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What the Hell Is Harrison Ford Doing?

Harrison Ford

I’m old enough [fiddles with dentures, adjusts artificial hip] to remember when Harrison Ford was a grump. From 1995 to 2008, Ford made less than a movie a year. He often seemed embarrassed when they came out — an act capped off by a late-night TV appearance in which Ford squirmed in his chair and proved harder to interview than a spelling bee champ.

In the past five years, Ford has made seven movies. He has made two big cameos (Brüno and Anchorman: The Legend Continues). He seems to tolerate late-night TV. He did a parody for Funny or Die, two appearances at Comic-Con, and teased returns as Han Solo and Indy. Yesterday, it was announced that Ford would become the least steroid-addled actor ever to star in an Expendables movie. So what happened?

“Few superfamous actors have ever seemed as uncomfortable with superfame as Ford always has,” Alex Pappademas wrote in his Grantland Career Arc on Ford. He quoted the actor as saying, “There’s nothing good about being famous.”

But over the past few years, Ford has allowed his fame to become the stuff of public inspection, of comedy and parody. Basically, Ford figured out what Tom Hanks figured out 20 years ago.

I think a couple of things happened. One is that Ford didn’t have the clout to hide anymore. Starting in 1998, he made Random Hearts, What Lies Beneath, and K19: The Widowmaker in succession. Those movies had good directors (Pollack, Zemeckis, Bigelow) and clunky scripts. But what was most remarkable was that Ford did nothing in them. With late-period Humphrey Bogart (see here and here), you got the whiff of the legend. With Ford in these films, you got the whiff of a corn husk. Ford had gotten lost in his own museum. To stay relevant, he had to force a smile, do interviews, start working again.

Second, Hollywood has undergone a generational handoff. Early in Ford’s career, there was a divide between the power class and the fanboy. The former consisted of people who gave Ford jobs while the latter consisted of people who asked Ford about his encounter on Ord Mantell. This is no longer the case. Fanboys make the films. It’s Jon Favreau who calls Ford to be in Cowboys & Aliens and J.J. Abrams who (allegedly) casts his old hero in Episode VII.

In the world of Favreau and Abrams and “Kurtzman and Orci” (Ford’s familiar term), Ford is a legend, a first-ballot Hall of Famer. Happily for Ford, he doesn’t even have to cough up old anecdotes anymore. They are repeated back to him. “The Ewoks were your idea, right?” Favreau needles Ford. “The voice-over from Blade Runner, that was yours.” It’s enough (for Favreau and us) that Ford now screams with laughter.

Ford has returned the favor by paying obeisance to the fanboy generation. With Cowboys & Aliens, Ford saluted Favreau for “your control of the tone” — though the movie seemed to be tonally all over the place. In July, Ford blessed Abrams by saying he’s a “great storyteller … He’s developed enormous filmmaking skill.”

Finally, I think Ford just mellowed out. At 71, he’s a veteran of three marriages and five kids. Last month, when a Comic-Con fanboy rose to ask about a hypothetical meeting between Han Solo and Indy, poor Ford couldn’t hear the question. Age has let him relax. These days, it’s the formerly happy, workaholic Bruce Willis who’s dropping out of The Expendables — who’s being denounced as “greedy and lazy” by Sly Stallone. Ford is mugging like Indy, bringing pleasure to every continent.