09/29/2011 09:19 am ET Updated Nov 29, 2011

Watching the Generational Shift Among Actors

It doesn't happen often. But every once in a while the stars -- such as they are -- align correctly and you suddenly see it: the tectonic shift in Hollywood when one generation of actors clicks into the superstar gear, just as the next generation of stars locks in right behind them.

It's that next generation that excites. You can see them moving into position to be the superstars of tomorrow. Certainly, a handful of them already are. They're already competing for the roles of the major stars -- and the major stars suddenly recognize just how short their tenure could be.

I caught a glimpse of that this summer and it's become clearer in the past month. It was as much about seeing older stars suddenly fade as watching new ones emerge. But a pair of movies in particular made me look at this hard enough to really see the boundaries separating the generations, to recognize that sometimes incremental, sometimes astonishingly swift transition.

The two movies were Larry Crowne and The Ides of March. One was a commercial flop (though it's still a movie which, having seen it twice, I enjoyed immensely); the other will be released next week.

(I'm talking about actors only here; actresses face entirely different challenges, which I'll address at another time.)

Larry Crowne marked Tom Hanks, who is now 55, as a star who can no longer open a movie. Not that he's lost anything as an actor -- or as a writer-director. He hasn't; he gave a nuanced, witty and heartfelt performance in the film, which was entertaining and thoughtful. But the movie flopped, for a couple of reasons (and neither of them were the odd hair coloring or the cosmetic adjustments that made Hanks look preternaturally smooth-faced for a man of his age).

The first is that Hanks isn't a star who is attractive to the demographic -- the 18-to-34 crowd -- that crowns box-office stars. And the second is that the audience that is interested in Hanks -- which is closer to his own age -- isn't rushing out to see movies on their opening weekend. Really, it's sort of the same reason, just seen from different angles.

Hanks -- like Harrison Ford, Tom Cruise, Bruce Willis, Mel Gibson, Kevin Costner and a few others -- is a star of the 1980s. He had his best decade as an actor in the 1990s, winning two Oscars. But he became a star in the 1980s, as did the others I mentioned.

Hanks is actually part of a cusp group: too young to be part of the great crop of actors and stars of the '60s/'70s (Hoffman, Pacino, De Niro, Nicholson, Duvall, Hackman, Eastwood, Beatty, Redford) -- and too old to be part of the current crop of superstars, who began to hit their stride in the 1990s.

This commentary continues on my website.