Golden oldies who stay fast and furious

As my generation hurtles at breakneck speed towards its dotage, I turn, as usual, to the cinema to provide me with uplifting escapist fantasies and Golden Ager role models. I’m thinking of Meryl Streep hitting her sixties with brio in It’s Complicated, baking chocolate croissants and romantically torn between Alec Baldwin and Steve Martin. Or Helen Mirren in Red 2, a Beretta in each fist while being chauffeured in a kingfisher-blue Lotus coupé by Lee Byung-hun, one of the hottest actors in the world.

But those films were released a decade ago, and even then they were rare birds. Indeed, It’s Complicated dates from 2010, a year in which I calculated that out of 320 films seen, only three had major characters of a pensionable age. We’ve long been aware that Hollywood sucks up to youth, and treats old people like the heartless proto-yuppies in Tokyo Story treat their elderly parents – by ignoring them – but this was taking it to extremes. The good news is that lately there seem to have been more films with elderly protagonists. The bad news is – they’re all demented or dying.

Thus we’ve had Florian Zeller’s superb but not-exactly-a-laff-riot The Father, in which Alzheimer’s-stricken Anthony Hopkins fails to recognise his own daughter in an Oscar-winning display of age-related befuddlement. Or Amour, directed by Michael “Miseryguts is my middle name” Haneke, in which a stroke leaves Emmanuelle Riva half-paralysed and semi-comatose, so it’s a mercy when her husband finally applies a pillow to her suffering. Or Gaspar Noé’s latest chef d’oeuvre, Vortex, in which Françoise Lebrun meanders around her cluttered Paris flat in a daze, forgetting to turn the gas off. Noé is a former enfant terrible of French cinema best known for in-your-face copulation, incest, rape and a scene in which one character gets his face beaten to a pulp with a fire extinguisher, but Vortex is his toughest watch yet as it tackles what could be the most upsetting taboo of all: terminal senescence.

Aha, you may be thinking, but what about the granny in that lovely Korean-American drama Minari, played by Oscar-winning Youn Yuh-jung? She was funny and feisty! No wait, she also has a stroke and accidentally burns down the family’s barn. Or how about Relic, a display of three generations of girl power in one house… except the oldest keeps wandering off, and is beginning to rot away. Literally, because this is a horror film. Or M. Night Shyamalan’s Old, in which a bunch of tourists get trapped on a tropical beach and start ageing at a hideously accelerated rate, resulting in brittle bones and, our old favourite, dementia. What could be worse?

When we’re not demented, it seems, all we oldies want is to rediscover our libido and act like frisky teens

Maybe Ti West’s X, in which the psychokiller butchering cast and crew of a porn shoot in the Texas boondocks turns out to be (SPOILER!) an old woman driven insane by ageing and the loss of her sexual appeal. Because when we’re not demented, it seems, all we oldies want is to rediscover our libido and act like frisky teens (see, or rather don’t see, Cocoon) or, failing that, use hoodoo or other hocus-pocus to usurp some unwitting young person’s body (The Skeleton Key).

Must we then accept that the Gospel According to Cinema decrees that all we have to look forward to is an inexorable slide into dementia, decay and death? I wondered whether to sprinkle this page with more than just one spoiler warning, but decided against it. It’s a foregone conclusion: all these films end badly, because old age always ends in tears. This is brutal, but at least it’s honest, and preferable to depictions of seniors as twinkly old comic relief who, hilariously, drink alcohol or smoke or use foul language – the sort of pat-them-on-the-head-and-bless-their-cotton-socks characterisation that would make me reach for my gun, if only I had one and my eyesight were better.

There are pockets of optimism, though – thanks to ageing actors of all genders being made of sterner stuff than some of the decrepit characters they’re playing. Who wouldn’t like to spend their eighties like Maggie Smith or Judi Dench, pepping up any number of bland British dramas with their waspish aperçus? Or cap their career with an Oscar at the age of 82, like the late, great Christopher Plummer, who won one for playing an old codger who doesn’t let cancer put a damper on him coming out as gay in Beginners?

And do you see Helen Mirren and Charlotte Rampling slowing down? No you do not; both actresses were pigeonholed as sex symbols in their youth, but are positively flourishing in their seventies. One minute Mirren is whooping it up alongside Jason Statham in the Fast & Furious action franchise, the next she’s a working-class housewife in The Duke, while Rampling segues effortlessly from discovering her middle-class marriage has been a sham in 45 Years to threatening to stick a poisoned needle into Timothée Chalamet’s neck in Dune.

With respect to Vortex, I think I’ll take my Golden Ager cue from Mirren and Rampling, thank you very much, and run the gamut from scary to glam to salt-of-the-earth and back again. Even if it’s only in my head as I meander around my flat, forgetting to turn off the gas.

Anne Billson is a film critic, novelist and photographer

Arts & Culture

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