Age – in an industry that places such a premium on gilded youth – proved no barrier at this year’s Oscars to a historic set of victories. For the first time since 1982, every one of Sunday night’s winning actors was over 50 years old: Michelle Yeoh (60), Brendan Fraser (54), Ke Huy Quan (51) and Jamie Lee Curtis (64).
This is only the third time in history that this has occurred. Not one of them started out as the frontrunner to win; not one had ever been nominated before. And yet all have a place in the affections of the film industry, and film fans around the world, that Academy voters were finally, at what’s usually a late stage in an actor’s career, unable to ignore.
Forty-one years ago, before that barren run began, it was Katharine Hepburn, Henry Fonda, John Gielgud and Maureen Stapleton in the quartet of veteran champions. You couldn’t have called Hepburn overdue – that was her fourth Best Actress Oscar, after all – but the others certainly were. On Golden Pond, the mellow Hepburn-Fonda valedictory vehicle that scored them both trophies in their mid-seventies, coloured that night (which was otherwise the Chariots of Fire victory lap) with nostalgia for the beloved icons of cinema’s past.
Compare two years ago, when Anthony Hopkins won Best Actor for The Father at the age of 83, beating the record previously held by Christopher Plummer, as the oldest ever acting winner. It was a monumental upset: everyone’s expectation was that Chadwick Boseman was going to take the award posthumously. Only the reverence for Hopkins, giving one of his greatest performances, turned out to be the winning ticket.
This year, by contrast, all four of the victors know in their bones that there’s no such thing as a comeback without being older and wiser. And one of the comebacks is as long-range as they come. Ke Huy Quan, who won Best Supporting Actor for Everything Everywhere All at Once, has been a near-total stranger to cinema since his discovery in 1984, when Steven Spielberg cast him as Short Round in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. He hadn’t retired from the industry, in his own assessment – he was simply waiting. A large measure of the joy behind him winning belongs to memories of that performance – one of the supreme examples of child acting, in the canon of a filmmaker whose work is hardly light on those.