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Old age and Hollywood

Golden years

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Old age and Hollywood

You wait ages for a decent film about getting old and then two come along at once. Paul Dale ponders cinema’s curious relationship with the elderly

Hollywood producer and one time Clinton supporter Mike Medavoy understands. Old age and Hollywood is the double you just don’t mix. In between closing deals and sitting on the board of California’s Anti Terrorism Information Center, Medavoy once penned the undeniable truth that: ‘This is a business that eats its elderly instead of its young.’ Far from being the last taboo, ageism on and off screen in the movie business is disgracefully rife.

OK, the blockbuster may still be the vanguard of a certain type of established male star (Willis, Stallone, Cruise etc) but with each new resurrection their supporting cast gets younger lest prepubescent audiences realise that they are watching an action adventure film featuring a man who really should be in his shed doling out Werther’s Originals. Equally, by way of some kind of arthritic karma, it seems that for every good film about old age and the ageing process there is a mirror feature marked out by its ineptitude. For every Wild Strawberries or Harold and Maude there’s a Driving Miss Daisy; for every The Straight Story there’s an On Golden Pond; for every Cocoon there’s Used People and for every Iris or Last Orders there’s a Fried Green Tomatoes or Grumpy Old Men or The Bucket List or some such nonsense. If you want to talk about stereotyping and reductionism this is certainly a growth area.

Two feature films released this fortnight attempt, in their own small way, to buck this trend. Intermission writer/director John Crowley’s heartfelt and moving rumination on love, loss and cross generational friendship, Is Anybody There?, features Michael Caine as an old duffer magician with a few tricks up his sleeve for morbid youth Bill Milner, while Norwegian filmmaker Bent Hamer’s lovely O’Horten is a geriatric road movie in which a lifetime’s order is thrown to the four winds. Both these films deserve an audience and both trade in late epiphanies and complex characterisations, which are all too rare in modern films featuring the aged.

Filmmakers’ reluctance to deal with this issue is perplexing at best, and it’s a debate recently muddied by David Fincher’s miserable and interminable foible of an age theme epic The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. Has the botox principle really finally frozen our desire to produce works of such permanence as Eastwood’s Unforgiven or Ozu’s Tokyo Story? It’s not like these films lack an audience. Let’s face it, in the west at least, it’s an expanding demographic – advances in healthcare and declining birth rates have taken care of that. But mark my words – war is coming. When those on pensions outnumber those being smothered by exorbitant taxes there will be a war between the young and the old. Zimmer frame will go against iPhone, it will divide the weak from the strong, the man from the boy. Roland Emmerich will make a film about it and movie makers can finally decide whose side they are really on.

Is Anybody There? is on selected release from Fri 1 May. O’Horten, GFT, Glasgow from Fri 8. Filmhouse, Edinburgh from Fri 29 May.

Is Anybody There?

  • 3 stars
  • 2009
  • UK
  • 95 min
  • 12A
  • Directed by: John Crowley
  • Written by: Peter Harness
  • Cast: Michael Caine, Bill Milner, David Morrissey, Anne-Marie Duff

Caine plays Clarence, a suicidal magician struggling to cope with life after the death of his wife. After moving into a retirement home Clarence is befriended by the owners' ten-year old son Edward (Milner), a day dreaming malcontent with a fascination for all things supernatural. Somewhere between the magic Clarence…

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