I Was So Much Older Then: Aging on Screen in Star Wars, The Before Trilogy, The Up Series, and the Films of Harold Lloyd

The last time we thought we’d ever see Luke Skywalker in the flesh, he was a young man, walking away from the past of his ancestors and smiling in accomplishment beside his friends at an Ewok barbecue. Then, 32 years later, a man atop an island cliff turns toward the camera, lowers his hood, and reveals himself: greying, bearded, regretful Luke Skywalker. In either sequence he doesn’t speak, but the stark contrast between his young hopefulness and elderly sorrow is palpable.

In this era of sequels, prequels, reboots, alternate timelines, and cinematic universes, many outspoken critics have decried the lack of originality that Hollywood studios have shown as they rely on familiarity and nostalgia for assured box office success. It would be naive to deny such financial incentives exist in spades, but that doesn’t negate the filmic narrative possibilities available to screenwriters and directors in mounting such stories in a kind of longform that is rarely afforded to characters on screen. As film is primarily a visual artform and, unlike theater, transcends a single evening’s performance, a film series presents us with perhaps the most in-depth way to view and examine the aging process in art. We not only have the opportunity to see the human body at different stages of its development and deterioration, but can also follow fictional (or real) characters we once met in their youth now entering later life, the physicality of the face and body revealing lived experiences which occurred offscreen.

For this reason, I could not help but be fascinated by the brief glimpse of an aged Luke in the final seconds of The Force Awakens, even though his appearance is a mere coda to the rest of the film. I suspect that many others secretly thrilled at the reveal shot of Luke as a type of resolution to the more than three decades lapse between his appearances. But why? We’d all seen Mark Hamill in the ensuing years since Return of the Jedi. There is nothing tantalizing about simply seeing him sport a beard or wear a robe. But when he assumes the role that children of the ’70s and ’80s once thrilled to, watching him go from simple farmboy to Jedi Master, we are no longer seeing the physical progression of Mark Hamill. The facial lines and patches of grey that the actor has accrued since 1983 are no longer the results of long hours on set or in the recording booth. They are instead the marks of a noble Jedi striving to reestablish the Republic, train a new generation of students, and cope with the tragic betrayal of his own nephew. We read all of that on the changed visage of the elder Luke, without his ever uttering a word.

In part, this was George Lucas’ vision, as Hamill himself once testified in a daytime interview. Lucas approached him during filming and asked if he would be willing to play “an Obi-Wan-type character handing Excalibur down to the next generation…around 2011.” Although Lucas declared himself out of the business of making Star Wars movies after 2005, and sold the rights to his series to Disney in 2012, that moment was nonetheless made a reality in J.J. Abrams’ The Force Awakens and Rian Johnson’s follow up, The Last Jedi. (Don’t worry. I won’t mention the latter film again for fear of conjuring up all of its divisive controversy.) Lucas’ original intent stems from his love of mythology and its multi-generational nature, where, for example, various Greek tragedies depict Agamemnon from his youth to middle age before he passes the story to his son Orestes. What these myths lacked was a central actor who might commit to reprising the role of the character in successive years to add verisimilitude and depth to the physicality of the time spent between stories. Even if the classical tragedians had such an actor devoted to a role, his performance would have been fleeting and undocumented without the modern storytelling technique of cinema.

Lucas may not have realized such a vision on his own, but Richard Linklater has utilized this unique capability of film in multiple ways over the years, to benefit his audience’s investment in characters over longer periods of time. Many would point to his 2014 Oscar-nominated Boyhood as the best example of this, but while such a film indicates his fascination with time and the process of growth, his earlier series of films, popularly known as The Before Trilogy, examines aging and lends more depth to its characters through the bodily progression they display on screen. The series chronicles two lovers who meet spontaneously on a European train (Before Sunrise), then again nine years later in Paris (Before Sunset), and then vacation together in Greece (Before Midnight) after another nine years have passed.

Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Céline (Julie Delpy) start out in Before Sunrise as fresh-faced, naive youths, their young bodies immediately contrasted with those of a middle-aged couple whose argument on the train (a foreshadowing of the intense fight the lovers have for most of the last third of Before Midnight) precedes the initial meeting of the couple. They are not only superior to the quarreling couple because their relationship is brand new, but because they themselves are at once identifiable as young, hopeful, innocent, and surely incapable of forging a relationship that would produce such heated disputes between them.

In Before Sunset, the noticeable physical change in Jesse and Céline’s ages is shown through a flashback. As Jesse describes the idea for the book he wants to write―where a pop song transports a man back from his middle age to his youth, the night he lost his virginity—Linklater shows us the faces of the young couple we remember (though we have not yet seen Céline contemporaneously) interspersed with the older Jesse, his thinner face, shorter hair, and additional wrinkles. Then, he surprises us with a direct cut, from Sunrise-Céline to our first shot of Sunset-Céline. It happens so fast that it’s almost hard to notice the nine years of age that have marked older Céline’s face; it’s almost as if, just as Jesse narrates, he is “there in both moments simultaneously.” As she catches his eye, he continues, “It’s obvious to him that time is a lie.” This is the magic of filmmaking: in an instant, a cut between shots, it can make time a lie.

But Jesse only wishes this were true. He wishes that this Céline was the same girl he watched board a train from Vienna nine years earlier. The truth is that time is not a lie, and has changed both of them emotionally and physically. The two comment on the physical changes as they sit together in a Parisian café; Céline asks if she looks different, and Jesse tries to play it safe by replying, “Thinner.” But Céline only worries that this means she was fat when they first met. In kind, Céline points out a line on Jesse’s forehead (a visible line that Hawke actually has) that looks “like a scar,” sending him into a similar self-conscious examination.

Linklater underlines his main characters’ further advanced ages during the villa scenes of Before Midnight by providing a young Greek couple, Achilleas and Anna, who serve as a foil to the older Jesse and Céline. They also connected spontaneously and separated soon after, but through Skype, managed to avoid the heartache and early disaster that befell our protagonists. Their youth drives home this contrast by leaving a hopeful poignancy to their relationship, one that Jesse and Céline lost a long time ago. A subtle moment during the young couple’s introduction emphasizes this as they return from a swimming trip, still wearing their bathing suits. Jesse and his friend Stefanos watch Anna walk into the house for just a little too long. Jesse then looks at Stefanos and chuckles as they attempt to return to their conversation. In a lesser film, this might imply a lecherous affair on Jesse’s part to complicate the plot (though Céline later suggests this has happened at least once before), but here it seems to only highlight the longing of these older men for the bodies and relationships of their youth. When Stefanos later asks the couple if their Skype sessions ever “go a little crazy,” the interest and nostalgia for a younger body is further verbalized.

And yet, it is only in the final film of the trilogy that Linklater, Hawke, and Delpy (as the two actors had assisted Linklater in the writing process during Sunset and Midnight) depict an explicit sex scene featuring partial female nudity. In juxtaposition to the more common display of sex and nudity in mainstream films, Céline is now 43 and presented not as an idealized object of lust, but rather as a woman with a realistic, lived-in body. In a society where the age gap between leading men and leading ladies in films is ever widening, and mainstream actresses who aren’t named Meryl or Mirren find themselves cast less and less often after turning 40, Jesse and Céline are not just a unique cinematic celebration of a realistic couple, but also of the ensuing years that develop and deteriorate a relationship made manifest in the physical aging evident on film between 1995’s Sunrise and 2013’s Midnight.

Besides its focus on aging rather than growth, another major difference between The Before Trilogy and Boyhood is the opportunity for gaps in viewing provided by the staggered release of each film. Linklater was employing the opposite tactic in making Boyhood, by delaying its release until the end of the 12-plus years it took to produce. This means that, in a single viewing, we watch Mason go from a 6-year-old boy in 2002 all the way to his first day as a college freshman in 2013. For those who saw Before Sunrise in 1995 and watched the subsequent sequels upon release, Jesse and Céline aged along with their audience. It is only since Before Midnight’s completion that viewers could watch multiple films in a row and “fast-forward” through the time and ages of the characters.

It’s hard to imagine that Linklater was not inspired by Michael Apted’s The Up Series in making these films. Apted’s landmark set of documentaries follows several British citizens from the age of 7 to 56. (63 Up is currently scheduled to film at the end of 2018 for a release in spring 2019.) But while reviews for Boyhood often referenced Apted’s work, the fact that The Up Series is a series aligns it much more closely in process and viewing experience with The Before Trilogy.

Just as with Linklater’s fictional series, though, now that so many entries are readily available, the question becomes: how should we watch them? Should we embrace the popular practice of “binge-watching” to satiate our appetite for more of the “story” (even though, in this case, the “story” is a window into someone’s real life)? As part of an excellent video essay that does connect both series, Andrew Saladino of The Royal Ocean Film Society contends that “The Up Series…[are] films that, I believe, especially if you’re watching for the first time, absolutely require time spent away before moving on to the next installment.” Saladino’s point is based on the need for the viewer to grow and change along with the subjects of the series. Conversely, in an interview with Apted for the 49 Up DVD release, Roger Ebert promotes the opposite approach with an example from a viewer who, upon his first viewing, watched the first six of the films within 24 hours and had “a metaphysical experience.” “He had seen not their lives,” Ebert states, “but life itself. Life flashing across his screen.” Apted concurs and adds, “And it’s your own life, too. I mean, you see your own life flash past.”

As the medium of film lets us watch the human body transmogrify, so too does it grow and change along with the bodies it documents. Each entry in The Up Series was made in a different generation of film technology and technique, and so with each one, the camera captures its subjects differently, whether on black and white film stock, grainy video, or digitally. Seven Up! looks and feels very much like the short, mid-‘60s television documentary that it is, 28 Up is of a kind with 1980s British television, and it’s not until 42 Up that Apted even begins shooting in a 16:9 aspect ratio.

But perhaps the most fascinating example of a character aging alongside the film medium comes from many decades before. In one of the earliest cases of a popular actor reprising his role after multiple decades, Harold Lloyd portrays the same character in Fred Newmeyer and Sam Taylor’s The Freshman (1925) and Preston Sturges’ The Sin of Harold Diddlebock (1947). Though the latter film inexplicably changes the protagonist’s name from Harold Lamb to Harold Diddlebock, it is intended as a late sequel to The Freshman (written to entice Lloyd out of retirement) that shows us what happens to the title character in the years after he wins “the big game” and graduates from Tate College.In an era long before digital de-aging, it is a bold move to cut directly from a shot of Lloyd in his early 30s to one of him in his mid 50s portraying the same character. But Lloyd was notorious for keeping himself in excellent shape and the transition feels almost seamless. His posture, smile, and exuberance all feel consistent with a man around college age. Then, as Harold sits down to begin his new job, the camera pans to a nearby image of President Warren G. Harding and a wall calendar (incorrectly dated for 1923, since that was the date of Harold’s freshman year in college). This leads to a montage of several presidents and several years on the calendar, until we reach 1945 and pan back to Harold, still at the same desk, still working the same job, but now displaying the physicality of a man Lloyd’s natural age of 54. As he is subsequently called into his boss’s office and fired from his job, his face seems to sag more than it did in previous scenes. His posture is more hunched and he walks slowly, with less self-confidence than he once did. Even his voice is lower—quieter and less full of life.

Of course, this last change is the most significant. The Freshman is a silent film, and Harold Lloyd was one of the most famous silent film stars. The Sin of Harold Diddlebock is what was once called a “talkie.” The shift from silent film to talkie is perhaps the greatest leap forward in the technology of cinema, and Lloyd’s two films stand on either side of that gap. Sturges’ script seems knowingly self-aware of this shift in its first new scenes with Lloyd. When the businessman who later becomes his boss introduces himself to Harold in the locker room, Harold replies twice with a loud “What?!?” as if he has never heard audible dialogue before.

But the visual style of Sturges also contrasts greatly with that of directors Newmeyer and Taylor, who helmed most of Lloyd’s silent-era classics. This is most apparent when Sturges sets a scene on the ledge of an office building, where Harold and his friend are chasing an escaped lion. The scene is strongly reminiscent of Lloyd’s most famous set-piece from Safety Last! where he scales a department store building as part of a publicity stunt (and to impress his girlfriend). In Diddlebock’s scene, Sturges eventually has Harold’s foot get caught in the chain hanging from the lion’s collar and sends him swinging out over the city street. In Safety’s version, at the top of the building Harold is knocked in the head and dizzily catches his foot in a rope from a flagpole, eventually falling from the ledge and swinging wildly back and forth. While the silent film has a balletic, symmetrical quality that feels both elegant and realistically dangerous, Diddlebock’s swinging is farcical, chaotic, and obviously filmed in front of a rear projection screen (a technique much more popular in the 1940s than during Lloyd’s early career). In this way, the character has aged into a much more awkward and unwieldy older man, and the film that features him seems to have done the same.

All of these films, whether fiction or documentary, silent or sound, sci-fi or realistic, share at least one message inherent to the nature of the film series: endings are not really endings. The moment we watch the camera iris in on our favorite character is not where the story must conclude. In the case of The Up Series, the story goes on throughout the life of its participants (and even beyond, through their influence on later generations). Though big name film studios may use continuing series of films as tent poles to turn a safer profit, the sequel, telling the same story of a character as he or she grows and ages, is as old as any extant text in Western civilization. The great innovation of film in this regard is its ability to draw us in by showing us a real person who embodies that character and puts the physical marks of aging on display where we can see them. And as human beings who grow and age just the same as these characters, we can identify with the slower pace, the lines on the faces, and the changing bodies of those on screen, which furthers our empathy, deepens our connection, and, hopefully, helps us to interpret our own experiences of walking the slow path of growing old.