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We may be living in the golden age of older filmmakers

Filmmakers like Miyazaki, Scorsese, Scott and Mann are still producing vital, career-capping works

Hayao Miyazaki. Photo by AP

By AP

LAST PUBLISHED 29.02.2024  |  09:58 AM IST

When Hayao Miyazaki was contemplating whether he would come out of retirement in 2016, he put together a curiously self-critical proposal.

“There’s nothing more pathetic than telling the world you’ll retire because of your age, then making yet another comeback," wrote the filmmaker, now 83. “Doesn’t an elderly person deluding themself that they’re still capable, despite their geriatric forgetfulness, prove that they’re past their best?"

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“You bet it does."

One’s prime for artists is much harder to pin down than it is for, say, gymnasts or baseball players. A fastball is much easier to gauge than a film. Stanley Kubrick was 70 when he completed “Eyes Wide Shut." Akira Kurosawa made “Ran" when he was 75. Agnes Varda was 89 when “Faces Places" hit theaters.

But it’s a cruel fact of creative life that the lion's share of the greatest works by most filmmakers tend to be made earlier in life. Filmmaking, a rough-and-tumble business that requires an army of collaborators and millions in financing, can be a grueling endeavor. Francis Ford Coppola once said it should be done “with all your cards, and all your dice and whatever else you’ve got." It’s not historically been the providence of octogenarians.

We may be living in the golden age of the aged filmmaker, though. Old age may be debated as a liability on the presidential campaign trail, but not at this year’s Oscars.

Miyazaki, who fought through his concerns to make “The Boy and the Heron," is the oldest director ever nominated for best animated film. If he wins on March 10, he'll be the oldest winner by more than two decades. “Napoleon," nominated for visual effects and production design, is the latest from 86-year-old workaholic Ridley Scott. Michael Mann, 81, also recently released “Ferrari" (much celebrated but unnominated). Wim Wenders, 78, put out one of his very best films in “Perfect Days" (nominated for best international film), Meanwhile, Coppola, 84, completed shooting on his self-financed “Megalopolis."

And, of course, Martin Scorsese, 81, had the Osage epic “Killers of the Flower Moon," up for 10 Oscars. Scorsese is the oldest filmmaker ever nominated for best director. At the recent Producers Guild Awards, where he was given a lifetime achievement award, Scorsese recalled seeing Alfred Hitchcock accept the same honor in 1965.

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“He said, ‘First, when you receive such an award, you want to pinch yourself to make sure it isn’t being made posthumously,’" Scorsese recalled.

Is “Killers of the Flower Moon" as good as “Taxi Driver" or “Goodfellas"? That's a hard question to answer and maybe not the right one to ask. Is it essential? Unquestionably.

Marrying the crime film with the Western, “Killers of the Flower Moon" is engaged — as much or more than any nominated film this year — in remaking American tropes and cliches. The daring darkness and the nimbleness of the editing (by Thelma Schoonmaker, 84, nominated for her ninth Oscar) suggest filmmakers half their age.

“I’m curious about everything, still," Scorsese said in an earlier interview. “If I’m curious about something I think I’ll find a way. If I hold out and hold up, I’ll find a way to try to make something of it on film. But I have to be curious about the subject. My curiosity is still there."

We have never had an older filmmaker quite like Scorsese, just as we hadn’t had one like the younger Scorsese. He’s spoken repeatedly about urgency, knowing that his time is short. By capitalizing on the desire of streamers to make their cinematic mark, Scorsese’s films have only grown in scale and budget as he’s gotten older, just as they have in their willingness to pry into the darkest corners of American history.

Many older filmmakers simply aren’t offered the opportunity. Directors like Scorsese and the 93-year-old Clint Eastwood (whose latest is due out this year) have typically been the exception in an industry that tends to push out even its most celebrated elders. Buster Keaton, Billy Wilder, Orson Welles and Elaine May all spent their later years struggling to mount projects. In the mid-1970s, Scorsese befriended the great British filmmaker Michael Powell, who likewise was frozen out of the business after 1960's controversial “Peeping Tom." Since then, Scorsese and Schoonmaker — Powell's widow — have led an effort to revive Powell’s legacy, including with a just-premiered documentary.

As a generation of American filmmakers from the fabled ’70s era of moviemaking extend their careers, one of the defining directors of the ’90s (and beyond) has said he plans to stop. Quentin Tarantino, 60, has said his 10th film, “The Movie Critic," will be his final feature. It’s a stance he’s maintained for at least 15 years, arguing that he didn’t want to dilute his filmography with the “lousy" films that “most directors" peter out with.

“I’m an entertainer, I want to leave you wanting more. I don’t want to work to diminishing returns," Tarantino told CNN in 2022. “I don’t want to become this old man who’s out of touch, I’m already feeling a bit like an old man out of touch when it comes to the current movies that are out right now, and that’s exactly what happens."

Tarantino’s declaration has cofounded some of his contemporaries.

“I could never do that," Paul Thomas Anderson, now 53, said in 2018. “As long as I’m able to do it, I’m going to do it." Christopher Nolan, also 53, whose “Oppenheimer" is expected to win best picture at the Oscars, has called Tarantino’s attitude “a very purist point of view."

Asked if he's simply built differently than Tarantino, Scorsese told The Associated Press in October: “I am."

“He’s a writer. It’s a different thing. I come up with stories. I get attracted to stories through other people. All different means, different ways. And so I think it’s a different process," Scorsese said. "I respect writers and I wish I could. I wish I could just be in a room and create these novels, not films, novels."

The debate gets at the heart of an age-old quandary: Is it better to have youthful passion or the wisdom of experience? At least for filmmakers like Scorsese, Scott and Mann, compulsion seems to never dim. Scott, who later this year will release a “Gladiator" sequel, is notorious for a pace that would exhaust most younger directors. “Every department," Scott told Deadline last year, “has to keep up with the speed that I work."

“Ridley Scott is the single biggest argument for a second term for Joe Biden," Sony chief Tom Rothman told The New Yorker.

Mann, too, is renown for relentlessness. “Ferrari," a film he’s been trying to make for 30 years, is a prime example of the pleasures in following a master filmmaker through various stages of a career. “Ferrari," about a plate-spinning Enzo Ferrari in the tumultuous lead-up to a deadly cross-country race, extends Mann's lifelong obsession with obsession.

“I know for myself, I’m better at doing a picture that has me on the frontier," Mann said in an earlier interview. “Where it’s something I haven’t done before."

At the Academy Awards, directors won’t be the only ones setting records. John Williams, nominated for best score for the 49th time, is, at 92, the category’s oldest nominee ever. Others are making historic returns, too. Robert De Niro, 80, nominated for his supporting performance in “Killers of the Flower Moon," set a new record for longest span between first and latest acting nominations. Forty-nine years ago, he was nominated for “The Godfather Part II."

As for Miyazaki, “The Boy and Heron " has been celebrated as if not the absolute best by the anime master, then very nearly so. Opening with the firebombing of Tokyo during World War II, it could be called the most personal film for Miyazaki, whose early memories are of bombed-out Japanese cities. It’s also a movie that, while full of poignance, is as lushly and uniquely imaginative as his earlier masterworks, like “Spirited Away" or “Kiki’s Delivery Service."

Before the film had reached U.S. theaters, where it was Miyazaki’s biggest hit yet, word had already leaked out: Miyazaki has already started work on another.

Do we judge these artists' earlier work against today’s? Or just be grateful that they’re still working — and at such a high level. The director Guillermo del Toro, introducing “The Boy and the Heron" at the Toronto International Film Festival, chose sheer gratitude at being alive when Miyazaki is still making movies.

“We are privileged enough," Del Toro said, “to be living in a time where Mozart is composing symphonies."

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