Data Reveals The Optimum Age For Acting Success
The topic of age in Hollywood isn’t new, especially when it comes to casting older actresses in blockbusters. However, with Tom Cruise and Bruce Willis reprising their roles in their high-octane action-thriller franchises, it seems age really is just a number to those in charge.
With the advent of de-ageing technology that makes flashback scenes so easy, as well as a shift in attitudes following movements such as #MeToo (which has highlighted wider issues in the industry, including ageism), are films now showing a broader spectrum of ages?
Interested to find out more, the team here at OnBuy wanted to discover when, according to box office ratings, a star today might reach their peak. We looked at the average ages of actors and actresses when they landed their lead roles to find out what the optimum age for acting success really is.
1. 30 - 39 years old (27.2%)
Perhaps unsurprisingly, data shows that those in Tinseltown reach their career peak at a similar age to us ‘normals’. We can safely assume that they’ve spent their early 20s making a name for themselves and honing their craft, so they’re ready to come into their own a decade later.
It was at the age of 38 that Harrison Ford exploded onto our screens as the whip-wielding, fedora-wearing Indiana Jones in The Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) - the same age as Tom Hanks when he played the beloved Forrest Gump over 10 years later. Despite having won accolades for Elizabeth I at 29, Cate Blanchett was 35 when she enchanted a wider audience as Galadriel in the epic Lord of the Rings trilogy.
2. 40 - 49 years old (25%)
Trailing just behind our most successful age group, the 40-49-year-olds have a wide range of box office hits under their belts too. We all know that with experience comes great responsibility, but also greater roles - the higher the profile, the higher the exposure for the film itself.
Both Robert De Niro and Samuel L. Jackson starred in the legendary Martin Scorsese film GoodFellas in 1990, which is widely regarded as one of the greatest films of all time, and were 47 and 41 respectively at the time of filming. The much-missed Robin Williams won Best Supporting Actor for his role in Good Will Hunting (1998) at the age of 46 - surprisingly his last Academy Award.
3. 50 - 59 years old (17.4%)
Coming third in our list, the 50-59 age group is the time that film reviewers begin using words such as ‘distinguished’, ‘esteemed’ and ‘respected’. It’s that “silver fox” stereotype that has George Clooney, Colin Firth and Jamie Foxx being cast in central roles, while women of a similar age are viewed with less mystique (but more on that later).
Having spent many years in theatre, Anthony Hopkins found global fame as the chillingly charismatic Hannibal Lecter in Silence of the Lambs (1991) at 53, which earned him both a BAFTA and Academy Award. In fact, the legendary star just made history at the 2021 Academy Awards, becoming the oldest-ever acting Oscar winner for his role in The Father (2020). 30 years on from his performance as Hannibal Lecter, Anthony Hopkins now falls into the 80-89 age group, which has one of the smallest success percentages of all age groups studied (1%). With this new win under his belt, it’s fair to say that talent truly has no age limit.
But it’s not just the likes of George Clooney and Anthony Hopkins who have been finding success in their respective age groups. Although a star in his own right before, Taken (2008) gave Liam Neeson a new lease of life in Hollywood - because, remember, he has a very particular set of skills!
4. 20 - 29 years old (14%)
This is probably the age group you automatically think of when calling to mind actors and actresses in big blockbuster hits. This is the group of stars who will stride down the red carpet in the latest looks, adding to the glitz and glamour that Hollywood has lived off for decades.
At just 20 years old, Elijah Wood was plucked from near obscurity for the role of Frodo Baggins which gave him top billing amongst seasoned stars such as Ian McKellen, Sean Bean and Liv Tyler in Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001). Similarly, Jennifer Lawrence became a global sensation in the Hunger Games trilogy at 22, following a stellar performance in X-Men: First Class the year before.
5. 60 - 69 years old (9.3%)
Many of those who fit into this category will have had glorious, but not blockbuster-worthy, careers before hitting the big 6-0. Ian McKellen, for example, had an illustrious film and theatre career for decades before starring as Gandalf, however, this is the role that propelled him to international stardom.
Dame Judi Dench, renowned for her long and award-winning career, found fame with new audiences when cast as M in the 1995 film GoldenEye. Then 61, she would go on to star in six more of the James Bond films, only retiring that role at 78. Her contemporary, Maggie Smith, also managed to find a new demographic of fans in the Harry Potter franchise as Professor McGonagall at 66 - however her award-winning turn as Mrs Medlock in The Secret Garden (1993) will haunt any millennial.
The gender success gap
The beloved Dames of British TV, film and theatre may indeed be an anomaly when it comes to ‘making it’ in your later years in the entertainment industry. Many greats, such as Meryl Streep and Nicole Kidman, have spoken about the role gender plays when being cast as older leads.
It’s well known that while Hanks was 38 in the title role of Forrest Gump, Sally Field was just 48 while playing his mother - and ‘love her or hate her’ Jenny was played by 28-year-old Robin Wright.
Actresses under 40
As our data shows, actresses in the biggest blockbusters can be seen finding fame early on. 24.8% of the actresses included in our study were starring in the biggest and brightest roles in their 20s.
Emma Watson became well-known for her role as Hermione Granger in Harry Potter, then soared to celebrity status with films such as Beauty and the Beast (2017) and Little Women (2019) while in her late 20s.
Almost one third (31.4%) of actresses in our study make up the 30-39 age group, which is nicely in line with our findings above. Although Anne Hathaway had made a name for herself in her 20s, these were mainly rom-coms; turning 30 saw her hit new heights as the fated Fantine in Les Miserables in 2012.
Bryce Dallas Howard has seen a similar uptick in fame following her turn as the contemptible Hilly Holbrook in The Help (2011). Perhaps most famous of all, however, is Gal Gadot who at 32 skyrocketed to fame as Wonder Woman in 2017.
Actresses over 40
The percentage of actresses starring in blockbuster films after they’re 40 drops quite considerably. For those in the 40-49 age bracket, it’s 18.4%, while it’s only 11.6% of our list who are 50-59. Single figures then make up our remaining age brackets.
In stark contrast, 26.4% of actors in our list are 40-49 when cast in box office winners, and although this number drops with each decade, it is far more gradual. The 50-59 age group sees 18.6% of our actors making blockbusters, while 10% are still making headlines in the 60-69 group.
Nicole Kidman is no stranger to the fame and celebrity that comes with Hollywood, having spent decades starring in hits since the mid-90s. Since turning 40, her star hasn’t dimmed, with high-profile roles in The Golden Compass (2007), Australia (2008), and Aquaman (2018). Much was made of her portrayal of Queen Atlanna, which followed the Gump-like trope of her being just a decade older than Jason Momoa.
Another 2018 film, Ocean’s Eight, hit the headlines for its all-female casting, many of whom were 40+. Sandra Bullock, as Debbie Ocean, was 54 while Cate Blanchet was 49 playing her right-hand woman, Lou.
Rebranding an original franchise as female-centric saw mixed reviews, but it was a bold and important move from Hollywood that has been plagued with accusations of ageism and sexism for decades.
- Using The Numbers ‘Top Live Action Stars at the Worldwide Box Office’ list, OnBuy.com were able to find the 200 highest grossing actors/actresses. For this, roles in animated movies were excluded from the calculations, as were voice-only roles in live action films, and cameos. This list was chosen as live-action stars are more recognisable.
- The list was based on the cumulative worldwide box office of all the movies each actor and actress had a live action acting role in over their lifetime, to find the highest grossing.
- Using the list of 200 box office stars, the filmography of each actor/actress was looked at over their whole career and data gathered for each film using OMDb API. The box office data used is based on the gross in the USA market.
- Using birth dates, actor/actress ages at the time of each film release were calculated. By using the earliest film release for each actor/actress, years active at time of release was also calculated.
- The ages of all the actors/actresses were then averaged across all their live action films to see at which age range the actors/actresses landed most of their roles.
- The ages were then grouped into 10-year stages to see at what age the actors/actresses landed most of their roles.
- Average ages found for actors and actresses were then compared to see if there was a difference in when each gender landed most of their roles, as well as when they’re most likely to see a decline in their number of roles they secure.