[Dallas Morning News, December 22, 2004]
In this corner, ladies and gentlemen, we have Leonardo DiCaprio, adorable star of "Titanic," "Catch Me If You Can," and now, "The Aviator." In the other, we have - oh, pick a name. Clark Gable, Cary Grant, even Jimmy Stewart, for cryin’ out loud. Notice any difference?
Such comparisons are prompted by DiCaprio’s newest release, "The Aviator," in which he portrays aeronautics engineer, Hollywood mogul, and big-time player Howard Hughes. As Entertainment Weekly’s Owen Gleiberman puts it, DiCaprio is "a dynamo of an actor" but "at first looks and sounds disquietingly boyish, like a 16-year-old in a high school production." The Village Voice’s Michael Atkinson observes that it’s hard to see a masterful figure in DiCaprio. "The conscious contrast between baby-faced, teen-voiced toddler-men movie actors and the golden age’s grownups is unavoidable, and though DiCaprio is the same age here as Hughes was in 1934, he may not be convincing as a 30-year-old until he’s 50."
That helps me answer something I’ve been wondering about. I like to watch old movies, the black-and-whites from the 30’s and 40’s. I often find myself wondering, How old *are* these people? Claudette Colbert moves through "Imitation of Life" (1934) portraying a widow who builds a successful business. She’s poised and elegant, with a lustrous deep voice. Yet it’s hard to figure out what age she is. Today, even people who are much older don’t have that kind of presence. A quick check of her bio reveals that this beauty was only 31.
There are plenty of other examples. Clark Gable already had Rhett Butler’s authoritative smolder when he portrayed a plantation owner in "Red Dust" (1932). He was 31 at the time. Fast-talking, forceful Hildy Johnson drove the plot of "His Girl Friday" (1940) when Rosalind Russell was only 33. The year that "The Philadelphia Story" (1940) came out, Katharine Hepburn was 33, Cary Grant was 36, and Jimmy Stewart was the baby at 32. Yet don’t they all look a lot more grownup than actors do today?
It’s not just actors, of course, it’s all of us. Characters in these older movies appear to be an age nobody is today. Instead, we’re surrounded by toddler-men and women with squeaky, uncertain voices. (Think of Renee Zellwegger’s voice, and then of Bette Davis’.) Nobody has that old-style confident authority. We forgot how to grow up.
"Forgot" isn’t the right word; Baby Boomers fought adulthood every step of the way. About the time we should have been taking on grownup responsibilities we made a fetish of resisting the Establishment. We turned blue jeans and t-shirts into the generational uniform; grownups dress like they’re headed to a playdate. We stopped following world politics and started following movie-star feuds. We stopped wearing wingtips and started playing video games. We identified so strongly with being "the younger generation" that now, paunchy and gray, we’re bewildered. We have no idea how to be the older generation. We’ll just have to go on being a cranky, creaky appendix to the younger one.
But when all authorities have been trashed the world doesn’t feel very secure. No wonder we can believe Zellwegger, at 35, as a nervous little girl. No wonder Hugh Grant could sell himself as a floppy-haired hesitator right up to his 40th birthday. No wonder that we can believe Thomas Haden Church as Jack, a boyish, lustful monument to immaturity, in "Sideways." Church is great in the role, but he’s 43. Do you know the wonderful film, "All About Eve" (1950)? In it, Bette Davis portrayed a grand old dame of Broadway who is undermined by an upstart. When she made it she was 42.
In "Sideways" Jack defends a particularly despicable deed to his friend Miles: "I know you disapprove of what I’m doing. And I can respect that. But you just don’t understand my plight." Future historians will have to sort out our plight, how a whole generation could forget to grow up, and still attempt to lead a nation through war and terror. Being kittenish, obscene, or adorably perplexed-we can do that. But gathering the gravity and confidence that signals full maturity, the kind of presence we see in these old films, is beyond our capabilities. It’s not youth, but age, that has passed us by.