What’s so special about 1937?

Art & Culture

75 years ago, two years before WW2, and a year after Colin Firth became Britain's most famous stuttering king, something happened which changed the face of cinema, although it took a long time for anyone to realise. Any idea what I'm talking about?

Well, I'll tell you. In 1937, the following children were born. Jack Nicholson, Morgan Freeman, Anthony Hopkins, Dustin Hoffman, Vanessa Redgrave, Jane Fonda, Warren Beatty. Some of the biggest names in the history of Hollywood were all born within 12 months of each other, though in very different circumstances, finding their way to the top by very different routes.

Fonda and Redgrave were born into the business. Jane's father Henry was one of the biggest stars of his time, while Redgrave's dad, Michael, was a big star in the UK. This is not to disparage their achievements, so much as to suggest that it's hard to for women to get to the top and stay there, and a familiar surname doesn't hurt.

Warren Beatty (brother, don't let's forget, of Shirley Maclaine) was a star by the age of 24 in 1961.

Dustin Hoffman's big break came in 1967, when he had to pretend to be a 20 year old, despite being 30, and seducing a 'much older' woman (Anne Bancroft) who was only 8 years his senior.

Nicholson had to wait until the end of the 1960s, before he lucked into a small role in a small film that made him a big star. Easy Rider was meant to be a low budget biker movie, and the role of George Hanson – who only appears in the film for about 20 minutes, was offered to Rip Torn. When he was unavailable, Nicholson got the part, and never looked back, after Easy Rider grossed $41 million (and cost $360,000).

Next in line for stardom was Anthony Hopkins, though his rise to prominent was more gradual and less dramatic. You could argue that it wasn't until Silence Of The Lambs that he became a major star, by which time he was 55, although he'd been appearing in movies (and on TV and in the theatre) for 25 years by then.

And Morgan Freeman's moment came in 1989, by which time, he too had been acting for a quarter of a century, with much less success than Hopkins. Was it because he's black? Couldn't possibly say.

As I write, these seven actors are at very different stages of their careers. Freeman has become the cinematic equivalent of Nelson Mandela (as well as having played him). He does God, voiceovers for nature documentaries and pretty much anything else that requires rolling familiar bass tones, and he'll be seen for the third time as Lucius Fox in the new Batman movie. He's an institution, and probably makes a healthy living that way without the trouble of acting too much.

Hopkins had his moments, but acknowledges that he's now pretty much a name for hire. He certainly strikes me as a man who has no interest in meeting new challenges, and is happy to take the money, without having to do any running.

Nicholson probably achieved greater things than any of the others in his heyday. Five Easy Pieces, The Last Detail, Chinatown and One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest are films to be proud of being involved in. Even in his later years, he did some great stuff – About Schmidt and The Pledge, but it seems as if the fires have finally died down, and we won't be seeing much more of him.

Hoffman is a remarkable study in how an actor can shift, both in the roles he takes and the public's perception of him. From being a vain and self-obsessed young man he has turned into a cuddly, sweet-hearted and even genuinely comic actor, whose smile rarely leaves his face. He's even directed his first film to be released later this year, and seems to be enjoying life more than ever, even if it involves appearing in The Meet The Parents movies, and doing a voiceover for Kung Fu Panda. (And he and Hopkins are due to appear in front of the camera together for the first time in 2013).

Beatty started early, and finished early. He has a few high points – Bonnie & Clyde, Reds and Bulworth (trust me on that one), but a large number of duds, and an even longer period of doing bugger all except considering projects – then not doing them. It's 11 years since he made Town & Country – a complete waste of space – and we may never see him again.

Vanessa Redgrave is that rare combination of beauty, talent and passion, which nothing has ever changed. She also has an amazing voice. She stole the recent version of Coriolanus every time she was on screen, and even though she appears in dross like Letters To Juliet, she still seems to operate on a higher level than her colleagues. And none of the others had their births announced on stage by Laurence Olivier, as she did.

Finally, to Fonda. There have been times when she seemed to have packed it in, to become a political activist, a fitness guru, the wife to wealth, but she always comes back to acting, which is good news. She's not as brilliant as Redgrave, but she has a steely quality missing from most young actresses, and an ability to attract the camera in her direction.

They're an extraordinary bunch, and would have been joined by Robert Redford if he had been born a few weeks later (he's older than any of the above). Some have fulfilled their talent more successfully than others – but cinema would have been so much poorer without them.

By Phil Raby

Front Row Films

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