Culture

Forget the Hot Young Things: Why Some of the Most Satisfying Movies Are About People 60 and Over

I am delighted to watch on a 30-foot screen characters with real faces, real bodies, real wrinkles.

I love movies targeted at today's Baby Boomers and the G.I. Generation. I was first in the box-office line for Last Vegas (2013), Red (2010), Solitary Man (2009), Gran Torino (2008), Calendar Girls (2003), and Space Cowboys (2000), all of which star actors age 60 or older. 

What's more, if a movie involves middle-aged (and older) characters in romantic relationships, I'm especially engrossed. 

Theoretically, I shouldn't be fond of these films. After all, they are neither written nor produced for my demographic. I'm a member of Generation X, child of Baby Boomers and grandchild of the G.I. Generation. But I find satisfaction in these cinematic stories, and so should others. Here's why:

First, movies targeted at today's Baby Boomers (and beyond) offer a reprieve from Hollywood's usual fare. By their very nature, boomer films unabashedly abandon the coveted 18-39 age demographic Hollywood has so desperately tried to harness since the late 1960s, when films like Bonnie and Clyde (1967), The Graduate (1967), and Easy Rider (1969) attracted young audiences in droves (those flocking filmgoers were boomers, by the way).

Devoted to topics like widowhood, long-term marriage, and the potential erosion of one's sexuality, these films often break the rules. And rule-breaking is a good thing here since it offers fresh perspectives usually denied the filmgoing public. So, yes, it should be satisfying--to all conscientious audiences--when unconventional movies (and TV series) slip through the industry's white, male, youth-obsessed cogs, and succeed both critically and financially.

Second, films directed toward older adults lay bare the aging process, and for a culture obsessed with youth, this is valuable. I am delighted to watch on a 30-foot screen characters with real faces, real bodies, real wrinkles. I embrace the laugh lines on Judi Dench, the leathery skin of Tommy Lee Jones, and the wispy gray hair atop Clint Eastwood. Each is a welcome change from films starring apes, incompetent cops, and transformers.

In addition to real faces and bodies, I also enjoy seeing actors bring their lived experiences to the roles. Audiences witness this, for example, in some of the quieter moments of Jack Nicholson's performance in Something's Gotta Give.

At 66, Nicholson asserted that his portrayal of aging playboy Harry Sanborn in Something’s Gotta Give--specific gestures he gave, line delivery, the way he looked at Diane Keaton's character--were much more personal and more natural than anything he'd performed previously, and it shows onscreen.

There were certain things I did in this movie that [were like] something I’d do in my own life. There was vulnerability and a direct approach in a lot of these scenes that when I would do them (and I wasn’t prepared for this) and I’d be done with the scene, I’d think ‘Wow, I don’t think that I’ve ever really done that on film before.’ Simple things, as I say, that are not foreign to me.

In her book on Hollywood's representations of aging, Pamela H. Gravagne similarly notices the "realness" of Nicholson's and Keaton's faces inSomething's Gotta Give:

"Their appearance and expressions convey so much of the actors' real-life experience, humor, and knowledge to their characters that, when the film was criticized for confusing autobiography with fiction, the consensus was that the blurring of fact and fiction was one of the pleasures of the movie" (104).

This line-blurring does make Something's Gotta Give pleasurable, but so does the fact that the aging process--via references to menopause, the fear of losing one's masculinity, and the joy of finding one's real self in later life--is so openly represented.

Third, because their characters have considerable life experience, films made for Baby Boomers often lend themselves to three-dimensional stories and provocative themes. Of course, films centered on young(er) stars can include complex characters. Look at many of Spike Lee's early joints, for example, or Taxi Driver (1976) or Boyz in the Hood (1991) or Kill Bill (2003, 2004). These cinematic works include some of the most layered young-adult characters ever put to film.

Also, this is not to say that onscreen representations of today's Baby Boomers or the G.I. Generation aren't stereotyped. They can be. In films in which they're featured, boomers have been the butts of jokes (e.g., Donald Sutherland's character inSpace Cowboys), billboards for health-related problems (e.g., Nicholson's and Morgan Freeman's characters in The Bucket List), and even embodiments of mayhem (e.g., John Malkovich's character in Red). As a result, some of these film's themes are rendered simplistic as well.

But this is not always the case. It's Complicated, while not a consistently solid screenplay, offers complex views on the finality of middle-age divorce. Hope Springs looks deeply at issues that arise within a 40-year marriage (monotony, loneliness, giving oral sex). Calendar Girls explores head-on how Western culture devalues the middle-aged woman's changing body. Finally, About Schmidt (2002) considers unexpected widowerhood and raises existential questions throughout. For example, Jack Nicholson's character wonders, "Relatively soon, I will die. [...] What difference has my life made to anyone? None that I can think of. None at all."

Films like these that challenge the norm, represent aging actively, and depict thought-provoking characters and themes shouldn't appeal just to Baby Boomers and the G.I. Generation. Rather, they convey to all of us that although aging is inevitable, maturation can still be productive and every generation has worthwhile stories to tell.

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