In 1932, when he was in his mid-40s, Boris Karloff played “The Mummy,” wearing old-age makeup for most of the film. But during a flashback, he is presumed to be very young, in his 20s perhaps. And it works, partly because we’ve already gotten used to seeing Karloff so much older for nearly an hour, but also because of Hollywood trickery — it’s a gauzy long shot.
The 1965 gothic thriller “Hush … Hush, Sweet Charlotte” opens with a gruesome sequence that prominently features the title character as a teenager before the film jumps 37 years ahead. Bette Davis, who was 55 at the time, plays her younger self for a quick moment in a long shot, first with her head down, then obscured by shadows, before a younger actress takes over as her teenage character.
For most of the 1984 baseball fable “The Natural,” Robert Redford stars as 34-year-old Roy Hobbs, and he’s convincing, despite Redford being in his late 40s. But it’s a little trickier when, early in the film, he plays the character at 19. Initially, long shots, backlighting and shadows help, and then Redford is left to his own devices as the audience has, presumably, adjusted to the illusion. (Same with then-36-year-old Glenn Close briefly playing a 17- or 18-year-old in the same film.)
These are illustrations of how movie magic once dealt with older movie stars playing characters that had to be shown as younger for a flashback or two.
But nowadays, CGI does the job. Well, most of the time.
A smaller independent film, like “The Hero,” which stars grizzled 72-year-old Sam Elliott, can’t afford computer-generated imagery, so scenes of Elliott starring in a Western movie some 40 years earlier are shown as dreams or remembrances, and he simply plays them as his 72-year-old self — no illusions necessary.
But for the big guns — that is, the summer blockbusters that can afford all the CGI in the world — it’s a different story.
There’s a trend afoot, particularly noticeable with 54-year-old Johnny Depp and 66-year-old Kurt Russell getting digital facelifts for flashbacks in a couple of this year’s biggest hits.
Depp’s singular portrayal of Captain Jack Sparrow is shown in a much-younger incarnation for a back story moment in “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales.” And through CGI wizardry, darned if he doesn’t appear to be the Depp who made his film debut in “A Nightmare On Elm Street” some 33 years ago.
Russell, who seems to have been around forever, having begun his movie career at age 11 in an Elvis Presley flick, “It Happened at the World’s Fair” (1963), is made younger via computer voodoo for the role of Ego in “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2.”
But perhaps this is becoming passé by now.
Then-59-year-old Jeff Bridges was given the CGI treatment in 2010 for “Tron: Legacy”; Michael Douglas, now 72, had a similar youthful makeover for flashbacks in “Ant-Man” a couple of years ago; and Carrie Fisher, who was then pushing 60, was made to resemble her younger Princess Leia self for the final scene of last year’s “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.”
And don’t forget how buff actor Chris Evans was made to appear to be a frail runt for the early scenes of “Captain America” (2011).
Although there may be other examples I’ve overlooked, the serious kickoff for this trend can be traced to that backward-aging, Oscar-winning, box-office hit “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” (2008), which gave Brad Pitt a major onscreen age shuffling.
Where is all this going? Hard to say, of course. But there have long been ominous predictions that computer animation might advance to the stage that actors can be replicated to the degree that they won’t even need to show up on the set.
Or that if a modern filmmaker wants to make a movie starring Cary Grant and Jean Harlow, it might not be all that difficult.
You may think that’s stretching the point … until you remember the character of Grand Moff Tarkin in “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story” — played by what appeared to be a digitized Peter Cushing, who died in 1994. Actually, it was actor Guy Henry, overlaid with Cushing’s digital likeness.
Some of these de-aged or re-created characters — maybe all of them — aren’t as natural and fluid and, well, human, as they could be.
And some are downright creepy.
But, baby steps being what they are, who’s to say what lies ahead?