“Solo: A Star Wars Story” opens May 25? Hey, that’s great. Not only does this mean that the most entertaining character in that far-far-away galaxy returns, it’s always a pleasure to see Harrison Ford scowl and smirk his way across the big screen.
Wait a minute: In “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” (2015), Han found himself at the wrong end of a light saber. Which is why Alden Ehrenreich is playing him in “Solo,” and the movie goes back in “Star Wars” time to offer the backstory of young Han, as well as young Lando Calrissian (Donald Glover), and let’s not forget young Chewbacca.
Different actors have been playing young and old versions of the same character in a movie for a long time. Think of all those biopics with babies and schoolkids who only a few scenes later have grown up to become . . . someone famous enough to be the subject of a biopic.
Nor does it just have to be biopics. This summer Lily James and Meryl Streep do it in “Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again,” which opens July 20. A particularly charming example is George Clooney and his father, Nick, doing it in “The Monuments Men” (2014). A particularly high-powered example is Jennifer Lawrence and Charlize Theron doing it, in “The Burning Plain,” though it should be noted that in 2008 Lawrence was still a few years away from becoming “Jennifer Lawrence.”
But the same character in different movies, that’s a lot rarer. There’s a reason for this. When it doesn’t work, it really doesn’t work. You remember William Katt and Tom Berenger, in “Butch and Sundance: The Early Years” (1979), taking on the roles Robert Redford and Paul Newman made famous a decade earlier? Of course you don’t; nobody does.
The gold standard here — as for so many things movie — is “The Godfather” (1972) and “The Godfather: Part II” (1974). It’s not just that Marlon Brando, as Vito Corleone in old age, and Robert De Niro, as Vito Corleone as a young man, both give superb performances. It’s also the deep rightness of the best American movie actor of the ’50s playing the same role as the American movie actor who’d turn out to be the best one of the ’70s. It’s as if a torch is being passed. Seen in those terms, the conjunction is breathtaking.
Three years after “Godfather: Part II” the first “Star Wars” movie opened. The most important actor in the cast was Alec Guinness, as Obi-Wan Kenobi. We know he was the most important because was the only one who had point participation in the profits. Ewan McGregor wasn’t so lucky when he played Obi-Wan in the second cycle of “Star Wars” movies (1999, 2002, 2005). Either way, Han Solo wasn’t the first “Stars Wars” character to get the old-and-young treatment.
“Star Was” was the first franchise to go the old/young route. It’s not been the last. Ian Holm plays an elderly Bilbo Baggins in two of the three “Lord of the Rings” movies — “The Fellowship of the Ring” (2001) and “The Return of the King” (2003) — and, perplexingly enough, since these are prequels, in two of the three “Hobbit” movies: “An Unexpected Journey” (2012) and “The Battle of the Five Armies” (2014). Martin Freeman plays young Bilbo in all three, the other being “The Desolation of Smaug” (2013).
Wizards, unlike hobbits, don’t visibly age. So Ian McKellen plays Gandalf in all six of the Tolkien movies. “X-Men” do, though. That’s why Michael Fassbender and McKellen both play Magneto, James McAvoy and Patrick Stewart both play Professor Xavier, and Jennifer Lawrence (now she really is “Jennifer Lawrence”) and Rebecca Romijn both play Mystique.
Starfleet Academy grads also age: Thus Chris Pine and Zachary Quinto turn into William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy as they boldly go — oh, you know.
Or maybe wizards do age, so long as they don’t live in Middle-earth. This fall, Jude Law plays Albus Dumbledore in “Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald,” the successor to the “Harry Potter” spinoff “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” (2016). In the “Potter” movies proper, heading Hogwarts is Richard Harris, then Michael Gambon.
The population density of franchise young/olds notwithstanding, characters based on real people are easily the largest group in this category. There have been a lot of Abraham Lincolns and Queen Victorias, for instance. The title of “Young Mr. Lincoln” (1939) tells you right away that Henry Fonda is not going to be seen in the White House. Conversely, “Lincoln” (2012) follows Daniel Day-Lewis in the last months of his life. “The Young Victoria” (2009) shows Emily Blunt at a very different stage in the queen’s reign from Judi Dench in “Mrs. Brown” (1997) — or, for that matter, in “Victoria & Abdul” (2017). Yes, Dench plays the same character twice — and at different ages. But that’s a movie-acting category for another day.Mark Feeney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.