"I am also inclined to overuse the word 'old,' which actually has less to do with age, as it seems to me, than it does with familiarity. It sets a thing apart as something regarded with a modest, habitual affection. Sometimes it suggests haplessness or vulnerability. I say 'old Boughton,' I say 'this shabby old town,' and I mean that they are very near my heart." (From Gilead by Marilynne Robinson)
The late films in a filmmaker's career are often dismissed, forgotten or treated offhandedly. Whether it is Billy Wilder, Jean Renoir, Fritz Lang, Hasse Ekman or somebody else, that tendency is strong. But this is almost always unfair and frequently based on critics and scholars inability to accept change and growth. The films might be different and that in itself is taken as proof of decline.
For me, one of the rewards of following a filmmaker, and also of seeing their films in order, is to experience the arrow of time, see how technologies, context, sentiments and ideas change and evolve and affect the films. But there is something else as well, something more personal and human, and that is to see the filmmakers (or feel them) age, grow old. Especially when their leading actors remain the same and grow old with the filmmaker. Two especially poignant examples of this are Howard Hawks and Yasujiro Ozu.
David Bordwell wrote in Ozu and the Poetics of Cinema that Ozu "lives along with his audience" but he also lived with his cast in a way, and so did Hawks, including in their shooting processes. Uniquely so with Ozu (born 1903) who worked with Chishû Ryû (born 1904) already in the late 1920s and all the way until his last film An Autumn Afternoon (1962).
Ryû in Ozu's There Was a Father (1942).
Hawks did not have the same lifelong commitment to one particular actor but he did have a particular affection for a certain age group, just slightly younger than him (born in 1896) and especially Cary Grant (born 1904) and John Wayne (born 1907), so that by using them in film after film the main characters in Hawks's films age with him. (The presence of Walter Brennan (born 1894) in Hawks's films, from Barbary Coast (1935) and onward, somehow always as an old man, is a different, but amusing, story.)
Hawks, Grant and Rita Hayworth in 1939.
Wayne in Red River (1948).
Wayne in Rio Bravo (1959).
With Hawks it is primarily the main character who grows old, the other male actors in the films may or may not be of the same age as him, and the women do not necessarily age. But the role of the women change, they become less of romantic companions and instead friends. In Rio Lobo (1970), Wayne's character is treated like a comfortable old man by the women, somebody to hide behind when the young, attractive men get too fresh. With Ozu both men and women grow old, In Late Autumn (1960), Setsuko Hara (born 1920), while not particularly old, plays a widow trying to get her daughter to marry. Hara and Ozu had worked together since Late Spring (1949), in which she played the daughter and Ryu her father, trying to get her to marry,
In Hawks penultimate film El Dorado (1966), Cole Thornton (Wayne) and J.P Harrah (Robert Mitchum, born 1917) are both showing their age, and their bodies fail them in various ways. Not necessarily due to old age but it is there anyway. There is a woman whom Cole is vaguely linked to, Maudie (played by Charlene Holt, born 1928), but she seems to be there just as a friend. As Hawks himself has said, El Dorado is a love story between two men, and in the final scene it is Cole and J.P. walking, or limping, side by side, not Cole and Maudie.
Ozu, with his more melancholy disposition, ends his last film, An Autumn Afternoon with this shot of a lonely old man, played by Ryû, in the kitchen.
But it is not all pain and suffering. Here is a delightful scene when J.P takes a bath, attended to by Cole.
Films are alive, made by humans, with humans, and through them we can experience life, see it being lived in front of our eyes. That is one of the wonders of the art form.
Ozu and Hawks are not alone in this regard. Ingmar Bergman is another good example of someone whose characters and actors grow old with him.