Hollywood turns to golden oldies
Two of the most notable action movies of 2010 were The Expendables and Red - films that not only prominently featured actors over 55 but that also turned characters' length of tooth into central plotlines. But some of the new serious movies submit that a character's twilight years represent the most interesting phase of his or her existence. Barney's Version tells of a man (Paul Giamatti) who's lived a full but complicated life and enters old age as feisty as ever.
The Robert Duvall-starring Get Low describes an eccentric hermit who throws his own funeral while still alive. True Grit examines a down-and-out bounty hunter (Jeff Bridges) who finds redemption despite a jaded temperament forged by decades of doing the same difficult work. And in Mike Leigh's Another Year, perhaps the most age-explicit film of the bunch, a greying middle-class couple (Jim Broadbent and Ruth Sheen) form the centre of a constellation of dysfunctional friends and family.
What in the name of Betty White is happening?
Movies have explored mortality and ageing for a long time, going back to the road trip of septuagenarian Dr Isak Borg in Ingmar Bergman's 1957 film Wild Strawberries, and long before that. But a few exceptions aside (Alexander Payne's 2002 post-retirement dramedy About Schmidt, perhaps), on-screen old age, particularly in North American cinema, has fallen into one of two buckets: as something to fight futilely against (as it was in Ron Howard's 1985 science-fiction fantasy Cocoon or Tamara Jenkins' 2007 drama The Savages) or something to suffer with quiet dignity (as it was in Peter Masterson's 1985 The Trip to Bountiful, Bruce Beresford's 1989 Driving Miss Daisy, which won the best picture Oscar, Sarah Polley's 2006 tearjerker Away From Her and countless others).
What many of the newer films have in common, on the other hand, is a willingness not only to delve into the texture of the senior experience but to upend conventional notions of older age. "Hollywood used to treat older people as dead ends - at best they sat in a chair and provided wisdom to a younger generation," said Bill Newcott, the entertainment editor at AARP The Magazine and founder of its Movies for Grownups awards programme. "There's a much more well-rounded vision of older people now."
Both Red and Expendables, for instance, feature characters at a crossroads who have little doubt about which way they'll go. Not content to accept a societally encouraged retirement, they jump back in the game (as black-ops agents and mercenaries, respectively), guns still blazing.
Leigh's movie, meanwhile, shows that golden years can take on many hues. Tom and Gerri (Broadbent and Sheen) indulge the daffy Mary (Lesley Manville), who's trying, unsuccessfully, to stave off a solitary old age - even as the couple themselves have created a contented existence rarely seen with characters in their sixties or seventies. "The film is about time passing and age and how we look at our lives," Leigh said. "This is an old man's film. Or an older man's film."
Seniors are the fastest-growing segment of the US population. And the elderly are spending their newfound free time going to movie theatres, an experience many grew up with but didn't have much time for until recently. According to the Motion Picture Association of America, men and women over 50 constitute 20 per cent of the "frequent moviegoing" population - the same percentage as Americans aged 25 to 39.
But to judge the trend as a simple function of demographics is to underestimate the dramatic possibilities presented by middle and old age, say those creating it. "I wanted to explore a man who's been around and who understands pathos and absurdity and all the foibles that he's come to acquire through the years," said Richard J. Lewis, the former executive producer of TV's CSI who is just 48 but opted to direct Barney's Version.
In Lewis' movie, based on Mordecai Richler's novel, Barney Panofsky (Giamatti) sets out, via a series of flashbacks, to offer his take on his life after learning a rival has written a malicious biography about him. The movie eschews a third-person point of view and tells its story intimately from Panofsky's perspective in a way that seeks to understand old age from the inside. "I wanted the audience to experience a complete emotional life, and it's hard to do that with a young protagonist," explained Lewis.