying to insult. It’s a reasonable question.

  21. Uh, Ray….Mark Twain wrote “Huckleberry Finn”. He also wasted a lot of time writing a lot of crap and unfinished crap. He is remembered today as someone who squandered his talents.

  22. ROTC says…

    Kristen Stewart

    James Cameron

    Sam Worthington

    Carey Mulligan

    The Duplass brothers

    Judd Apatow

    Kathryn Bigelow

    Posted by ROTC at January 31, 2010 12:50 AM

  23. A lot of people mentioned here are still actively working just not in big budget stuff — like, say, Laura Dern, who usually does indie stuff, esp with David Lynch. And who says Harrison Ford couldn’t make a big comeback? But….only if he does something on one of the cable networks that’s really interesting and button-pushing, not the garbage he’s been in lately. Most of the interesting stuff is now coming from HBO and Showtime, btw, Madmen notwithstanding. Val Kilmer is someone I would name, though. Where is he? And he’s definitely put on the pounds judging by the most recent pictures I’ve seen. Really talented actor…..seems to have checked out for the time being. I think Julia Roberts has a potentially good role/movie coming up in Eat, Pray, Love. And, Kristen Stewart???? Come on!!! She’s just getting started.

  24. @ George- not at all (ever read Letters From Earth?). But let’s take your argument… Huck Finn is a masterpiece that had significant influence in literature. Can anything on HE be considered anything like that? Can even the totality of HE be considered as such?

    Writers write, and Jeff spends a lot of time doing so, but to what end? When he slumps over, all of these little anecdotes will mean what, and to whom?

    I’m curious because he puts HE in exclusive territory, but what is his talent actually producing??? Since he’s in the twilight of his life, doesn’t he consider the posterity (or lack thereof) in his work?

  25. I like Jeff’s passionate thoughts about his own work, the sort of thing that should keep anyone hard, on form and at their game till a very late age. I don’t think any web writer of a certain quality need apologise about the medium they use or the subject matter they’ve picked, Jeff’s writing for a solid readership and that’s a better legacy than being the CEO of a company that cuts down rainforests and fucks over low-wage families, or a general that spends his day shrugging off inconvenient civilian casualties in some fucked up war somewhere.

    I’ve always been taken by the detectable anger given off by some actors in interviews about the quality of scripts and roles being offered to older performers. There are times when I want to see an action film or dumbass comedy, and other times when I’d enjoy seeing a solid, longform drama with a guy like Hackman, Duvall, Lee Ermey and/or so on as the lead. (I’ve always had this directorial/scriptwriter fantasy that Ermey would be fantastic in a downbeat political drama about a Southerner running for local office). Instead, a lot of them repeatedly get offered the-father-figure-to-Tom-Cruise or head shaking Dad in a teen comedy. That’s fucked up.

    Another reason for the poor state of play with veteran actors is the fact that they don’t make, or want to make, many westerns these days, as young audiences don’t give a shit about the genre or simply associate it with old GUNSMOKE re-runs they saw as a kid. I’d like to see a director with some respect and financial clout say ‘Fuck You, I’m going to direct five low-budget westerns back to back’, like Monte Hellman did with that duo of westerns he did with Nicholson years ago.

    Ford is a singular case and despite his talents I’ve never felt the urge to go near any of his recent movies, the last INDY included, though someday I’ll have to check out that desert island comedy he did to see if Anne Heche gets some scenes in short-shorts or something.

    You could make a similar thread regarding directors who have pretty much jumped out of the game, or been driven out – John Carpenter is one I’d nominate for that, and in the odd interview I’ve seen with JC he’s maintained the same lethargic, ‘I’d rather be somewhere else’ vibe that Ford also inevitably gives off when making an appearance.

  26. Some of the people mentioned here have basically had to go into hiding because of freakish plastic surgery. But more to the point, who wants to put in a 10- or 12-hour day when they’re 70 or 75 if they can afford not to? There’s more to life than work.

  27. where’s the love fot James Hong – that guy stays busy. and wallace shawn. Charles Lane kept it going for almost a century

  28. “Writers write, and Jeff spends a lot of time doing so, but to what end? When he slumps over, all of these little anecdotes will mean what, and to whom?”

    As Roger Ebert said, it is not dishonorable to write for a daily deadline.

  29. It’s also a pity that a fair number of the actors cited as “over” don’t have the legit stage as a fallback position. For somebody who’s really invested in their craft, not being A-list in “the industry” anymore may not have as much sting. Henry Fonda, Katherine Hepburn…there are plenty of stories of actors who were considered BO poison who resurrected themselves because they had a real craft to return to…and the willingness to pursue their trade as, yeah, a trade.

  30. Surprised no-one’s mentioned Pacino and Deniro yet. Come on now, Righteous kill, 88 minutes, Everyone’s fine? Gaah! Of course, both could easily come back with one great role, but…I have a feeling they won’t.

    There are other ways to come back, Alec Baldwin WAS over, as a leading man, then he wisely segued into character actor and resurrected himself. Ditto Jon Voight, to some extent.

    And Kevin Costner is pretty much Mr. Over, as he fell from a place higher than most (not that I’m happy about it)

  31. dinovelvet, I thought of Pacino and DeNiro, but, at least for the time being, they are still working and in demand. Pacino also still regularly performs in theatre, and I think he could still pull a big surprise with some great insightful work in his twilight years. DeNiro, though, seems to have developed an utterly passionless, semi-formulaic, business-like approach to everything he touches, and my gut tells me that will not change.

  32. Hilary Swank is definitely NOT over. Cmon dude.

    It does seem like De Niro and Pacino are but my gut tells me at least one of them will finish with one last great role or performance.

  33. I honestly thought Scorcese was over for awhile there. From the point at which he basically regurgitated GoodFellas in the form of Casino, up through The Aviator, he put out film after film that didn’t hold a candle to his earlier work. The films just felt so uninspired compared to his earlier stuff. He got a reprieve with The Departed (good, but not great). I’m curious to see which Scorcese shows up for Shutter Island. And, while on the topic, Woody Allen has been over for so long it’s hard to remember when he officially became over. Again, what’s the last Woody Allen film that has felt inspired in any way; that hasn’t felt like a complete retread of one of his earlier, better films?

  34. Back in the day, I thought Goldie Hawn was like that. Apparently there was a market for Goldie Hawn movies, because they sure kept coming, but honestly, the last thing I saw her in was Private Benjamin and she must have made a dozen movies after that, of which I can’t even think of more than 1 or 2. She was like the romcom Chuck Norris, a genre unto herself that nobody you knew ever went to see.

    The problem with this thread, though, is that until a few months ago Quentin Tarantino would have been on the list.

  35. “Uh, Ray….Mark Twain wrote “Huckleberry Finn”. He also wasted a lot of time writing a lot of crap and unfinished crap. He is remembered today as someone who squandered his talents.”

    Oh, come on, George. You’re veering into DeeZee territory here. You’re too smart for that.

    Twain may have squandered his money (which forced him to make his famous speaking tours), but his talent? He was a writing machine with talent to burn.

    Some of his late writings on the subject of religion would still burn the ears off your average born-again fool.

  36. “Rip Torn charged with breaking into Conn. bank”

    Wow, Rip Torn should team up with Randy Quaid. They’d make greatest team since the James Gang.

  37. “What is Martin Brest doing at this very moment? Watching golf? Working out? Shoveling snow? Braising some ribs? Hey, Marty…whassup?”

    It’s as if Martin Brest died after the one-two punch of Meet Joe Black in 1998 and Gigli in 2003. No producing, no crap movies, no crap television, no nothing. He’s not rich enough to retire in his 50s. What the hell is he doing?

    Maybe he’s locked up in one of those cells on Shutter Island.

  38. Nice thing about Scorsese is that while directors of his age group like Spielberg seem to have fallen into some maw or trap and lost their way in making something that still has the old razmataz, he’s gotten a new muse and is having a nice second career in a fashion. I think he still has the passion to make pretty good movies too. Of course the stuff he made when he was younger had enormous anger, angst and passion and was pretty great stuff that came from his own particular world and you gotta expect that from any really terrific director when they’re younger, but how many directors really continue to turn out work that can still attract the public and maybe even attract it more like Scorsese seems to have done. His movies are actually making money and they aren’t crap. I think the best thing Scorsese has done recently is step back a little and just make movies, not his greatest work for sure, but good enough to give us hope that the old Scorsese is still lurking around the corner.

    On the subject of Rip Torn, you’re talking about a guy who has always lived on the edge somewhere. Who knows, maybe he’s finally stepped off into sinility or something?

  39. “Why else would he make a piece of TV-movie shite like Extraordinary Measures?”

    Nobody’s willing to pay him his quote, and he doesn’t need money enough to work for less than his quote, so CBS Films comes along and wants to do a Movie right out of the gate, and they’ll pay him his quote.

    …Or, at least, that’s what I thought until I saw the interview with him where he says he developed the project himself, in order to have a role like that [which, to be fair, every critic says he's really good in the role, which is entirely made-up to make the true story more interesting].

  40. Yeah I’ll give Pacino the benefit of the doubt. (I read he recently dumped his agent after 88 Minutes and Righteous Kill!) He has King Lear and biopics of Napoleon and Dali on his upcoming slate so he’s still up for some challenges, it seems. Deniro on the other hand is doing a third Fockers and Robert Rodriguez’s Machete. Eesh.

  41. A lot of the people on these lists aren’t working anymore because when they were A list or B list, they were complete fucking, swollen-headed douche bags to everyone around them. That only works for you if riding a wave of continued success. But so much as slip one rung down the ladder and the wolves will be snapping at your heels. The whole fucking business is a crapshoot. The movers and shakers in this industry love destroying careers even more than they love building them in the first place. But mediocrity certainly does rise to the top in Hollywood.

  42. As I’m reading this, the preview for Everybody’s Fine is playing on my tv. Has any actor done more to ruin a reputation than De Niro has over the last 20 years? He is over.

  43. “Writers write, and Jeff spends a lot of time doing so, but to what end? When he slumps over, all of these little anecdotes will mean what, and to whom?”

    As Roger Ebert said, it is not dishonorable to write for a daily deadline.

  44. Unfairly, the first thing I thought after hearing that Rip Torn had been arrested for bank robbery was that his name would now be descriptive of the state of his asshole after a heady session in the prison shower block. Sorry Rip. I like him as an actor and this can only be bad news. Still, he did get to perform the most fun scenes in THE MAN WHO FELL TO EARTH.

    Some actors might have fallen by the wayside due to public behaviour. I’m sure Russell Crowe’s documented behaviour as a moody, bullying lout (and his pissy response to Steve Martin’s Oscar gags about him) did him not a lot of good. Same for Meg Ryan’s shitty attitude on the Michael Parkinson chat show in the UK. (Google the transcript of Parkinson’s interview with Oz TV host Andrew Denton for some illuminating comments about that). Performers who continually fuck themselves up with drugs also shouldn’t be surprised if studios and directors tell them to get lost.

    I like Scorsese’s CASINO better than many of the things he did before it (including GOODFELLAS) and everything he did after it.

  45. Whoever mentioned Woody Allen up above is WAY off, IMHO. They sound like they haven’t seen a new Allen film since The Curse of the Jade Scorpions or Celebrity. He definitely had his fallow period there in the late 90s/early 00s, but he has been back on form in a major fucking way in the last 5 years or so.

    MATCH POINT.

    CASSANDRA’S DREAM.

    VICKY CRISTINA BARCELONA.

    WHATEVER WORKS.

    Great movies. I think the only recent one that doesn’t really fit too well with the above four is Scoop, and even that isn’t quite on the level of Anything Else-bad. Dude is in the middle of a cinematic renaissance. He’s really run of a string of winners in his twilight years, and I’m surprised more people don’t seem to acknowledge this (maybe they disagree? I dunno!).

  46. PMN comment 48,

    I agree with you about Woody Allen. As far as I’m concerned, his last good, “inspired” (as you put it) movie was SWEET & LOWDOWN, and this was way back in 1999. Everything he has done after that has been dismal, and yes I’m looking at you MATCH POINT and VICKI CRISTINA. It’s a joke how the critics gave those two movies a pass.

  47. B.S.

    I’ll put the entirety of Allen’s output throughout the ’00s up against his ’90s work. Possibly even his ’80s films.

    Talk about overrated.

  48. Of all the names in this thread the two that have been over for a long while and truly continue to depress me are Michael Keaton and Richard Dreyfuss.

    I’m always holding out hope that one or both of them get a role with some spark of their former selves – can they even remember what it was like to tap into that fire of mad comedic intensity they once commanded?

    Maybe there’s an Alan-Arkin-in-LittleMissSunshine caliber of role out there for these actors; they need not even be a supporting character, they could still lead, but they’d have to find themselves again.

  49. Anthony Thorne: You will get at least a slice of your wish.

    Monte Hellman just made his new film ROAD TO NOWHERE (yep I had a hand in helping) and it’s a big time case of the old maverick teaching the young dogs some new tricks. It’s not about age. It’s about passion and intensity of purpose and as Jeff says, raging against the dying of the light and getting that light through the projector the way you see it.

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