Ageism and the Death of One Era of Acting

Age is an inexorable deal. A non-negotiable lifetime contract, it inescapably ticks on from cradle to grave. The modern outlook on age is not only more liberal in how industries view aging employees, but due to advancements in technology and medicine, an increasing number of people have turned to methods that defy the natural maturation process. Superficially, the elderly have never looked younger; at the age of 76, Dolly Parton (with her Botox, lip-filler, various tucks, lifts, and cosmetic alterations) looks 56, although the miles she has on the clock are suggestive that she should look more like a wrinkled Ronnie Wood than a smooth J-Lo, who herself has conquered age.


Dolly Parton’s plastic surgery aside, societal views on age has changed drastically. Retirement age has increased, from the 1960s average of 58 to the present day’s average of 88, with many finally receiving their state pension while on their deathbed. Thanks, governmental austerity.

In Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, the Jackie Brown director takes us on a deep dive into the cruel world of late 1960s Hollywood, and the film industry’s perspective on aging, seemingly washed-up actors who are mercilessly discarded. As a tearful Rick Dalton (played by Leonardo DiCaprio) exclaims to his stunt double Cliff Booth (played by Brad Pitt) at the start of the hazy, 60s epic, “It’s official, old buddy. I’m a has-been” — a line that encapsulates the film’s sentiments in their entirety.

Rick Dalton and the Dying of the Hollywood Light

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood - Rick and Cliff
Sony Pictures Releasing

In protagonist Rick Dalton, we are provided a case study that not only delves into the rapidly diminishing relevance of once-hot Hollywood property, but into the ruthless nature of the Western film industry in that golden age period. It was an epoch synonymous with revolutionary technological developments in filmmaking, and the success of cinematic icons like Charlie Chaplin, Cary Grant, Shirley Temple, and Marilyn Monroe. Yet, as the bright, youthful faces at the back end of the heavily romanticized black and white generation emerged, it signaled the changing of the guard and the inherently ageist tendencies of film industry executives.

Related: The Hateful Eight: An Underrated Gem That Should Be Considered One of Quentin Tarantino’s Best Films

In Once Upon a Time in Hollywood’s case, Rick Dalton is the sacrifice offered to the ageist gods. Formerly the famous face of the network smash-hit Bounty Law, the star finds himself reduced to being typecast as a heavy, which subsequently symbolizes his unceremonious descent from the acclaimed summit of the Hollywood Hills.

This is all highlighted in Dalton’s chat with a show-business agent, Marvin Schwarz (Al Pacino), who pitches the idea of heading to Italy to appear in Spaghetti Westerns in order to distance himself from the label of the resident “baddy” – with Schwarz expressing concern over how the television audiences and casting executives will begin to psychologically perceive Rick as a one-trick-pony.

Young Hollywood Replaces the Old Guard in Tarantino’s Movie

Leonardo DiCaprio in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood
Sony Pictures Releasing

On the set of the pilot for a TV Western called Lancer, Rick strikes up a conversation with his eight-year-old co-star, Trudi Frazer. In this poignant exchange, the out-of-favor actor is given lessons by his younger counterpart on how to be more emotionally engaging on-screen. It’s an indication of not just where he is as an actor, but how the film and television sectors began a gradual process of detachment from the typically stoic, alpha-male leads; big, traditional celebrities like Clark Gable and Kathrine Hepburn would be replaced by people like Jack Nicholson and Jane Fonda.

As Rick and Trudi discuss their respective novels, Rick emotionally explains the themes of his Western read, with the story and its protagonist “Tom Breezy” sharing a sort of parallelism with his own life. A once revered bronco-buster is now afflicted with a spinal injury that confines him to a more sedentary, less fruitful existence similar to that of Rick, who perceives his career as a success-turned-failure, with rapidly dwindling returns.

Related: Kill Bill 3 and Quentin Tarantino’s Quest to Complete a Trilogy

As Rick’s steady decline into the film industry abyss was both unstoppable and simply out of his control, he and Cliff find themselves on a one-way ticket to Rome to star in Sergio Corbucci’s second-rate Spaghetti Westerns, a far cry from Hollywood Boulevard and its array of first-class studios. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is a saddening demonstration of an actor in the autumn of his career, and the desperate rat race that sees Rick stooping so low, that in the end-credits he appears in a cigarette commercial to salvage a morsel of relevance.

Once Upon a Time, There Was Ageism in Hollywood

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood - Brad Pitt and Leonardo DiCaprio
Sony Pictures Releasing

While the pervasiveness of Hollywood’s ageism can still be seen today, the steps the industry has taken to protect older actors have unquestionably borne fruit, with 84-year-old, Anthony Hopkins winning the Academy Award for Best Actor in 2020 for his performance in The Father, and 65-year-old, Frances McDormand scooping Academy Award for Best Actress twice in just five years.

Though Once Upon a Time in Hollywood confronts a historically industry-wide issue, question marks have been raised over the apparent ageist discrimination against female actors (in the modern day), in particular, with their youthfulness and looks preferred over their actual acting capabilities.