Hollywood is obsessed with youth. As the classic movie All About Eve showed, there’s always a younger star waiting to take over. Fortunately, that’s starting to change. Many Hollywood legends who started out strong are proving not only aren’t they past their prime, but they’re only getting better.
Some actors are finding their biggest hits and most accomplished performances decades after they started, along with critical acclaim, awards and box office success. Some celebrities are using their clout to bring attention to political or social causes. Thriving at work and making the world a better place become intertwined as they top themselves on both fronts.
Here are celebrities who have been around for a long time, but only seem to get better. They include a mix of actors and personalities, men and women. What they all have in common is their best days may still be ahead of them!
Elle Macpherson built an empire
Elle Macpherson took the world’s collective breath away when she began modeling in the ’80s. She graced her first Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue in 1986, her first of three in a row. Macpherson would later shoot two more SI swimsuit group covers. Even though Time dubbed her « The Body » (via The Daily Mail), there was more to Macpherson than looks.
Her acting career got off to a good start in Sirens, in which Variety called her « funny and saucy. » TV Guide complained she was miscast in Jane Eyre, and playing Bruce Wayne (George Clooney)’s love interest in the still-maligned Batman & Robin didn’t do her any favors. Macpherson is also a mom to two, as well as a businesswoman with her Body clothing line and Welleco nutritional supplements. Still on the forefront of fashion and beauty, Macpherson was hired to host the first New Zealand Fashion Week in September 2019.
In August 2019, Macpherson shared one way she still reigns as The Body on Instagram. When sit ups and crunches aren’t enough to flatten that tummy, Macpherson uses lymphic drainage to massage toxins out of her abs.
Leonardo DiCaprio is saving the world for real
Leonardo DiCaprio got an early start in Hollywood as a child actor on Growing Pains and movies like Critters 3. He was already Oscar-nominated at 19 for his role in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape and scored the biggest box office hit at the time with Titanic. DiCaprio used his box office clout to take challenging roles in films like The Beach, Gangs of New York, Catch Me If You Can and The Aviator but Oscar still eluded him. It was his role in the grueling survival movie The Revenant that finally won DiCaprio the Oscar in 2016, and he continues to take challenging roles like Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.
DiCaprio doesn’t just want to win awards, though. He wants to save the Earth, and he used his Oscar speech to rally against climate change. « Making The Revenant was about man’s relationship to the natural world, the world we collectively felt in 2015 as the hottest year in recorded history, » DiCaprio said in his acceptance speech. « Climate change is real. It is happening right now. It is the most urgent threat facing our entire species and we need to work collectively together and stop procrastinating. Let us not take this planet for granted. I do not take tonight for granted. »
He cofounded Earth Alliance to combat climate change and also raised $5 million via Earth Alliance to fight Amazon rain forest fires. When it comes to the planet, DiCaprio will « never let go. »
Angelina Jolie became a director and kept doing everything else
Angelina Jolie began her career as an ingenue in teen movies like Hackers and rom-coms like Playing by Heart. Her role in Girl, Interrupted landed Jolie an Oscar. Then she became an action heroine in films like Gone in 60 Seconds, Lara Croft: Tomb Raider and Mr. and Mrs. Smith. Dominating the box office led Jolie to humanitarian work and motherhood. In 2002 she adopted Maddox, whom she met while filming Lara Croft, and he was the first of many children she adopted from vulnerable regions.
She’s used her box office clout to lead humanitarian efforts throughout her career, becoming a Unicef Goodwill Ambassador and creating the Maddox Jolie-Pitt Foundation to support humanitarian efforts. At the time of publishing, Angelina Jolie is still helping Cambodia and keeps a home there. « I like the idea that you represent something that is truly like how you live in real life, » Jolie told Harper’s Bazaar Arabia in August 2019 during a tour of said Cambodian home.
Always doing more, Jolie moved behind the camera to direct films like In the Land of Blood and Honey to raise awareness of the Bosnian War and Unbroken, the life story of Lou Zamperini. Directing may take more time than acting, but she still finds time to star in big Hollywood movies like Maleficent and Marvel’s The Eternals too.
Matthew McConaughey went after roles that scared him
Matthew McConaughey got a catch phrase in his very first movie, Dazed and Confused (« All right all right all right ») and became a movie star less than five years into his acting career with 1996’s John Grisham hit A Time to Kill. He found a string of rom-com hits with The Wedding Planner, How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days and Failure to Launch. Though successful, McConaughey was in a rut.
Then came the McConaissance. McConaughey turned his career around with roles in Mud, Magic Mike, Dallas Buyers Club (for which he won an Oscar) and HBO’s True Detective. He stopped playing lovable leading men and showed his dark side — although he downplays the McConaissance, the phrase reporters loved to use to describe his comeback. « That whole thing was much less of a 180 for myself than people think, » McConaughey told Cigar Afficonado in 2018. « I put my head down and went after roles that scared me. »
After Interstellar, McConaughey continued to be about the work more than the money. Movies like Gold, The Dark Tower, White Boy Rick and Serenity haven’t made much. Neither did The Beach Bum, but the critics loved him in it as the poet Moondog. « In some ways it’s the part he was born to play, » AP‘s Lindsay Bahr said. « McConaughey gives and bares (nearly) all for this film. »
Jon Stewart joined the fight for 9/11 survivors and first responders
When Jon Stewart took over The Daily Show in 1999, he was coming off a failed MTV talk show and supporting roles in films like The Faculty and Big Daddy. Nobody expected Stewart to turn Comedy Central’s satire into an influential news program where candidates like Barack Obama would give him real interviews. Stewart covered much of the Bush and Obama administrations, but in 2015 decided it was someone else’s turn. « It’s working, but I’m not getting the same satisfaction, » Stewart told The Guardian in 2015.
During a hiatus from The Daily Show, Stewart already directed a feature film – Rosewater, which is the story of Iranian-Canadian journalist Maziar Bahari. When Bahari appeared on The Daily Show, the Iranian government didn’t get the joke. They interrogated Bahari on suspicion of being a spy. « You couldn’t do something more inane and vapid than Jason Jones in sunglasses and a kaffiyeh in a café going, ‘I am an American spy!' » Stewart told NYMag. « But you can’t control what idiots will weaponize. »
Jon Stewart has not directed another movie, but he successfully rallied Congress to provide health care to 9/11 survivors and first responders. « I’m hopeful that today begins the process of being able to heal without the burden of having to advocate, » Stewart said when the bill passed the Senate. Stewart enjoyed far greater satisfaction from that than interviewing celebrities. « This has been the honor of my life to work with the men and women behind me. »
Patricia Arquette spent 12 years filming her masterpiece
Patricia Arquette has always been a great actor in movies like True Romance, Ed Wood, Flirting with Disaster and Lost Highway. It seems Hollywood only finally caught up to how good she is with the 2014 release of Boyhood, for which she won her first Oscar. Perhaps part of the reason it took so long was that she spent 12 years making Boyhood, filming every year as the boy (Ellar Coltrane) grew up.
Arquette hasn’t stopped being great, though. She used her Oscar speech to bring awareness to the pay gap between men and women. « It’s our time to have wage equality once and for all and equal rights for women in America, » Arquette said in her acceptance speech. And it wasn’t just words. She partnered with UN Women to fight for equal pay, something she says unfortunately hasn’t improved much. « I’ve walked away from several jobs because they were giving me really bullsh*t deals that were really sh*tty and different from men in a really f***ed up way, » she told The Daily Beast in 2018.
She’s still doing great work, too. She’s Emmy-nominated for portraying two real-life characters on television. In Showtime’s Escape at Dannemora, she played Joyce « Tilly » Mitchell, who helped two convicts escape. In Hulu’s The Act, she played Dee Dee Blanchard, based on the true story of a woman who kept her daughter sick with Munchausen Syndrome by proxy. Now pay Patricia Arquette already!
George Clooney went from TV to film to directing to politics
George Clooney’s whole career has continuously built upon his experience. Before he landed a role on the hit medical drama ER in 1994, Clooney had many short-lived TV stints. His biggest successes were recurring roles on The Facts of Life and Roseanne. ER also made him a movie star. His first post-ER movie was Quentin Tarantino’s script for From Dusk Till Dawn, directed by Robert Rodriguez. He also starred in the first movie released by Dreamworks, The Peacemaker. He landed the coveted role of Batman in Batman & Robin, though even he mocks his performance now. « I wasn’t good in it and it wasn’t a good film, » Clooney told the Awards Chatter podcast in 2019.
Clooney honored his five year ER contract and even returned for guest appearances while roles in movies like Out of Sight, Three Kings and O Brother, Where Art Thou got Clooney taken more seriously. He became a director with Confessions of a Dangerous Mind and earned an Oscar-nomination for directing Good Night and Good Luck. Only his Oscar win for acting in Syriana that year overshadowed it. His continued nominations for Michael Clayton, Up in the Air and The Descendants show he keeps picking winners.
Clooney uses his industry clout to hold governments accountable around the world. In 2003 he spoke out against the Iraq War. His latest effort, The Sentry, seeks to freeze the assets of Sudanese war criminals to prevent further atrocities.
Sandra Bullock started making movies with a message
The ’90s brought Sandra Bullock to the peak of Hollywood with action hits like Speed and Demolition Man. She became the queen of rom-coms with While You Were Sleeping and Practical Magic, and even solid dramas like A Time to Kill and Hope Floats. Bullock continued to dominate in those movie genres through the naughties with Two Weeks Notice, The Lake House and Crash.
The year 2009 proved she still had the rom-com clout with The Proposal, and the acting chops when she won her first Oscar for The Blind Side. « I don’t usually get accolades, as you can see from a lot of my work, » a modest Bullock told MTV in 2010. « It’s been a big year in a way I haven’t gotten used to yet. »
Ever since, she’s been unstoppable with The Heat, Gravity, Ocean’s 8 and Bird Box, continuously entertaining, and doing work with a message. Bird Box, she says, champions single mothers. « I go: ‘Oh my god, I’m a single parent. With a child.’ I felt less than, » Bullock told The Independent in 2018. « I felt: ‘I’m not the complete package.’ And then I realized… this is the complete package. »
Robert Downey, Jr. took control of his life — and Hollywood
Robert Downey, Jr. was a breakout ’80s star in hits like Weird Science, Back to School and Less than Zero. Though acclaimed in films like Chaplin and Natural Born Killers, addictions threatened to derail his career, and real life. When Downy got sober, his life didn’t just stabilize. It shot to the stratosphere. « A lot of people do get out but don’t change, » Downey told Vanity Fair in 2014. « The thing is to get out and recognize the significance of that aggressive denial of your fate, come through the crucible forged into stronger metal. »
An apropos metaphor for Tony Stark, who forged his Iron Man suit to escape terrorists and become a superhero. Leading the Marvel films, including the Avengers team-up films, led many to declare him The World’s Biggest Movie Star, though he is still modest about that. « I was the lead in the first of a series of movies that created a chain reaction that, if everything didn’t fire the way it was supposed to, there’s no operator, no anything, » Downey told Vanity Fair. « And you go, O.K., life is doing something here that included me but did not require me. But, yes, that role means a lot. Marvel is kind of like this sacred brotherhood.«
Even better, he’s been a real-life hero visiting sick children, or at least FaceTiming when travel was prohibitive.
Keanu Reeves just kept working until he had the most impressive skills
Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure made Keanu Reeves a star, and he followed with movies that were not only hits, but also became cultural touchstones like Point Break and Speed. Then, it was hard to imagine that he could ever top The Matrix, but that’s just what he did in the decades since.
The John Wick movies have even more complex action than The Matrix, sometimes involving animals or speeding vehicles. Plus, he directed Man of Tai Chi as a vehicle for Matrix stuntman Tiger Chen. All the while, Reeves has always been true to himself. He never tried to distance himself from Bill and Ted and he’s even filming Bill and Ted Face the Music, due out in 2020. « I really love the characters, » Reeves told Yahoo in 2018.
He also works super hard at everything he does. « I like the suffering of John Wick, and coming back and surviving, » Reeves told Uproxx in 2019. « The grueling is the gift, right? The time it takes, the effort, all the creative. » Every time you see Reeves, he’s learned more. Still, he doesn’t take himself too seriously — a perfect example is how he played himself in Always Be My Maybe. « He just had so many funny ideas and pitches that we went back and revised the script with those in mind, » Always Be My Maybe director Nanatchka Khan told Indiewire in 2019. That’s why Keanu Reeves is still excellent!
Viola Davis waited for the best roles to come to her
It took a long time for Hollywood to recognize Viola Davis’ talent. Through most of the ’90s and ’00s, Davis paid her dues doing TV episodes or playing movie characters named after their jobs. Remember Social Worker in Traffic or Policewoman in Kate & Leopold? Even roles in Antwone Fisher and Solaris didn’t pull her out of that. « You take what’s available for a number of reasons, » Davis once told Rotten Tomatoes in 2008. « It’s just an occupational hazard. »
Her Oscar-nominated role in Doubt turned things around, though. Her characters started getting names and big movies like Knight and Day and Eat Pray Love came calling. Aside from The Help, which brought another Oscar nomination, that was still piecemeal work until Davis landed the long-running hit drama How to Get Away with Murder. « I was doing my six days of work on Prisoners, three days of work on Ender’s Game, eight days of work on Beautiful Creatures, » Davis told Vanity Fair in 2008. « It wasn’t like I was doing Fatal Attraction or Sophie’s Choice.«
She assembled the Suicide Squad for their hit movie and finally won her Oscar for Fences. Perhaps the most important change in Davis’s career is she no longer has to do « a lot of things I didn’t believe in, in order to further my career, » as she told The Guardian in 2008. « All the things I thought had great value haven’t served me. »
Jeff Goldblum has just been himself this whole time
Jeff Goldblum could always make even horrific stories like The Fly fun. He stole Jurassic Park from the dinosaurs with his chaos theory, and saved the world with Will Smith in Independence Day. Blockbusters like those made Jeff Goldblum a legend. Only later, he became a bona fide national treasure, simply because the world caught onto the real Jeff Goldblum.
Apartments.com utilizes Goldblum’s cinematic charm as he plays their spokesperson Brad Bellflower. He’s also bringing attention to subjects like ice cream, denim and sneakers in the Disney+ series The World According to Jeff Goldblum. « I’m a humble student and in fact, I’m kind of a late bloomer, » Goldblum says in the trailer. « A late Gold-bloomer. »
Work never dried up for Goldblum, either. He’s added the Marvel universe to his slate of blockbuster franchises as The Grandmaster in Thor: Ragnarok, and he returned as Ian Malcolm in Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom. Goldblum told The Independent in 2017 he’s always striving to improve. « I do aim to… to have a chance to get better, « Goldblum said. « I’m on the threshold of doing something better. I’m enjoying acting, certainly enjoying it more than ever. »