Our Golden Years On-Screen
Erma Bombeck (1927–1996), the popular Catholic humorist, captured a Christian attitude about the afterlife: “When I stand before God at the end of my life, I would hope that I would not have a single bit of talent left and could say, ‘I used everything you gave me.’”
Bombeck also had a keen sense of what often drives cinema’s storytelling about aging: “Seize the moment. Remember all those women on the Titanic who waved off the dessert cart.”
Growing into one’s senior years offers creative people—including screenwriters—significant fodder for storytelling. While baby-boomer actors often age out of the system, some have become Hollywood royalty, such as Meryl Streep, Martin Sheen, and Glenn Close.
Senior audiences, however, are often not respected as the entertainment industry is skewed toward youth. Television advertisers aim at younger audiences who spend impulsively, even in a troubled economy.
This summer’s sleeper hit film among older audiences is The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, about retired people from the UK who answer an ad for retirement living in India. They discover that life is not yet over. The gentle comedy has proven to be a huge success with audiences.
Will the success of films about our golden years translate into more movies for the aging audiences? Maybe. It is more probable that older characters will be included in stories about younger people. And if the stories are engaging and the characters are both funny and wise, the films will satisfy.
Here are some movies that show us that it’s never too late—period.
The Bucket List (2007)
Edward (Jack Nicholson) is a wealthy, entitled man who meets a mechanic, Carter (Morgan Freeman), when they share a hospital room. They both have cancer and set off on a road trip to fulfill Carter’s bucket list—things to do before he “kicks the bucket.” It turns into a global vacation filled with discovery about what really matters.
Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides (2011)
Captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) leads a British expedition to find the Fountain of Youth—that legendary spring that will restore youth to anyone who drinks the waters. And he must get there before the Spanish arrive. In a culture that worships youth, the ending of this film shows that it is a dicey proposition to spend one’s energies seeking what can never be in this life.
Mid-August Lunch (2008)
Gianni (Gianni Di Gregorio) is out of money and out of luck when caring for his 93-year-old mother in Rome. He ends up taking care of four elderly women over the traditional Italian three-day holiday that begins on August 15. The aging women are all first-time actresses, and the film is a luminous glimpse into growing old for Gianni and the women. Watch for the gracious nod to the original reason of the holiday toward the end. In Italian with English subtitles.
About Schmidt (2002)
Warren Schmidt (Jack Nicholson) and his wife live parallel lives, but she makes him buy a Winnebago so they can travel once he retires from his mind-numbing job as an insurance actuary. When she dies unexpectedly, Schmidt, for whom life has no meaning, “adopts” an African orphan, Ndugu, whom he sees on a late-night television commercial. He then sets out in his recreational vehicle to see the country and documents his travels in letters sent to the young boy. Schmidt only goes through the motions of living until his journey sets him free. The heart of the film is in the very touching ending when the nun sends a gift from Ndugu to Schmidt, showing that we are all connected in a bond of love.
Driving Miss Daisy
This Academy Award-winning film, based on the play by Alfred Uhry, is now a classic. Jessica Tandy is Daisy Werthan, a rich Jewish lady in Atlanta. Her driver is Hoke Colburn, played by Morgan Freeman. Their improbable friendship grew out of the mutual respect each of them learned and bestowed on the other, transcending all preconceived notions, prejudice, and bias. The story offers viewers a way forward as a society based on personal relationships built on the belief in our shared human dignity.
The Joy Luck Club (1993)
Films that tell women’s stories well are few in the United States. American-made films that feature stories about Asians, or Asian-Americans, are fewer. But in The Joy Luck Club, based on the best-selling novel by Amy Tan, four mature Chinese-born women in San Francisco meet to play mah-jongg, eat, and tell stories from their lives. They reveal the terrors of their hidden pasts that give rise to conflicts between them and their American-born daughters. This leads to understanding and ways to move forward.
The Newsroom (HBO, Sundays, 10 p.m.): This new comedy/drama from award-winning writer Aaron Sorkin traces the action in a cable-television newsroom. Fast pace, faster talking characters, intelligent and informed scripts, and current political and cultural situations create an ample playground for Sorkin’s considerable talent and political leanings. The Newsroom stars Jeff Daniels and Emily Mortimer.