John Wayne was in his early 40s when he played the 60-something Nathan Brittles in She Wore a Yellow Ribbon.
  • John Wayne was in his early 40s when he played the 60-something Nathan Brittles in She Wore a Yellow Ribbon.

One of the more striking aspects of Blue Is the Warmest Color, which I caught up with only recently, is that for the movie’s second half, lead actress Adèle Exarchopoulos is playing a character notably older than herself. Exarchopoulos, who’s still in her teens and looks it, is called upon to play at such adult experiences as cohabitation and starting a career. Her forward-looking performance brings to mind similar challenges faced by Sandrine Bonnaire (then 15) in A Nos Amours, Lola Créton (then 17) in Goodbye First Love, and the entire cast of Bugsy Malone. It’s common to see actors pretending to be younger than they are—it happens all the time in Hollywood biopics, when middle-aged performers incarnate their subjects from young adulthood and on. We accept this convention because we know the performers used to be young and have memories they can draw from to create their characters. Teenage actors, on the other hand, have no first-hand experience of being older and have to work much harder to suspend our disbelief.

With the right makeup, filmmakers can create the illusion of age (as Chaplin did, infamously, with Lita Grey in The Kid), but this illusion is often flimsy. Lasting film images draw their power from authenticity—if not in the form of documentary realism, then in some palpable conviction that shines through the make-believe. Créton’s performance in First Love has that in spades. Though I doubt that film was shot in sequence (very few are), in each scene Créton seems to have internalized all that’s come before. A remarkably self-aware actress, she succeeds in playing an adult by taking stock of the qualities that define her adolescence (which is what gives the early scenes their hyperreal electricity), then carefully subtracting them from her character. It’s one of the best performances by a teenage actor I’ve seen—to compare it with Exarchopoulos’s work in Blue would be unfair to the latter.

Around this time of year, I usually think about two of my favorite male characters in American movies, Sergeant Nathan Brittles of John Ford’s She Wore a Yellow Ribbon and Jeffrey Wigand of Michael Mann’s The Insider. Both are rueful, over-the-hill professionals played by younger actors at the height of their celebrity and sex appeal. John Wayne was just past 40 when Yellow Ribbon was made; Crowe was only 35 when he appeared in Insider. Yet both poignantly convey the wounded pride of authoritative men coming to realize they’ve outgrown their authority. Perhaps these performances gain from the youth of the performers. To empathize with these characters when they themselves were on top of the world, they must have had to acknowledge the fleeting nature of their success. Their performances reflect uncommon humility.