What does it say about current popular culture that some of our most virile % movie stars-the ones manly in body, mind, and soul-are in their 70s and 80s? Why are the leading men of the '50s still among the most interesting people on the screen? Is it our fin de siecle wimpiness? Or did the era immediately after WWII really produce a bumper crop of complex beefcake?
Consider Kirk Douglas, for example. At the age of 77, he still has a lethal edge in Greedy (1994, MCA/Universal, PG-13, priced for rental), just out on video, that makes the rest of the cast look like hamsters. A noisy comedy about relatives squabbling over who stands to inherit Uncle Joe's scrap-metal millions, Greedy was a disappointment in theaters and thought to be yet another bullet in costar Michael J. Fox's movie career. On video, though, it plays as a benign, amusing farce-certainly worth an overnight rental-with a juicy role for Douglas as the patriarch with one hand on his wallet and an eye on his new ''nurse'' (Olivia d'Abo). Fox is fine as the family black sheep trying to juggle money and honor, but the older man is clearly the star.
Like his screen soul mate, Burt Lancaster, Douglas' intensity has provided fodder for impressionists: the strangled speech, the burning eyes. He's an Ike-age Jimmy Cagney, buzzing with street energy, but not cocksure, not sure at all.
Lancaster, conversely, uses doubt as a flaw in an old knight's armor, especially in his greatest later role, the fading small-time hoodlum in 1980's Atlantic City. His ghostly cameo in 1989's Field of Dreams-as a country doctor who missed a chance at baseball stardom-also bristles with intelligent regret.
Compare Lancaster's consistency with Gregory Peck's remarkable late-inning transformation in 1989's Old Gringo. Always handsome, always a star, Peck also always seemed a little too good to be true. Yet his Ambrose Bierce in Gringo, an eccentric writer plunging into the Mexican Revolution, has a weather-beaten sexiness that's positively touching. Even Charlton Heston has gone a little funky. His Long John Silver in the 1990 made-for-cable version of Treasure Island was more unwashed than Peck's Old Gringo, and his cameo as Schwarzenegger's boss in True Lies is a ripe parody of his own hard-ass Republicanism.
Some he-men of the '50s have found new life as comedians. Lloyd Bridges is a bigger star now than ever, thanks to Airplane! and Hot Shots! Douglas and Lancaster teamed up for the dopey slapstick of 1986's Tough Guys. Even Brando, the patron saint of angsty '50s macho, played for laughs in Andrew Bergman's 1990 shaggy-don story, The Freshman (his Torquemada in 1992's Christopher Columbus: The Discovery, on the other hand, is funny for all the wrong reasons). Playing for pratfalls is not quite what Kirk Douglas is up to in Greedy. The shenanigans are left to the supporting cast, a caucus of TV smirkers led by SNL's Phil Hartman (I'm sorry, I don't get it, the man has never made me laugh). Cartoons all. Douglas, on the other hand, gives us a portrait of a shrewd old egomaniac who delights in his caginess yet who realizes, with only slight bitterness, that he has driven away his family. Nothing heavy, mind you, just enough to weight the froth and make it seem like a real movie. And he does this without breaking a sweat. Let's face it: If Douglas is going this strongif even Gregory Peck and Charlton Heston can loosen up-how bad can old age be? Greedy: B-