Movies: Aging gracefully at the box office

The Denver PostFebruary 8, 2013 

1123220 - Skyfall

Judi Dench stars in Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures/Columbia Pictures/EON Productions’ action adventure SKYFALL.

FRANCOIS DUHAMEL — Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures/Columbia Pictures

There are fresh signs in pop culture of a new wrestling with growing old.

There’s a rich tango afoot between embracing with grace or refusing with aplomb the assertions of time on us, body and soul.

Demographics tell part of the story. The over-65 population in the U.S. is growing at a faster rate than ever, according to the Census of 2010. To some extent, the health-care and economic challenges this reality presents also drive our interests and anxieties. If we live well into the upper reaches, what will the quality of that life be like?

It no doubt says something about Boomers — the generation voted least likely to go gently into that good night — that aging’s starting to matter. Really, really matter. Whether Hollywood sees an enduring market in this remains to be seen.

For decades, studios have been good slighting 50 percent of the population for its golden quadrant of young males. What’s to prevent them from doing the same for the fastest-growing segment of the population? Sleeper hit “Best Exotic Marigold Hotel,” starring dames Judi Dench and Maggie Smith among others, cost $10 million to produce and had a tidy return of more than $134 million worldwide.

In the indie or “specialty” box-office market, recent releases “Amour” and “Quartet” are doing quite well. But the point is more organic. It is not the story of marketers so much as that of storytellers and artists. There are people with tales to tell, not just memories to share.

Last month, Academy of Motion Pictures Arts & Sciences members wholly embraced the French-language film “Amour.” Austrian director Michael Haneke’s transcendent drama about an octogenarian couple is nominated for five Oscars, including best picture. Last week, the Maggie Smith-led ensemble dramedy “Quartet” — set in a home for elderly musicians and directed by Dustin Hoffman— opened in some markets.

“Amour” tells the story of two former music teachers, Georges and Anne, whose lives begin an unabating decline when she has a stroke. It is elegiac yet unsentimental, a reminder that all good things really do come to an end. Whereas “Elders Do the Darndest Things” might be the alt-title of Betty White’s punk’d style prank and sketch comedy show, “Off Their Rockers,” in which seniors often exploit the assumptions of millennials about “old folks.”

Of course, there’s a lovely wrinkle implied in pop-culture examples of the elderly. Although growing older themselves, the actors are gainfully employed, still doing what they presumably love. How enviable. In doing the work of acting they defy the very thing they may also be representing: decline.

A few years ago the Alliance of Women Film Journalists started its Actress Defying Age and Ageism award. This year’s victor was Judi Dench, not for her work in the extremely popular “Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” but for her turn as 007’s boss in “Skyfall.”

Actors we associated once with youth (our youth?) age. “I’m getting older, and for the first time I’m being asked to play uncles and fathers and grandfathers,” actor Christopher Walken, 69, said in a recent Denver Post interview. His latest, “Stand Up Guys,” opened with Walken (69), Al Pacino (72) and Alan Arkin (78) playing three retired wiseguys on a final romp.

Each generation offers to the next lessons in aging, some good, some sad, some ugly. “I’m very lucky,” Walken went on to say about his recent roles. “It opens some new territory that I can continue on for the rest of whatever time I have.”

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