About five years ago, Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas co-starred in a comedy called "Tough Guys," which was specifically written for them by a pair of young screenwriters - James Orr and Jim Cruickshank - who simply wanted to see the two stars together in a movie again. (Lancaster and Douglas had previously shared billing in six pictures.)
Not that they had become invisible. Both stars maintained active careers on the stage and television, but theatrical films had gradually become fewer and farther between, and were generally disappointing.As it turned out, "Tough Guys" was also a disappointment. But it seemed to me at the time to be a serious step in the right direction, an effort by young Hollywood to create movies for the stars of old Hollywood.
And why not?
Certainly Lancaster and Douglas were still vibrant, active performers in 1986, despite being, respectively, 73 and 70 years old. (Lancaster recenty suffered a stroke, but Douglas is still quite active, as you'll see when he's the subject of an American Film Institute salute, scheduled to be televised Thursday, May 23, at 9 p.m. on Ch. 5.)
The truth is, a lot of stars from Hollywood's golden age are quite capable of working but simply don't get the opportunity.
Let's face it, movies like "Driving Miss Daisy" or "On Golden Pond" just don't come along that often.
There's a reason for that, of course - the well-documented cliche that Hollywood is geared toward youth, young filmmakers writing for and directing young actors in movies about being young and staying young. The thinking is that the primary moviegoing audience, young teens through early yuppies, will not turn out in great enough numbers to support a movie about older people.
Of course, that begs the question - why then did "Driving Miss Daisy" and "On Golden Pond" both become $100 million hits?
Could it be that on those rare occasions when an intelligent movie about people over the age of 15 plays in theaters, it attracts an older audience that doesn't normally go to movies?
Occasionally we do get to see older stars show their stuff, and invariably they turn in memorable performances.
Think of Don Ameche and Ralph Bellamy in "Trading Places," back in 1983. Though it is primarily remembered as Eddie Murphy's second movie - and Murphy was the showstopper - Ameche and Bellamy easily held their own. So much so that Ameche's career was significantly revived and he went on to co-star in the two ensemble "Cocoon" movies (winning an Oscar for the first), and then a starring role in the splendid "Things Change."
Ameche most recently turned up in a small role in the Sylvester Stallone comedy "Oscar," directed by John Landis, who also did "Trading Places." In "Oscar" you can also see, albeit in small roles, Yvonne De Carlo, Eddie Bracken and, yes, Kirk Douglas.
Bracken, a bright comic star in the '40s, had a significant role a few years back in Harold Ramis and John Hughes' "National Lampoon's Vacation," as the Wally who owns "Wally World." In "Oscar" he has a memorably comic role as a stuttering stoolie.
And Vincent Price, who hadn't been seen in a major movie for quite a few years, had an important role last year in Tim Burton's "Edward Scissorhands."
The latest is Maureen O'Hara, returning to the screen after a 20-year absence, in Chris Columbus' "Only the Lonely," playing John Candy's mother. And she's fabulous in a very difficult role. (Columbus also wrote a role for Anthony Quinn - and got him for the film as well.)
What is most significant about all of this, however, is that most of these films feature stars in parts that were tailor-made for them - in most cases, specifically written for them. And by very young filmmakers who simply wanted to see screen idols back on the screen.
Steven Spielberg's production of "*batteries not included" was shaped to star Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy.
Tim Burton, who had already become acquainted with Vincent Price, wrote the role of the old inventor in "Edward Scissorhands" for him.
Chris Columbus wrote the "Only the Lonely" role for Maureen O'Hara, then went searching for her to talk her into doing it.
Personally, I would like to think this might be the beginning of a trend.
But then, that's what I thought about "Tough Guys" in 1986.
Still, if "Only the Lonely" is successful, perhaps there will be more call in Hollywood, not just for older stars, but older characters in movieswho are not simply relegated to the background.
In fact, that thought becomes more appealing the older I get.