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Somebody Should Notify the AARP

By Henry P. Raleigh
ART TIMES July/ August 2011

AARP drawing by Henry Raleigh

In a brief scene in the 1995 mock-documentary, “Dadetown”, a newcomer to a small town that is about to be cast into social and economic conflict spots a man who seems to be painting sign posts red.  Curious, he questions a local resident about this odd behavior who laughingly explains that the old fellow is eighty years of age.

In a brief scene in the 2008 film, “The Skeptic”, a deceased lady had been of interest to a paranormal scientist because she saw ghosts. Her smart-alecky, fortyish nephew dismisses these claims as having come from the befuddled mind of an eighty-one year old.

You see what’s going on here? Oh, you probably wouldn’t have taken much notice of these casual remarks in film, such offhand observations are common enough- old folks are nut-cases.  Well you wouldn’t take notice unless you happen to be at or within shooting range of one of life’s Golden Stages.   The scriptwriters can certainly be blamed for this callousness. With some show of sensitivity they could just as well written in the sign painter as a performance artist of worldwide reputation.  It wouldn’t have changed anything in the film.  There are any number of performance artists who do no better — they’re just younger. And why shouldn’t an old woman see ghosts?  Aren’t there plenty of films about teenagers who encounter ghosts and they are only considered fruitcakes at the beginning of the films. I guess the writers are hardly more than teenagers themselves and these assumptions are thoughtlessly taken for granted or they figure the over sixty-five crowd stopped going to the movies once sound was added.

When not viewing the elderly as loonies, filmmakers, in a more tolerant mood, will cast advanced seniors as being just as funny as a barrel of monkeys.  Ancients can be a load of laughs, all right, especially if you throw a couple or more together.  Walter Matthau was seventy, George Burns eighty when they starred in “The Sunshine Boys” in 1975.  In 1985 “Cocoon” offered up a whole passel of droll seniors and again in ’88 sequel.  Matthau was resurrected and teamed with Jack Lemon for the 1993 “Grumpy Old Men” and once more in “Grumpier Old Men” of 1995.  I ask you, how many films have you ever seen which septuagenarians and octogenarians were not either a laugh a minute or clearly not playing with a full deck?  OK, Clint Eastwood at eighty is an exception but does he look his age, for goodness sake?  Far more typical is Eli Wallach shuffling and grumbling in “New York, I Love You” 0f 2009.  And what about Patrick Cranshaw, ever the dazed relic in films as “Everyone says I love you” in 1996 and
“Best in Show” in 2000?

Despite filmmakers poor regard for their seniors women do seem to come off better than men.  In the 1991 “Strangers in Good Company” an assortment of women, all in their seventies, are neither comical nor bonkers, cute perhaps, still capable of functioning as mature adults.  Jessica Tandy in the 1987 “batteries Not Included” does appear somewhat touched yet endearing as she was in a more regal fashion in “Driving Miss Daisy” in 1989.  Geraldine Paige in “Trip to the Bountiful” of 1985 may have been slightly on the fuzzy side still we see her as a dignified lady who has all her buttons.  Ethyl Barrymore could look wild-eyed at times as she was in the 1946  "The Spiral Staircase” nonetheless aristocratic and indomitable as she was in any of her films. 

Why is it that old men are not granted the respect, admiration, and understanding awarded their female coevals? I figure it all began sometime ago when William Butler Yeats wrote a poem that opened with, “An aged man is a paltry thing....” A couple of early filmmakers quickly picked up on this and being still in their knickers decided, “Hey, let’s make the old coots paltry but let the women off or our moms would really get sore.”  So in 1924 F.W. Murnau knocked out “The Last Laugh” about the humiliating antics of an old hotel doorman.  Josef von Sternberg did it one better with “The Blue Angel” in 1929, the story of a pompous, senescent professor reduced to a pathetic state by Marlene Dietrich.  And it’s been this way ever since, you know. We men are cursed to be portrayed forever in films as clowns or lunatics — and I, for one think it’s about time something should be done about it.