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No Country For Old People? How Seniors Are Portrayed In Hollywood, And Beyond

The author is looking for a coming-of-age movie, but not the age you had in mind.

Screenshot of Anthony Hopkins in Florian Zeller's The Father​ (2020)

Anthony Hopkins in Florian Zeller's The Father (2020)

UGC, Angel Films/ F comme Film
Ranjani Iyer Mohanty*

Sometimes the hunt for a movie is just a hunt, and sometimes it’s a revelation.

I had already started and stopped several titles — labeled romance or comedy or drama or action — when I finally stumbled upon The Last Bus.

There was nothing wrong with the earlier movies I had surfed through and rejected. They were all good in their own right, except that the main characters looked to be in their 20s. Now some of my favorite people are in their 20s, but I’m in my 60s. And I wanted to see something of myself, or even my future self, reflected on the screen. I found that in the British film The Last Bus, a “coming of age” movie – in the real sense of the term.


It is a very different genre than the movies starring beautiful, svelte, and sexy 60-somethings looking for new love and an amazing sex life, which irritate me on two levels. First, Hollywood sees everyone over the age of 50 as elderly, and claims that is enough to to address older audiences.

Dealing with older people

Interestingly, the popular press and even the AARP accept this age cut-off. But this perception is seriously outdated. The average lifespan in the U.S. is nearly 79 (and over 82 in Canada and over 84 in Japan). In the U.S. alone, there are some 12 million people over the age of 80. Globally, the 80+ number is more than 100 million, a figure expected to triple by 2050. Globally, centenarians number about 573,000 now and a predicted 3.7 million by 2050. In this scenario, 50 is literally middle-age and the category of "elderly" as 50+ can cover some 50 very diverse years.

Second, many of the movies meant to be for the elderly have identical plots to the rom-coms starring 30-year-olds – just replaced with older characters. Think of Something’s Gotta Give (2003) where both Jack Nicholson and Diane Keeton look gorgeous and in the peak of physical fitness in their white summer linens as they spend a wonderful day at the beach. Think of the much worse 2018 movie The Book Club where four women, who have been part of a book club for 40 years, read Shades of Grey.

Such plots make little concession to aging. They don’t depict the elderly in a realistic way or reflect actual issues of aging. In these movies no one is having financial worries, devastated by the death of their spouse, lonely, living far from their children and grandchildren, disabled, or battling serious health issues – at least not for long. At most, a slightly arthritic back or perhaps a brief cute scene showing they can no longer touch their toes. But all that soon resolves itself; By the end of the movie, they’ve found the new love of their life (who happens to be wealthy and fit) and they’re dancing their way to a warm summer night. Really?

Anything dealing with older people in a genuine manner is considered too boring, too serious, too niche, — or even too frightening. M Night Shyamalan’s 2021 movie Old was a “horror/thriller”! Too sad.

But while American cinema may be falling short on genuine films for, by, and on the elderly, European cinema seems to be doing a much better job. This may be due to their sense of history, value of the elderly, and therefore a better desire to understand aging. In any case, they offer several stellar options.

\u200bAn old man taking the bus

An old man sets off on a long journey, taking public buses

The Last Bus/ Wildseed/Netflix

British Cinema

The Last Bus (2021) follows a very elderly man Tom (played brilliantly by Timothy Spall), who has recently lost his wife of many years, as he sets off on a long journey, taking multiple public buses across the full length of Britain, to disperse his wife’s ashes in Cornwall. He doesn’t look like he just stepped out the pages of a fashion magazine or an advertisement for Viagra. He looks a bit scruffy, he walks slowly, and sometimes mumbles to himself. Age and its challenges are openly presented. There are no easy fixes. And no, he does not find a new love interest along the way.

The Father is a 2020 British-French collaboration with a star-studded cast. The story is told through the eyes of an elderly man with advancing dementia, as he is looked after by his daughter and later other caregivers. The man is played by the legendary Anthony Hopkins (then aged 82), who received several major awards for the role.

Age and its challenges are openly presented.
Other notable British films include The Radiator, 45 Years, Quartet, Iris, and of course the very popular The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel.

French Cinema

The French film My Afternoons with Margueritte (2010) was directed by Jean Becker, then 76. It follows an unlettered, oafish, kind-hearted, handyman (depicted by Gerard Depardieu) as he meets and befriends a lonely elderly woman, Margueritte. She is highly educated and loves reading books. Interestingly, it was 95-year-old acclaimed French actress Gisele Casadesus who played the 95-year-old Margueritte. And perhaps even more interesting, Gisele acted in several more movies before passing away at the age of 103.

One of the most unflinching depictions of old age is the story of the elderly couple in the 2012 movie Amour. Jean-Louis Trintignant was 81 when he played the role of the husband looking after his wife of many years, played by Paulette Germaine Riva, then 84. It’s not a story about finding new love, but rather about caring for your old love – and eventually finding the least painful way to help her go.

Other notable French films include Cousin Jules (1973) and Rue du Retrait (2000).

Italian Cinema

In the Italian film Mid-August Lunch (2008), situated in Rome, a middle-aged man lives with and looks after his elderly mother. Trying to make ends meet financially, he ends up taking in three other equally elderly ladies. The story is semi-autobiographical, based on director/writer/actor Gianni Di Gregorio’s own experiences with his mother. It is made even more appealing by his choice of non-actors to play the roles of the four elderly ladies. Valerie De Franciscis was 92 when she played the role of the mother and three years later, she went on to act in another movie.

A more serious movie on the topic is famed director Vittorio De Sica’s 1952 classic Umberto D. It shows “the trials of a retired government worker and his dog, struggling to survive the poverty and alienation of modern Rome”. De Sica selected a 70-year-old non-actor (a university professor) to play the title role.

\u200bThe Straight Story depicts the true story of a man who, hearing that his estranged brother has had a stroke, drives a lawn mower across many miles to reconcile with him.

The Straight Story depicts the true story of a man who, hearing that his estranged brother has had a stroke, drives a lawn mower across many miles to reconcile with him.

The Straight Story//Picture Factory/ Le Studio Canal+

Elsewhere

There are other remarkable movies on the elderly from many other countries as well – including Piku (2015, India), Away from Her (2006, Canada), The Company of Strangers (1990, Canada), Piravi (1989, India), Wild Strawberries (1957, Sweden), Tokyo Story (1953, Japan), and Ikiru (1952, Japan). Interestingly, Britain has just done a remake of Ikiru, called Living, releasing this year.

American Cinema

I’d be remiss if I didn’t say there are some accidentally good American works about aging that defy the usual stereotypes, have elderly actors acting elderly roles, and deal with genuine issues of old age.

The Straight Story (1999), by director David Lynch, depicted the true story of a man who, hearing that his estranged brother has had a stroke, drives a lawn mower across many miles to reconcile with him. During the filming, the main actor, Richard Farnsworth was 79 years old and struggling with terminal cancer, pain, and partial paralysis. The movie received much praise from critics, but did not do well at the box office.

Even I’m not immune to the optimism and fantasy and energy of American cinema.

In the delightful series The Kominsky Method (2018-2021), a once-famous actor, Sandy Kominsky, now runs an acting school but is still looking for work opportunities through his long-time agent and friend Norman. Sandy is played by Michael Douglas, 77, and Norman is played by Alan Arkin, 88. Ok, this series alludes to some moments of hot sex – after all, it’s American. But it’s mostly about elderly people trying to understand and help their adult children, seeking to resolve unresolved issues with current spouses and ex-spouses, battling health issues, trying to make a mark in the world, and reaching a level of acceptance of themselves and others – all done with a sense of humor. What more can one ask for?

And I must admit; even I’m not immune to the optimism and fantasy and energy of American cinema. Having seen Top Gun in 1986 the year I got married, I’m looking forward to seeing Top Gun:Maverick on my 36th anniversary. If after all these years Maverick can make such a spirited comeback, perhaps there are still some adventures, or at least some air travel left for me – and my same ‘old love.’

*Ranjani Iyer Mohanty is a writer and an academic editor and slowly vanishing. Her articles have appeared in several publications including The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Globe & Mail, The Atlantic, and The Financial Times.

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