Actors in the movies and TV shows from the 50s and the 60s often look old to me, probably way older than their actual age, or older than than you would expect their roles to be. First of all, am I just imagining things or is there really a perceivable difference in the age (be it real or just visual) of the actors or their roles compared to nowadays' movies? And what would the reasons for this difference be? Is this because of some healthcare or makeup advances in the 70s or lifestyle changes in the US or some other reason?
To be honest with you, the best answer to this question is the adage that beauty is in the eye of the beholder.
There are a plethora of reasons why actors looked so drastically different back then, some of them social, some of them technical, but to assert that they were any less handsome is a misnomer.
Popular culture of the 1950's (and also but a little less the 1960's) circulated different ideals of what was attractive to an audience than we do today.
The 1950's was an interesting time in Hollywood, as the 'Leading man' persona was being jeopardized by the collapse of the star system, yet also given ballast by the post-war victory movies that were churned out at an unimaginable pace (compared to the rate of production today).
These movies privileged the idea of a leading man being strong, rugged and masculine. It's possible to represent this conservative view of masculinity with a younger male, but there was very little precedent for younger male leads at the time, it was simply felt that Audiences would respond better to more established stars.
There was also fierce patriotism to contend with, not only because of McCarthyism and the Cold War, but because of a strong development of American national identity following WWII.
Also, many of the older stars had embedded themselves into not only the public consciousness but the machinations of the studio industry.
The Studio system that was prevalent in the 1950's and 60's used contracted stars, who would be used for a predefined number of pictures. These contracts HAD to be honored, so as such there was little room for new talent.
This situation became pretty dire (as it extended to production crew and directors alike), and caused what was tantamount to crisis in the late 1960's. The only way for studio's to re-engage with their audiences was to allow New Creative Talent to take over from the stalwarts of the previous generation.
This transition became known as New Hollywood, and is what gave birth to the American Auteurs (Coppola, Kubrick, Peckinpah etc..). you'll notice that after around 1968 (ish), films start to become not only more graphic and controversial, but also took greater risks in using unknown, younger actors. Dustin Hoffman and Jack Nicholson got their big breaks during this period, to name but a few.
Also, the 1950's was (for the most part) before the Teen Explosion: the introduction of 'The Teenager' as a marketable entity, with its own personality and traits. James Dean was at the threshold of this movement, and for most of the 1950's was really the only younger megastar.
This list of The most Handsome actors of the 1950's has James Dean as the only actor under the age of 30, and he died in 55'.
To Summarize, the 1950's idea of a leading male was an older, wiser, stronger representation of masculinity than we have today, and as such they picked their stars to match.
Its not imagining, you are probably right that in current films actor appear younger then their real age but in older film they look same to their age or might be older.
Some of my friend told me that in 3 Idiots, the face wrinkles of the leading actor (Aamir Khan) is removed digitally in the film, so that he can look like a college aged boy. So now days not only makeup but they also changes faces digitally. Similarly these days actor/actresses have cosmetic surgeries to look younger for films.
Also black and white film shows off lines and wrinkles far more than todays digital colored film and TV.
I watch old shows almost exclusively, even though I am from the 90s era in high school. I notice men in 50s shows looking like guys in their early 50s look today, having actually been in their early 40s for real at the time. The women look younger though often. They used older and also more real looking people it seems. Women had wrinkles at ages they usually do, then, whereas today everyone gets botox. I prefer the old way. I enjoy people appearing as real folks, not some unattainable mold.
Everything has more depth in black&white. In colored film and TV-shows from then the coloring was light and more washed out. I prefer that as well and it looks more real. What people look in old shows is more real, I say. Today digital manipulation changes faces and weight. I see a star or singer on TV, then happened to personally meet them, and the difference is striking!
I will forever watch classics and old shows above anything newer. The content appeals to me more. Guys talk differently as well. There's a noticeable way guys spoke then in film, especially gangster and cop shows.