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?

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    I don't really buy this or consider this to be a constructive exercise. How about a few examples to make your case? How older or unattractive does Elizabeth Taylor look in this 1950 image? Dec 11, 2013 at 9:48
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    This isn't opinion based, there was a definite identifiable trend in using older actors pre-1960. There are Academic Books written on the subject. Dec 12, 2013 at 12:36
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    I have tried to improve the question a bit and would propose reopening (even if it could deserve some more substance, maybe some examples or more elaboration on how they look older or something similar). I for myself would not regard it "primarily opinion-based" (and not only because I have made this observation, too) as it is explicitly asking if there is a difference or not (even the original version of the question did this). But I tried to remove the statements about attractivity that could come across as subjective opinion.
    – Napoleon Wilson
    Dec 12, 2013 at 13:07
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    @coleopterist The question of the OP didn't go into any particular direction, I think (which is why I tried to open it a bit more with the minor edit). He just saw some difference and wanted to know why that is. When older actors are chosen, they of course look older. The OP didn't give any direction into where the answer should lead (apart from the admittedly non-optimal tags maybe), the make-up and stuff was just the only thing that came to his mind, but he also asked for "some other reason". I think John's answer adressed the OP's original question (even before my edit to it) perfectly.
    – Napoleon Wilson
    Dec 12, 2013 at 16:14
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    there is the whole Tom Cruise (et al) in Oblivion vs. Wilford Brimley in Cocoon...huffingtonpost.com/2012/05/31/… and this news.moviefone.com/2011/09/29/…
    – Ben Plont
    Dec 13, 2013 at 2:49

2 Answers 2


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.

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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.

  • I've just realized I neglected Actresses from this answer too, so its kinda incomplete. Apologies. Dec 11, 2013 at 17:31
  • You could probably argue additionally that the age as a percentage of life expectancy was higher even if the average age of actors didn't change (life expectancy has grown quite quickly). This is a secondary effect to actual average actor age being higher, but it probably matters to what age people are perceived to be.
    – matt_black
    Dec 31, 2013 at 20:04

It's not imagining. You are probably right that in current films actor appear younger than 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.

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    Something else to consider is today's actors take better care of themselves than they did then. Less smoking, more physical training, etc. They pay people to take care of them (trainers, dietitians, managers, etc.). I don't think it's imagination either, but there are a lot more reasons than digital enhancement. Dec 11, 2013 at 11:44
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    @Paulster2 I always thought it to be more of a social/cultural difference. That actors back then were just older than their roles, or the combination of older men with younger women was just more common, or it was more common/desireable for men to look older/more mature.
    – Napoleon Wilson
    Dec 11, 2013 at 11:53
  • Another aspect which could be happening is the digitization of older movies where they used to be presented in 480x640 on analog TV sets and now are shown in 1080p on digital ones. Doing this provides a lot more detail they never used to worry about. 1080p is not kind to actors. Dec 11, 2013 at 11:53
  • @Paulster2 yup, that's also true. I just presented few of them. There could be many other reason too.
    – Ankit Sharma
    Dec 11, 2013 at 12:37

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