Too old? Scorsese, Dylan and Biden, too, damn it, are doing some of their best work now

Lily Gladstone and Leonardo DiCaprio in “Killers of the Flower Moon.” (Melinda Sue Gordon/Apple TV+/TNS)

Thank goodness America did not get to decide that 80-year-old Martin Scorsese was too old to make the indelible “Killers of the Flower Moon,” which is both so beautiful and so discomfiting that it has been haunting me.

No pollster could tell 82-year-old Bob Dylan that this new round of touring for his “Rough and Rowdy Ways” album was one too many. It wasn’t until he got up from the piano and shambled offstage after his Kansas City show at the Midland last month that the audience was reminded of his age.


Without realizing that I was putting together a fall tour of autumnal artists doing some of their best work now, that’s what I did.

If you’ve met me, you know I was most excited of all to see the first production of Broadway composer Stephen Sondheim’s final work, “Here We Are,” still uncompleted when he died two years ago at 91. (Peak Sondheim, no. A work of outrageous genius, yes.)

I’ve also, unfortunately, spent this same season reading an endless succession of stories about how worrying it is that Joe Biden is 80.

Definitely, he is less forceful in his presentation than he used to be. And he has the same challenges as an orator that as a stutterer, he always had to work overtime to overcome.

But Biden also just keeps succeeding in every category except the crucial one in which Donald Trump excels, which is in showmanship, and so gets far less credit than he deserves.

Once a narrative takes hold — oh, which rhymes with OLD — it’s hard to change it. That’s how we wound up with President George W. Bush, who all the campaign reporters he’d given cute nicknames said was going to be so much more fun to cover than boring Al Gore.

That’s also how we fell for supposed business whiz Trump, who as every New Yorker of any political persuasion could have told you had mostly been known in his hometown for stiffing his contractors, dating to impress the tabloids and lying to keep his skills up. (What, reality TV isn’t real? Now you know.)

Trump never admits, learns from mistakes

Biden’s accomplishments include pulling the country out of the pandemic and pushing through historic infrastructure and environmental bills. His administration has halved the inflation that drove up prices everywhere on Earth. And on the international front, Biden has mended the NATO alliance that Trump did everything in his power to undermine. It wasn’t a given that he could mobilize a coalition to support our friends in Ukraine, but he did.

When Israel was attacked, Biden immediately expressed full support, while also pushing for restraint, and urging our allies in Jerusalem to learn from our misadventures in Iraq. No commander in chief would look too commanding against the backdrop of the nightmare still unspooling there, but his lifetime of experience does matter.

The most important difference between the two men who will in all probability face off again in next year’s presidential race, though, is this: One has learned from his years and his knocks, and the other has never admitted having made any mistakes from which he could have learned.

That’s why one shows up for others, regularly comforting the bereaved and those hurting for any reason, while the other reflexively shrinks from those in extremis. Trump sees them as losers, and instead of walking alongside them, never stops talking about or acting to benefit himself.

Every year of service and hour of pain has prepared Biden for this moment, which sometimes seems like the Bible story of Job playing out globally. Just as every time Trump got away with breaking the rules or the vows or the contract perfectly prepared him to talk back to the judge in a New York courtroom this week, and to openly look forward to getting his revenge on everyone who ever told him “no” if he does get reelected.

Yet it’s not only in comparison that I’m glad Biden is president. It’s trendy to prefer those innocent of history to those who have been changed by it. But now more than ever, with both our world and our democracy at stake, knowledge and experience and yes craft do matter.

‘Killers of the Flower Moon’ from great American filmmaker

Could, or would, Scorsese have made his new movie about the systematic poisoning of the oil-rich Osage in Oklahoma in the 1920s without first having made all of those other pictures?

Not in the way that he did, I don’t think. And what makes him 80 in the world and yet 30 in his work is that he’s still innovating, and still flexible enough to even do the unthinkable and shift the movie’s whole point of view in response to Osage concerns.

The same goes for Dylan, who has always liked driving away his fan base and setting off in a new direction every few years. And for Sondheim, who had an absolute horror of repeating himself.

A Vox review of “Killers of the Flower Moon” said “Scorsese has arguably been the greatest living American filmmaker for a long time, but his late work is almost painfully reflective, introspective in a way that invites viewers to look inside themselves, if they’re willing.”

In “Killers of the Flower Moon,” as in “Silence” and “The Irishman,” “he once again holds his fire till the very end, though there are hints of what he’s doing — questions about who gets to tell the story of other people’s tragedies and whether they should at all — sprinkled throughout the film. It’s not a twist so much as an unfolding, and a bold move from a man who has spent his life telling stories. It is perhaps his boldest ending yet. Couple it with a few other recent films and a whole project emerges. He is a man approaching the end of his life (he’s turning 81 this November), reevaluating it all.”

Not at all incidentally, Biden’s greatest gift, too, is that while staying Joey from Scranton in essential ways, he also keeps evolving. He’s the one who told his then-boss Barack Obama — well, after telling the entire world — that it was time to support same-sex marriage.

I wish that we would all evolve past the ageism that values rapid-fire nonsense and yet sees moving and speaking more slowly as a problem, regardless of what’s being done and said. In itself, longevity may or may not be its own reward, but growing from the setbacks that are part of life is always a gift to others.

At the end of Sondheim’s “Here We Are,” which is based on two surrealist Buñuel movies, “The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie,” and “The Exterminating Angel,” his bougies have been through hell and yet have learned nothing. Which we would never do, right?