Age, Achievement and Creativity: European Vs. American Filmmakers (Young, Old, Middle-Aged?)

Seen from the perspective of mainstream Hollywood, the program that has defined the Festival de Cannes over the past few years must have appeared as the cinema of senior citizens. Indeed, up to 2002, the competition was typically composed of international filmmakers in advanced phase of their careers, well into the autumn of their lives.

For starters, the combined age of the three directors who made the strongest films in the 2001 edition of the festival was 235: Manoel de Oliveira, 92, Jacques Rivette, 73, and Jean-Luc Godard, 70. If Eric Rohmer’s “The Lady and the Duke” had been included, the collective age would have jumped to 316; Rohmer turned 81 in April 2001.

Other major directors, whose new work premiered in Cannes, included Chilean-born and Parisian-based Raul Ruiz, 60, whose “Savage Souls” was released by Paramount Classics. Also represented were Japan’s vet director, Shohei Imamura, 76, and Italian Ermanno Olmi, 69, both of whom have won the Palme d’Or for previous efforts.

What’s exciting about these directors is not only that they’re still alive and kicking–though, that’s an achievement, too–but that they have made their most mature, subtle, and poignant work.

This double achievement is an anomaly in Hollywood these days. With the notable exception of Robert Altman (still active at 79) and Sidney Lumet (less active at 80), it’s hard think of other elderly American filmmakers who still enjoy viable careers, let alone make vital pictures. What has happened to Sidney Lumet, Arthur Penn, Blake Edwards, all talented directors at the forefront of American cinema two decades ago, but now in severe decline–or out of work.

In a 1995 article in W magazine, titled, “Aging in Hollywood,” Oscar-winner actor Michael Douglas, then 50, was quoted saying: “I’m lucky still to be standing.” Following suit, Susan Sarandon, then 48, proudly stated that she was the “oldest sexual person onscreen.”

But it was Shelley Winters, then 72, who outdid them all by noting: “After 50, you may as well commit suicide in Hollywood!” It’s a known fact that agents lie about their actors-clients, and revise their resumes, even when they’re still in their 30s.

Hollywood’s obsession with youth has always been the bane of aging performers, particularly women. But over the past two decades, that shadow has fallen behind the camera as well, onto both directors and writers. Commercial American cinema has become extremely cruel to its aging practitioners, even the gifted and ambitious ones. In contrast, it’s no coincidence that the three aforementioned directors who excelled in Cannes are all European.

The enduring career of Portuguese Oliveira is one of the wonders of the modern film world. At 92, he still makes a film almost every year, a productivity level matched by only one American filmmaker, Woody Allen. Roughly the same age, Billy Wilder hasn’t made a film in decades; his last, “Buddy Buddy”, was in 1981.

In “Voyage to the Beginning of the World” (1996), Oliveira coaxed a touching autumnal performance from Marcello Mastroianni as a Portuguese director who revisits his childhood. In the new film, “I’m Going Home”, the eloquent French thesp Michel Piccoli, who many believed should have won the Cannes Festival’s acting prize, brings similar understatement and subtlety to his portrayal of Gilbert Valence, a dignified actor who has devoted his entire life to the theater. There are autobiographical elements in the story of an aging ethical actor, who sadly realizes that the world is slipping from his grasp.

A quick look at Cannes’ program of recent years shows that the only veteran American director to have been in competition over the past decade is Robert Altman, whose “Kansas City” was in the main line in 1996. Altman has had an erratic career, but he’s still working, every once in a while making an intriguing movie such as “The Player” or “Short Cuts” (1992 and 1993, respectively).

The American movie scene is extremely youthful, which is reflected in the impact of demographics on the box-office. Indeed, directors who’re past the age of 60 have hard time finding backing for their projects or even practicing their skills. Few professions are as cruel to their practitioners as the film industry.

This may explain why most of the publicity that George Cukor generated while directing what turned out to be his swan song, “Rich and Famous”, was the fact that he was the oldest, 82, studio director.

Similarly, a lot was written about John Huston’s age, when he made his last three pictures: “Under the Volcano” (1984), “Prizzi’s Honor” (1985), and “The Dead” (1987), which are among his very best.

The problems of mainstream American cinema go beyond allowing vet directors the sheer ability to work. Various institutional and demographic factors, some dictated by the marketplace, limit the kinds of films they’re given to direct. Indeed, unlike most American directors, who reach the peak of their creativity in the first decade of their careers, European directors continue to develop their skills and refine their singular visions up to their death.

Take Luis Bunuel, an innovative filmmaker who got better and sharper as he grew older, leaving at his death (at age 83) a rich body of films. Most of Bunuel’s films were made in exile, in Mexico and France, under less than optimal conditions, but he continued to make provocative satires that attacked the Church and middle-class morality with ferocity, irony, and humor.

In the last decade of his career, Bunuel’s biting criticism has mellowed, but he still spoke with a bold voice. “Tristana” (1970), the Oscar-winning “The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie” (1972), “The Phantom of Liberty” (1974), and “That Obscure Object of Desire” (1977), made at age 77, helped maintain his long-standing reputation for integrity and courageous candor.

The scholar Robin Wood has observed that visual style in American movies has become more assertive, but no more personal. For him, the average American movie is no less anonymous than it was during the studio system. Indeed, “The Day After Tomorrow”, “Van Helsing”, “Troy”, “I, Robot”, and even “Spider-Man,” all display aggressive style, but their directors are interchangeable, because their movies are impersonal products lacking distinctive vision.

This may be the most significant contrast between American and European cinema, which tends to be more personal and expressive. Take French filmmaker, Robert Bresson, who made great, personal films at old age. Bresson never made films casually: “L’Argent”, directed at the top of his idiosyncratic form, was only the 13th feature in a four-decade career. At 76, Bresson became one of the world’s oldest active directors and one of its most rigorous.

Perhaps the best example of a tenaciously creative director, who refuses to succumb age, is Italian master Michelangelo Antonioni. A stroke felled Antonioni in 1985, but instead of sinking into despair, he went back to work, reaffirming his motto, “To direct is to live.”

At 83, Antonioni showed his creativity in “Beyond the Clouds”, a film that flaunted a young glamorous cast and dealt with tangled sexual relationships. What made “Beyond the Clouds” notable was the fact that Antonioni directed it in the first place. When insurance companies refused to guarantee the project, the producers hired director Wim Wenders as a standby. But from the very first day, Antonioni was in full control, angry at any interference. It became a totally Antonioni film, reflecting his uncommon vision, detailed camera setups, unique sense of color, and distinctive frame composition.

Like Antonioni, Oliveira, Rivette, and Godard demonstrate in their new works that cinematic creativity defies age boundaries. Functioning as philosophers with a camera, they have uncompromisingly cultivated what has become a rare sight in Hollywood: A subtle yet entertaining cinema of ideas.

This essay was written in 2002.