Older characters in movies have often been stereotyped in insulting and degrading ways. The elderly have been shown as irritable, depressed, slow-witted, lonely, sickly, whiny, rude, horny, and foul-mouthed – as if that’s all they had to offer. Cinema has often reflected society’s attitudes toward the 50-plus crowd who in real life were often ridiculed or ignored.
But hopefully the times are a-changin’, as Bob Dylan famously sang.
This year, the Academy’s Oscar nominees include a notable number of people over 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 happen to fit into the typical stereotypes. Jeff Bridges, 67, stars as a Texas Ranger tracking down a pair of bank-robbing brothers. Viggo Mortensen, 58, plays a father devoted to raising his six kids with a rigorous education that challenges his philosophy about life. Meryl Streep, 67, once again proves older women can still steal scenes front and center. And Isabelle Huppert, 63, plays a woman who turns the tables on her attacker.
Maybe that’s a start. Perhaps Hollywood, and society at large, haven’t completely forgotten the value of the elderly with their knowledge, life experience, and insight.
As an article in the San Diego Tribune pointed out, we baby boomers “are reinventing society’s idea of what it means to grow old. Seniors today carry cell phones, not walkers. They sit on bicycles, not rocking chairs. Arts and crafts, bingo and checkers have been replaced with jogging, white-water rafting and skiing. Seniors are healthy, vibrant, influential members of our society.”
As the oldest of the 77 million baby boomers approach their 70s, the elderly and their concerns will inevitably be given more attention. As to whether ageism will worsen or get better is a matter of debate.
Erdman Palmore, a professor emeritus at Duke University who has written or edited more than a dozen books on aging, remains fairly optimistic. “One can say unequivocally that older people are getting smarter, richer and healthier as time goes on,” Palmore said. “I’ve dedicated most of my life to combating ageism, and it’s tempting for me to see it everywhere… But I have faith that as science progresses, and reasonable people get educated about it, we will come to recognize ageism as the evil it is.”
Is Hollywood slowly adapting to reflect these changes as we baby boomers forge ahead refining the landscape of aging?
Hopefully. The movie industry has been complaining about ageism in Hollywood for a long time. According to CEO JoAnn Jenkins at a movie industry roundtable discussion hosted by Variety, ageism is another diversity issue that Hollywood needs to consider more. “The truth is that 70 percent of the disposable income in this country is in the possession of people 50 and older,” Jenkins said. “And 25 percent of people who are moviegoers are people over the age of 50. They are actually putting butts in the seats in the movie theaters. Yet we see across the board that the marketing industry is spending 75 to 80 percent of their dollars focusing on people who are under the age of 30, and mostly young males.”
Jenkin’s opinion corresponds with two academic studies that showed 30-somethings were heavily over-represented in movies, 40-somethings did all right, while 50-somethings were significantly under-represented and the over-60s severely so.
Recently Humana invited me to watch and participate online in a panel discussion they sponsored, Over Sixty, Under Estimated: A Healthy Look at the “Silver” Screen at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles that included baby boomer actress 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 make fun of older people?
We’re not grumpy old codgers cussing up a storm. I’m over 50 and still consider myself an active, vibrant member of society. Let’s hope this year’s Academy nominees proves that Hollywood is catching up with the times.