Older characters in movies have often been stereotyped in insulting and degrading ways. The elderly have been cranky, depressed, clumsy, lonely, sickly, whiny, rude, horny and foul-mouthed, as if that was all they had to offer. Cinema has often reflected society’s attitudes towards the 50+ crowd that in real life were often ridiculed or ignored.
But hopefully times are changing, as Bob Dylan sang.
This year’s Academy Award nominees include a notable number of people over the age of 50, including Mel Gibson, for directing Hacksaw Ridge; Jeff Bridges, for Best Supporting Actor in Hell or High Water; Viggo Mortensen, for Best Actor in a Leading Role in Captain Fantastic; Meryl Streep for Best Actress in a Leading Role in Florence Foster Jenkins and Isabelle Huppert for Best Actress in a Leading Role in Elle.
And they don’t fit the typical stereotypes. Jeff Bridges, 67, plays a Texas Ranger who tracks down a pair of brothers robbing banks. Viggo Mortensen, 58, plays a father dedicated to raising his six children with a rigorous education that challenges his philosophy of life. 67-year-old Meryl Streep proves once again that older women can still steal scenes front and center. And Isabelle Huppert, 63, plays a woman who turns her attacker upside down.
Maybe that’s a start. Perhaps Hollywood, and society in general, have not completely forgotten the value of older people with their knowledge, life experience and insight.
As a San Diego Tribune article noted, baby boomers “are reinventing society’s idea of what it means to get old. Today, older people carry cell phones, not walkers. They sit on bicycles, not rocking chairs. Art. and crafts, bingo and ladies have been replaced by jogging, rafting and skiing. Older people are healthy, vibrant and influential members of our society. “
As the largest of the 77 million baby boomers approach 70, inevitably more attention will be paid to the elderly and their concerns. As to whether age discrimination will get worse or better is a matter of debate.
Erdman Palmore, a Duke University professor emeritus who has written or edited more than a dozen books on aging, remains quite optimistic. “It can be said unequivocally that older people get smarter, richer and healthier as time goes on,” Palmore said. “I have dedicated most of my life to fighting age discrimination, and it is tempting for me to see it everywhere … But I have faith that as science advances and reasonable people are educated about it, we will come to recognize age discrimination for how evil it is. “
Is Hollywood slowly adapting to reflect these changes as we baby boomers move on refining the aging landscape?
If only. The movie industry has been complaining about age discrimination in Hollywood for a long time. According to executive director JoAnn Jenkins at a film industry roundtable hosted by Variety, age discrimination is another diversity issue that Hollywood needs to consider more. “The truth is, 70 percent of disposable income in this country is owned by people 50 and older,” Jenkins said. “And 25 percent of the people who go to the movies are people over the age of 50. Actually, they are putting butts in the seats of the movie theaters. However, we generally see that the marketing industry is spending 75 to 80 percent of their dollars in people under 30, and mostly young men. “
Jenkin’s view corresponds to two academic studies that showed that 30-something people were highly overrepresented in movies, 40-something people were fine, 50-something people were significantly under-represented and those over 60 seriously.
Recently, Humana invited me to watch and participate online in a panel discussion they sponsored, Over 60, Less Estimated: A Healthy Look at the “Silver” Screen at the University of Southern California, Los Angeles that included the baby boom Francis Fisher. During the discussion, the panel made a good point. These days, if Hollywood ridiculed an ethnic group, the LGBT community, or the disabled in movies, people would be in an uproar. So why do people quietly tolerate the way movies poke fun at older people?
We’re not grumpy old curmudgeons cursing a storm. I am in my 50s and still consider myself an active and vibrant member of society. Let’s hope this year’s Academy nominees show that Hollywood is catching up.