We are big movie fans here at the Silver Century Foundation, but the silver screen hasn’t been overly kind to older characters. Hollywood’s ageist bent is easily exposed when older adults are depicted as comic sidekicks or stereotyped grandparents—when there is no role for them at all. Happily, more and more filmmakers around the world are tackling the subject of growing older with honesty, insight and beauty. Pete Croatto takes a look at films that were selected by SCF because they examine age and aging in ways that challenge us to think about our own views of growing older.
- Tea with Mussolini Posted in: Cinema, Friendships
1999, Italy/UK, 117 min.
In fascist Italy, a group of older, artistic-leaning expats—one of whom (Maggie Smith) insufferably flouts her musty political connections—enjoy their sun-drenched lifestyle. However, the party is winding down: Benito Mussolini is growing increasingly combative. Years pass, and the once-comfortable American and English women find themselves hassled by troops and, eventually, imprisoned. Their chance at freedom may depend on a boy with a sentimental connection to these prisoners. Loosely based on director Franco Zeffirelli’s life and on a group of women known as the Scorpioni, the film does more than serve as a forum for several wonderful actresses, such as Smith, Joan Plowright, Cher and Lily Tomlin. It’s an inspirational, historical reminder that adaptation and strength don’t expire with age, even when war literally comes to your neighborhood.
- Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You Posted in: Documentaries
2016, USA, 91 min.
This endearing documentary profiles Lear, the man behind such exalted TV series as All in the Family and Maude, as he promotes his 2014 memoir, Even This I Get to Experience. The movie’s real focus is capturing the then 93-year-old in the full bloom of life. Filmmakers Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady let Lear talk, and he’s enchanting: engaged and curious, vehemently opposed to sitting still. Life has been “wondrous,” though Lear has had every reason to curdle: a childhood full of sadness, crippling work pressures, a stormy earlier marriage. We all have reasons. Life is hard. As you get older, the incentives to sit and collect dust increase daily. But if you keep a dash of curiosity and an open mind—Lear started therapy in his 80s—the horizon expands. Age is not a death sentence; it’s definitely not a reason to lower the bar. “I’m sometimes applauded for walking across the room,” he says. Translation/inspiration: I am not done yet.
- The Wrestler Posted in: Midlife
2008, USA, 109 min.
Former pro wrestler Randy “The Ram” Robinson (Mickey Rourke) gets a shot at recapturing his 1980s glory days. The timing couldn’t be worse. His estranged daughter (Evan Rachel Wood) is reaching out and he’s getting closer to his crush (Marisa Tomei), a stripper with her own problems. It’s an excruciating dilemma: Should The Ram revel in the intoxicating past or work to improve a dismal present? Rourke looks the part with his craggy façade and stringy hair, and he brings to life every facet of The Ram’s pain without resorting to theatrics in this achingly human performance. Tomei and Wood flesh out their characters to show the small progress in The Ram’s stagnant, self-destructive life. Director Darren Aronofsky (Requiem for a Dream) lets the details tell the story—duct tape on The Ram’s jacket, Wood clutching his arm, Tomei’s last look before he faces his fate—to create a portrait of a different (but relatable) midlife crisis.
- As Good as It Gets Posted in: Cinema, Friendships, Midlife, Single, Widowed or Divorced
1997, USA, 139 min.
Melvin Udall (Jack Nicholson) is sewn to the routine he’s set up as a manic obsessive-compulsive. The permanently angry and unpleasant novelist holes up in his opulent New York City apartment, emerging daily to eat at his favorite restaurant, where he is served by the same waitress, Carol (Helen Hunt). Then Melvin’s world unravels. Carol misses a shift, causing an unhinged Melvin to step into her life to put his own back on track. He’s then forced to care for a dog owned by his hospitalized, artist neighbor (Greg Kinnear), a disruption that leads to a road trip that changes everything. Some viewers might consider Melvin and Carol’s May-December relationship to be the life spark of the film, but that’s missing this upbeat comedy-drama’s greater purpose: we’re never too old to break free from our routines and enrich our world with new experiences and new people.
- The Straight Story Posted in: Cinema, Later Life Quests, Mortality, Voices/Views
1999, USA, 112 min.
A chasm, caused by slights long forgotten, separates Alvin Straight (Richard Farnsworth in an Oscar-nominated performance) and his brother, Lyle (Harry Dean Stanton). When Alvin learns that Lyle has suffered a stroke, Alvin is determined to see him, but the 73-year-old has no car and cannot see well enough anyway to drive the 350 miles. Alvin’s solution is to buy a used, 1966, John Deere tractor, hook up a wagon filled with supplies and putter along the shoulders of America’s highways. Credit director David Lynch (yes, of Blue Velvet fame) and first-time screenwriters Mary Sweeney and John Roach with crafting a movie without one easy joke about middle America. They summon the humanity in the unusual and come up with a work that is aglow with human kindness. And it is all held together by Farnsworth’s beautifully understated performance. The passage of time and heft of regret reside in his every move.
- Unforgiven Posted in: Later Life Quests, Midlife, Mortality, Retirement, Single, Widowed or Divorced
1992, USA, 131 min.
This is the masterpiece that escalated Clint Eastwood’s rise into the cinematic pantheon. Struggling as a farmer, widowed with two children, long-retired gunfighter Bill Munny (Eastwood, who also directed) agrees to help a big-talking kid (Jaimz Woolvett) track down two desperados who maimed a whore. Their travels take the two men and Munny’s old friend Ned Logan (Morgan Freeman) to the town of Big Whiskey, WY, where the sheriff (Gene Hackman) wants to exercise his own brand of justice. Unforgiven is a quietly profound reflection of how life cannot bend to our will. All of our acts, even from long ago, have repercussions—and we have no control over the narrative. There’s a reason why Bill Munny does not ride into the sunset but into a blinding rainstorm. He is who he is. The same applies to us. Winner of four Oscars, including best picture.
- Tokyo Story Posted in: Families
1953, Japan, 136 min.
Director Yasujirô Ozu’s domestic drama unfolds slowly; its emotional impact is timeless. Shukichi (Chishû Ryû) and his wife, Tomi (Chishû Ryû), journey to visit their adult children in Tokyo, a rare outing that is met with little enthusiasm by their preoccupied, selfish progeny. The couple is passed around like an unwanted gift, pawned off on their ex-daughter-in-law (the only one genuinely happy to see them) or relegated to a seaside spa as a cost-cutting measure. Shukichi and Tomi remain unflappable, as if their treatment is a matter of course. Under Ozu’s subtle hand, we learn that in some families, age is a justification for the younger generation to abandon their elders for their own pursuits. The neglected must sustain themselves on the fumes of the past or on the new generation’s success, however meager. As he shows us how small pettiness over time splinters families, Ozu masterfully begs us to be better people.
- Breathing Lessons Posted in: Families, Long-Lasting Marriages, Midlife
1994, USA, 93 min.
Before Ira and Maggie Moran (James Garner and Joanne Woodward) begin to travel from Baltimore to Pennsylvania for a funeral, she’s already wrecked the car and he’s gotten an earful from his cantankerous dad. As the day twists and turns into an attempt to reconcile their rudderless son (Tim Guinee) with his long-estranged ex (Kathryn Erbe), the couple bickers, makes up and revisits the ups and downs of their 29 years of marriage. Garner and Woodward are so guileless and comfortable together that it feels like we’re traveling with old friends, with a backseat view into a battle-tested marriage. You win some. You lose some. Most importantly, you have somebody with whom you want to face the highs, the lows and all the unglamorous moments in between. In this quietly charming adaptation of Anne Tyler’s novel, one of the perks of getting older is acquiring the ability to move on.
- The Shadow Box Posted in: Mortality
1980, USA, 96 min.
In the California woods lies a complex of cabins where the slowly dying and their loved ones spend their remaining days, holding public therapy sessions with a somnolent-voiced interviewer. It’s a controlled, almost sterile environment that radiates calm, but emotional damage accrues. An unappreciated daughter (Melinda Dillon) hides a secret from her senile mother (Sylvia Sidney); an estranged wife (Valerie Harper) longs for the fairly acrimonious past with her now-unflappable husband (James Broderick); and a gay writer (Christopher Plummer), trying to outwrite his mortality, falls into old habits when his blowsy ex-wife (Joanne Woodward) shows up. No matter how we try to demystify death’s imminent arrival, the feelings of those left behind prevent a clean break—and this may not be a bad thing. That message is delivered with nuance and resonance in Paul Newman’s TV movie adaptation of Michael Cristofer’s play.
- Pauline and Paulette Posted in: Caregiving, Families
2001, Belgium (subtitled), 78 min.
The relationship among four elderly sisters is portrayed in this film featuring two of Belgium’s greatest actresses. Pauline (Dora van der Groen), 66 years old and severely mentally challenged, is cared for by her sister Martha. When Martha dies suddenly, her two younger sisters, Paulette (Ann Petersen) and Cecile, must decide who will care for Pauline. According to Martha’s will, her fortune will be divided in three equal parts only if one of the sisters looks after Pauline. If they decide to institutionalize her, Pauline will be the only heir. Bickering and upheaval ensue when Cecile and Paulette reluctantly rearrange their lives. You will want to notice how life amidst family caretaking obligations confronts popular beliefs about older women and the mentally challenged.
- The Road to Galveston Posted in: Based on True Stories, Caregiving, Midlife, Single, Widowed or Divorced
1996, USA, 93 min.
Based on a true story, this made-for-TV film portrays 65-year-old Jordan Roosevelt (Cicely Tyson), alone, destitute and depressed following the death of her husband. Determined to save her home from foreclosure and live on her own, Jordan defies the wishes of her adult son and embarks on a new career as a caregiver for Alzheimer’s patients. Her home becomes a residence for three patients in various stages of the disease. Despite the demands she faces as a caregiver and the challenges of living with limited financial resources, Jordan perseveres. Her home-care clients also thrive, as best they can, forming friendships with one another that transform them as they struggle to maintain some semblance of control over their lives.
- Philomena Posted in: Based on True Stories, Later Life Quests
2013, UK, 98 min.
Based on a true story, this is a redemptive tale with none of the sickly sweet aftertaste. Former BBC journalist Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan) is desperate for work, so he takes an assignment he considers well beneath his reputation and cultured aspirations: a human-interest story about Philomena Lee (Judi Dench). Philomena is a sweet churchgoer looking to reunite with the infant son she was forced to give up for adoption over 50 years ago. As the story slinks into darker terrain and takes the pair to America, we see that Philomena has wells of emotional strength underneath her perpetual, wide-eyed cheer. Directed with assurance, sympathy and gentle wit by Stephen Frears (Dangerous Liaisons, The Grifters), Philomena shows that resolving the past can be a redemptive act if it’s done with patience and faith.
- The Thing About My Folks Posted in: Families, Mortality
2005, USA, 98 min.
Written by and starring Paul Reiser, this comedic father-son adventure opens with Sam (Peter Falk) seeking out his son, Ben (played by Reiser), because Sam has discovered a note informing him that Muriel, his wife of 47 years, has left him. While Sam’s daughters and daughter-in-law begin their search for Muriel, Ben and Sam embark on a trip to upstate New York to inspect an old farmhouse that Ben wants to purchase. What begins as a day trip turns into a much longer journey, giving father and son the opportunity to explore their relationship, issues from the past, and ideas about what makes a good husband. This film is about a family who care for and support one another but also show anger and their fears.
- Woman in Gold Posted in: Based on True Stories, Later Life Quests
2015, UK, USA, 109 min.
Woman in Gold is an unabashed crowd pleaser. Like 2013’s Philomena, Woman in Gold is based on a true story involving an older woman resolving her past. But we don’t mind the similarity. The performances here are sturdy and winning; the emotions feel true. Woman in Gold works to win our affections. Read more…
- Nobody’s Fool Posted in: Families, Later Life Quests, Midlife
1994, USA, 110 min.
This slice-of-life story, based on the novel by Richard Russo, takes place in a snowbound, upstate New York town where Donald “Sully” Sullivan (Paul Newman), a 60-something hard-luck handyman, rents an upstairs room from Miss Beryl (Jessica Tandy), his former eighth-grade teacher. Estranged from his relatives for 30 years, Sully finds family in the cast of characters at the local bar until his son Peter returns to town with his own family. Sully is forced to confront issues from his early life and gets a second chance to experience the responsibilities and rewards of parenthood and grandparenthood and to realize that there are people in his life who are more important than he is.
- I Never Sang for My Father Posted in: Caregiving, Families
1970, USA, 92 min.
In a film based on a 1962 original screenplay entitled The Tiger, written by Robert Anderson, director Gilbert Cates presents a story of conflict between a father and son and the love and obligations that bind them. A widowed college professor just entering his middle years, Gene (Gene Hackman) is struggling to connect with his hard-to-please father (Melvyn Douglas). When his mother dies, Gene must choose between getting married again and relocating to the West Coast or moving into his father’s home on the East Coast to care for him and perhaps finally win his father’s love and approval. This film will enlighten you about parental relationships and the unexpected challenges of midlife.
- The Wash Posted in: Families, Long-Lasting Marriages, Midlife, Single, Widowed or Divorced
1988, USA, 94 min.
Written by Philip Kan Gotanda, this is the story of a Japanese-American woman in her 60s who, defying the convention that would have her endure an unhappy marriage, decides to leave her husband of 40 years. Eight months after Masi has left her gruff, stubborn husband, Nobu, for an apartment of her own, she starts seeing another man but continues to stop by weekly to do Nobu’s laundry. In time, a new romance blossoms, much to the dismay of Nobu and their two grown daughters. Masi’s request for a divorce so she can marry her new boyfriend is an angry confrontation and we see that for all the happiness of the new couple, the claims of the past weigh heavily.
- Up Posted in: Comedy Drama, Friendships, Later Life Quests, Single, Widowed or Divorced
2009, USA, animated, 96 min.
Recently widowed and faced with losing his longtime home, Carl Fredricksen (voiced by Ed Asner) fashions a unique balm for his woe. He hitches countless helium balloons to his house and literally floats away toward South America, his beloved wife’s dream destination. The plan quickly falters when the grumpy Carl discovers that endlessly exuberant, neighborhood kid Russell (voiced by Jordan Nagai) has inadvertently hitched a ride, an arrangement that ends up filling the cracks in this duo’s lonely lives. Carl discovers that life gets better when you let people into your adventure—even if irreplaceable loved ones have left it. A Pixar product filled with laughs for kids, but it’s the grownups who will be touched by its poignancy.
- The Wedding Gift Posted in: Based on True Stories, Caregiving, Long-Lasting Marriages, Mortality
1994, UK, 87 min.
A BBC original, The Wedding Gift is based on a true story about a woman faced with a terminal illness that defies medical diagnosis. Diana (Julie Walters) and Deric (Jim Broadbent), her devoted husband, have an ideal marriage: they thrive in each other’s company, they’re funny, and they enjoy their two grown children and Deric’s dotty mother. Deric has taken on the round-the-clock responsibilities of caring for Diana, resulting in the near-collapse of his lingerie business. As Diana’s condition worsens, she decides to plan her husband’s future and convinces Deric, an aspiring writer, to attend a writer’s convention. There he meets Aileen Armitage, a blind novelist to whom he is attracted. Deric’s future is set in motion. You will want to note the role of humor in this film and the ways in which characters deal with physical decline, caretaking and the end of life.
- Gran Torino Posted in: Friendships, Midlife, Single, Widowed or Divorced
2008, USA, 116 min.
Retired autoworker and Korean War veteran Walt Kowalski (Clint Eastwood, who also directed) refuses to embrace the evolving world. Despite his neighborhood’s changing demographics and plummeting safety, he’s not moving from his Detroit home. When a gang skirmish involving his Hmong neighbors spills onto his front lawn, Walt intercedes—and gains the family’s respect. Walt’s simmering xenophobia is challenged by his growing admiration for the household’s two English-speaking teens (Bee Vang, Ahney Her). He softens into a protector, teaching them the gritty intricacies of American life, and regains his own purpose. Gran Torino shows how youth benefit from the knowledge and courage of their elders—if the older generation believes in the future rather than fears it. The same way the characters are pulled together by Walt’s prized possession (the titular American muscle car), a multigenerational swath of viewers will love this film’s big heart and integrity.