No Contract for Old Men: 5 ‘Old Folks’ in Pop Culture That Are 5Xs Tougher Than You

“You told me about all these old directors whom people in Hollywood say are ‘over the hill,’ and it made me so sick, I couldn’t sleep. I started thinking about all these conductors – Klemoerer, Beecham, Toscanini – I can name almost a hundred in the last century – who were at the height of their powers after seventy-five. And were conducting at eighty…. it’s only in your twenties and in your seventies and eighties that you do the greatest work … and we must treasure old age and give genius the capacity to function in old age – and not send them away…”

— Orson Welles in Peter Bogdanovich’s Who The Devil Made It?, 1997, pp. 11-12.

On Age and Pop Culture

William Gillette was 78 when he finished his final tour as Sherlock Holmes, having played the role some 1,300 times, beginning at age 46. Many of the traits we now consider part of Holmes’ image – such as the deerstalker hat and curved pipe (and possibly, but not demonstrably, the genesis of the famous “Elementary, my dear Watson”) – were established or cemented by Gillette’s characterisation.

Gillette might have seemed old when he finished up as Holmes, but in today’s media environment it’s tough to see how he even got started: these days, 46 might as well be 78. Robert Downey Jr. may have been around that age when he stepped into Guy Ritchie’s new Sherlock Holmes franchise, but part of Downey Jr.’s appeal seems to be his eternal frat-boy demeanour: a self-conscious summoning of the idea of youth, even if not its actual presence. The BBC revival Sherlock (2010–) was certainly more comfortable with a younger, more modern, internet-trendy Holmes in Benedict Cumberbatch. I doubt anyone would be surprised if a few incarnations down the track, the “young” in Barry Levinson’s 1985 Young Sherlock Holmes is rendered somewhat superfluous.

The elevation of youth and the creation of opportunities for new faces is vital, but it often seems that it’s more about the image of progress than the real pursuit of it; in a media and cultural environment that’s trained its audiences to be happily superficial, young faces represent little more than basic marketability rather than new ideas and forms of expression. No surprises there, but it’s a shame if a de-emphasis on adult roles results in a lack of real-world “grown-up” concerns in high-profile popular culture.

Certainly plenty of vocal online Gen-Xers and now-ageing Gen-Ys seem content to claim their generations’ narratives in what are essentially children’s stories, re-visiting again and again the same old tales of kids discovering their unique greatness, finding amazing powers that make them “special”, fighting mean ol’ bullies, getting the girl, and so on, almost as though such a refusal to leave the cultural realm of childhood will offer a protective counter-identity to the conservative and consumerist “adult” world that most of us are unavoidably sucked into (“I may work for a multi-national, ethically-bereft, profit-obsessed, human-rights-ignoring corporation, but isn’t my Batman retro-zombie faux-vintage day-glo collectible pillowcase awesome!?”).

While youthful reinvigoration of culture can seem nice, the relevance of the “non-adolescent” starts to diminish when the overall tone shifts towards the young. Just as older unemployed people can find it difficult to get a hold of meaningful employment opportunities, plenty of not-quite-established artists in the realm of popular culture may find their initially-bright spotlight pointing elsewhere before they’ve had a chance to fully explore the limits of their art or profession. While a culture of youth is still presented like it’s an upset to the established order, that’s usually far from the case: “youth culture” is the perfect marketing label to slap on the old conservative ideologies. Pretty new faces to say the same ugly old things.

Not that it’s all roses for the young out there, with rampant exploitation of young workers, highly insecure job positions, and an ever-increasing monopolisation of wealth going on. As Stephen Marcie writes in Esquire’s “The War Against Youth” : “The recession didn’t gut the prospects of American young people. The Baby Boomers took care of that” (26 March 2012). While the problems of “gerontocracy” are real, the constant re-packing of younger and younger faces for the mainstream popular consciousness is – perhaps counter-intuitively – part of maintaining that power imbalance. Such social and financial divisions are easier to maintain if we’re all happy to keep seeing ourselves as – and acting like – kids.

Of course, perhaps that’s just the standard not-too-nuanced and somewhat hyperbolic cry of despair at the hollowness of consumerism, but it’s still it’s a scary thought that the threshold for what’s considered to be “old” might be dropping: especially when length and (hopefully) quality of life are increasing.

There’s a lot to be gained by established powers if people’s voices can stop being heard once they pass a certain threshold, especially if that’s when awareness of social inequality begins to rise: if you’re still complaining after you’ve hit 25, then you’ve probably done something wrong with your life, seems to be the implied wisdom. On a cultural level, pop culture generally seems to suggest that, once people pass a certain age, they’ve more or less rid themselves of pesky things like emotional and personal conflicts worth exploring, if not emotions altogether. In a short scene from great TV series Lou Grant (episode “Takeover” from 6 December 1977), Nancy Marchand as newspaper owner Margaret (Mrs.) Pynchon points out what really shouldn’t be a surprise about the presence of emotion in the old:

There are still plenty of places for older actors and stars, but like Downey Jr. (or those bloated crime savants on detective shows), the best way to stay relevant may be to deny the years and appeal to youth-obsessed grown-ups: a slightly more subtle cultural version of the classic sitcom “Rock ‘n’ Roll Grandma”.

Older faces in pop culture obviously don’t automatically equate to “adult” concerns. Brooks Barnes in the New York Times points out that “older faces on screen draw an overlooked crowd” for grey-fuelled The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (starring 77-year-olds Judi Dench and

Maggie Smith) (23 May 2012), but as Chris Barsanti wrote in PopMatters, both The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel and The Avengers opened at the same time and offered essentially the same non-problematised pandering to the perceived desires of their target age ranges (14 May 2012). As Barsanti rightly asks of both films: “These are both films that know their audiences, perhaps all too well… what is there to talk about really?” Pap aimed at different ends of the age range remains pap all the same.

It’s sad to see interesting and exciting actors, artists and performers struggle to get real, substantial work when the wrinkles become harder to airbrush away and the trendy attitudes become harder to convincingly maintain. Aside from the actors themselves, this can also relate to the kinds of stories we can tell about the characters we know. Part of the appeal of certain actors in the modern environment is the absolute identification with a role. Gillette may have been a definitive Holmes for his time, but we don’t have much to draw on when we consider his ownership of the role (only a radio recording survives of his Holmes). Today, with especially rigid control over modern cultural “product” (to use the ugly corporate language) and its global distribution, there’s limited room for multiple interpretations of characters, meaning that characters can often become inseparable from the actors that portray them.

Sylvester Stallone may have led a bit of an old folks charge with Rambo (2008) and Rocky Balboa (2006), but such reclamations of star billing seem to require enormous amounts of cash and social capital (and Human Growth Hormone?). The quality of Stallone’s films may have been questionable (actually, I think they’re not too bad), but it’s always welcome to see mainstream cinema take an opportunity to revisit its icons from a new perspective rather than simply abandoning them for a newer version. Thanks to the current “reboot” trend, our heroes never have to really grow (despite the constant flurry to praise the often meaningless “character arc”): changing actors means the characters stay perpetually young and their most basic conflicts never need to be surpassed. More interesting but less marketable character-actor combinations may find themselves abandoned as hints of age (or mere change) appear on the actors who, for a moment, “owned” a character.

Gillette may have been close to 80 when he performed his farewell tour, but one of the modern day TV detectives didn’t have as much luck. Peter Falk’s affable detective Lt. Columbo failed to return for a swansong when age stood in the way, and it’s always lamentable to hear that one of the most expressive and enjoyable female actors in the fantasy genre, the still-young and vibrant Lucy Lawless, might be seen as too old to be marketable for any return of Xena: Warrior Princess. While neither of these might seem to be great artistic losses, it’s interesting to think how these characters might have been approached by a sensitive creative team had they been given the opportunity to grow with their actor-“owners”. (Columbo may not have strayed from its formula, but the names behind Xena – including Rob Tapert and Sam Raimi – have always been much more interested in character than their unique Three-Stooges-melodrama style might suggest). In any case, after some initial eye-rolling, it soon becomes completely understandable why actor Huang Hoang felt the need to sue Internet Movie Database for revealing her age and, as a result, instantly reducing the amount of work available to her (actually demonstrating this inherent bias against actors due to age in order to claim damages will be the tougher task).

Old Folks, Kicking Ass

But ultimately, griping about the influx of younger and younger faces (or faces pretending to be younger and younger) is a fairly futile task; complaining about it just seems to cement one as an old curmudgeon (which is half true). Instead, in support of the “old” in roles that aren’t demeaning (“old people are people too”), dull (voices of wisdom), or spectres (monotone representatives of the past), here are five good, interesting, worthwhile or just plain fun examples of the “old” claiming the spotlight.

This list isn’t about serious meditations on age or problems specific to the elderly, rather it features performers around the 60-90 year-old range in a central role of mainstream pop culture and kicking some degree of ass. These aren’t profound meditations – there’s no Wild Strawberries-type films (not that Bergman’s film starring 79-year-old Victor Sjostrom isn’t one of the best!) – rather, they’re examples of thoroughly mainstream pop culture that weren’t quite ready to give way to the kids just yet. As such, this list remains non-exhaustive, highly questionable, possibly disgraceful, and thoroughly disreputable.

 

#5: Terence Stamp in The Limey (1999), Dir. Steven Soderbergh

Terence Stamp: 61 years old

Peter Fonda: 59 years old

A simple revenge thriller with a somewhat telegraphed finalé (and one that breaks Quentin Tarantino’s personal rule for revenge movies), Steven Soderbergh’s The Limey elevates itself through the key art of casting: as hero versus villain the film is entirely generic, but as Terence Stamp versus Henry Fonda, two ’60s icons who summon images greater than any single character they could portray, it takes on a new life. Here, Stamp exudes gritty British street-level naturalism, a run-down reminder of the social realism of directors like Ken Loach that brought him into the mainstream. Fonda is an altogether different kind of counter-culture, the Easy Rider hipness that, rather than relegating itself to the angry political fringes, integrated itself a little too willingly and a little too quickly into the sheen and glimmer of Hollywood falseness.

While Stamp marches through the movie with barely-contained rage, Fonda is all smiles and pampered face, excess and starlets, and with a faint glimmer of self-loathing recognition of the hollowness of the world he’s found himself in and who he has become (not an actual representation of Fonda himself, of course: neither image truly summons the reality of either actor). In a key scene he reminisces about the ’60s to his young model girlfriend who, after listening attentively, shrugs off his empty, lost nostalgia as soon as he’s out of sight.

The Limey is perhaps a little overrated – the simple, “haunting” approach used to give life to to standard narratives is still trendy right now (faking a “deep” feel for simplistic films like 2010’s The Fighter and 2011’s Drive), and the film’s finalé is something of a telegraphed letdown with no real culmination of the raw cinematic anger and passion that Stamp seems to represent – but it’s a strong summoning of real faces that tell us more than any simple performance could: one grim and wizened with age, the other soft and pampered, having lost the brief fires of youth long ago. Fittingly, Soderbergh acknowledges Stamp’s past on film in summoning his character’s history, with clips of a young Stamp in Ken Loach’s Poor Cow (1967), cementing Stamp’s character as inextricably tied to a part of his real-world past.

There seems to be a conspiracy against making YouTube clips of The Limey embeddable, so you can see the trailer here.

 

#4: Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (1991), Dir. Nicholas Meyer

William Shatner: 60 years old

Leonard Nimoy: 60 years old

De Forest Kelley: 71 years old

James Doohan: 71 years old

Christopher Plummer: 61 years old

The last go-round for the original series crew (aside from some mostly uninspiring cameos here and there), Nicholas Meyer’s Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country doesn’t just give the ageing crew a fun, well-paced final adventure, it makes the most out of the fact that we’re now dealing with a well-established group of faces with a wealth of background narrative to subtly question some of the assumptions that have lain beneath the Star Trek universe so far; the film doesn’t simply ask us to accept older actors in roles they held when they were young – it expects us to understand these characters as having established roles and positions through their lives, giving them experience but also a kind of moral rigidity. Captain Kirk’s stern adherence to the militaristic policy that would happily leave the Klingon empire to be wiped out entirely (by a freak accident) is an implicit acknowledgement of Star Trek’s underlying militarism, something the franchise rarely likes to seriously explore (and something gleefully summoned, unfortunately and unsurprisingly, in the recent J.J. Abrams reboot).

Meyer always instils a literary value in his work, here referencing age, change and the future with his Shakespeare-based subtitle, “the Undiscovered Country”. Though the quotation is often thought to be misunderstood in the film’s reference to it representing “the future”, it’s actually a great bit of dramatic irony (the original line actually refers to “death”). Kirk, in essence, has to throw off the shackles of his youth, his mix of verve and arrogance, and start to engage with the world and the future in a more mature, thoughtful and knowledgeable way. Is his choice “death” or “the future”?

Naturally, it’s Leonard Nimoy’s Spock who embodies this moral knowledge, delivering a mix of humanity and seemingly cold “logic” in a way that, despite many attempts, has never been successfully repeated. Perhaps this is because it’s so often forgotten that Spock is not the usual “eccentric needing to be normalised” or “robotic machine confused by his lack of humanity”: far more interestingly, Spock is simply a character with a basic, functioning, self-aware philosophy that places him in opposition to a number of mainstream values. Spock is not so much logical as simply thoughtful, with a conscious awareness of his own ethical stances. Here, with the signs of age creased upon his face, Spock’s calm demeanour and stoic confidence has never been more believable or appealing.

The scene between Kirk and Spock as they face each other across an empty conference room – and the ideological differences that have grown between them as one progressed and one did not – summons the past history of these characters with simple and stunning efficiency. “They’re dying,” says Spock of the doomed Klingon empire. “Let them die!” Kirk can only reply, almost shocked at the sense of ethical doubt, putting a tough, sombre and uncomfortable emphasis on the character he defined for so many decades.

I’ve written more about Trek VI and others. See “Star Trek’s Lost Legacy of Literary Pretension”, PopMatters, 22 May 2009.

 

#3: Ric Flair vs Mick Foley: “Last Man Standing” match, TNA Impact Wrestling, 7 October 2010

Ric Flair: 61 years old (but looks 90)

Mick Foley: only 45 (but with the knees of a 90 year-old)

With the interesting art of professional wrestling essentially crushed by a monotonous WWE-run monopoly, the opportunities for young or new wrestlers to achieve mainstream exposure and display their own interpretations of the form is extremely limited: a fact that isn’t aided by the tendency for wrestling promotions to desperately cling to established stars rather than turning to the important task of creating the next generation of performers. The WWE usually seems content to keep many of its most encouraging prospects floundering in the mid-card, which wouldn’t be much of a problem if they could be bothered creating some engaging stories and real character progressions for them. Distant-second wrestling promotion TNA/Impact Wrestling recently fell into the trap of relying too heavily on previous generation stars like Hulk Hogan and his cronies at the expense of their existing and awesome talent (the exciting A.J. Styles, or the once-great and now-meaningless women’s division, for example), a direction that seemingly played a part in the downfall of once-powerful wrestling promotion WCW.

Both WWE and TNA have taken some small steps at repairing this: TNA is scaling back the presence of Hogan and many of the other old faces; WWE is still emphasising Cena and established “stars” at the expense of all else, but Cena is at least out of the main title scene for the moment, leaving things a tad more open for a couple of new faces (the unexpected rise of former indy wrestler Daniel Bryan (aka Bryan Danielson) has been some of the most fun, exciting and engaging wrestling television in years!). So it’s in that context that there’s often a backlash against older faces taking up time in the wrestling ring: when there’s so much abuse of power behind the scenes from the main players, and so many stars desperate to stay on top at all costs, the old can definitely seem to be actively holding down the young (dull WWE-mainstay Triple H seems to have built his career on it). It doesn’t need to be that way, though: as with most problems with wrestling, it’s nothing that couldn’t be solved with some careful and logical writing, allowing a real and authentic (and generous) interaction between wrestling generations.

Completely bypassing that generous spirit is this match-up between established legends Ric “The Nature Boy” Flair and Mick “Hardcore Legend” Foley, themselves a wrestling-generation or two apart. While pitting these two against each other didn’t do much for wrestling’s future prospects, there’s still something of an undeniable thrill to see to experienced stars nearing the possible end of their careers go at it one last time. While some some older wrestlers simply don’t know when to give it up Ric Flair, at over 60, still seems willing to drag as much out of his ageing body as possible, seemingly determined to die either in the ring or out living his trademark high life.

Foley likewise seems determined in this match to push himself to his limits to recapture the raw (and dangerous) energy that defined his career. Facing concussion issues (which require much more attention within the wrestling industry, along with general wrestler health and off-time issues), Foley probably shouldn’t be performing at this level in the ring again. Neither should Flair. In fact, neither should anyone. Still, this match up is one last glimpse at two performers wrestling a style that should probably never have a home in mainstream promotions again, and drawing on their real-life backstories and momentous career trajectories to build a tense and engaging confrontation, showing doubters that they can still deliver one hell of a performance on that strange artistic canvas that is the professional wrestling ring.

Tough Enough to Act One’s Age

 

#2: Charles Bronson in Kinjite: Forbidden Subjects (1989), Dir. J. Lee Thompson

Charles Bronson: 67 years old

Director J. Lee Thompson showed up twice in Retro Remote’s previous list on sensitive portrayals of childhood in film, but he’s probably better known for films like The Guns of Navarone (1961) and, in his later days, those seemingly-interchangeable movies where an ageing Charles Bronson displays his particular essence of mandom by shooting an assortment of criminals, punks, and hoodlums. Bronson was a real star as a younger man, from guest roles on TV series to starring in serious films, and placed his own unique stamp on genre pieces in the way that other major stars had similarly defined their genres.

The appeal in the trashy thrillers he ended up in is, without doubt, simply Bronson himself – his films with Thompson range from enjoyable (10 to Midnight, 1983) to awful (Death Wish 4: The Crackdown>, 1987), but there’s something oddly appealing in seeing an increasingly weathered Bronson still taking centre stage, even if the films aren’t very good. After all, Bronson’s face was half of his basic appeal, and the lines of age seem to belong on his brutal visage. The peak of Bronson’s “old man” ridiculousness perhaps comes in the dull Death Wish V: The Face of Death (1994), simply because Bronson is really starting to look and act his age by this point, even though he still manages a pretty respectable kill-count at 70 years old.

Hidden in the midst of the Old Man Bronson shoot-fests is a not-that-good but surprisingly interesting (in context) entry by Thompson, that still sees Bronson dishing out all kinds of dubious “justice” (one questionable example within moments of the film’s beginning), but that also exhibits some awareness of Bronson’s recurring character type and the function of these films as divisive and simplistic xenophobic tracts. While the story of Bronson pursuing a child prostitution ring is standard stuff, we also have a weird side-plot of a Japanese businessman in America who seems perpetually befuddled, sexually frustrated, and too weak-willed to be able to take real control of his environment. While he attempts to molest Bronson’s daughter on a bus, the story really concerns the efforts to track down his own daughter, kidnapped by the prostitution ring.

Drawing on a number of Japanese stereotypes that will be entirely recognisable to Western audiences, it’s unlikely that the film is really aiming to be culturally sensitive in any meaningful way or to truly explore the Bronson character’s xenophobia, but it’s a slight – if not entirely successful – maturing of the formula in the uncovering of the simple, misguided and feeble machinations that may lie behind some of the crimes and criminals that Bronson so easily and conveniently blows away. Instead of the snickering killers, Bronson is contrasted with a confused and enclosed young man, who draws sympathy and anger in reasonably equal doses (if anything, his assault on Bronson’s daughter is uncomfortably downplayed – an attempt at a balanced view, or just a retrograde understanding of “casual” assaults?). The problematic nature of Bronson’s “kill ’em all” formula is hinted at, fairly bluntly, and the racism Bronson expresses – while no doubt pleasing some of the core audience – always seems to indicate a character out of control (Bronson’s character does seem intentionally ridiculous at points).

It’s hardly nuanced stuff, but in its raw confusion and simple genre context, it seems more honest (in its confusion, anyway) than Clint Eastwood’s celebrated, but manipulative, pandering, soapy, and silly Messiah-complex Gran Torino (2008). In fact, unlike Eastwood’s own blatant social propaganda “kill ’em all” pieces, Bronson’s best vigilante films often included hints of a mild uncertainty in his methods, and the ugliness of his films’ violence-ethic sometimes seems more honest than Eastwood’s cool, manipulative fascism (though it’s now trendy to overlook this). Here an ageing Bronson seems to slip under that questioning eye before relapsing, perhaps inevitably, into the ’80s-’90s car-chase explosion medley. Kinjite is trash, but feels like it’s on the verge of something a little more serious, and a little more capable of questioning its violent and trashy foundations, as well as those of its near-septuagenarian star.

 

#1: Lillian Gish in Night of the Hunter (1955), Dir. Charles Laughton, and The Whales of August (1987), Dir. Lindsay Anderson

Lillian Gish: 61 & 93 years old

Bette Davis: 79 years old

Vincent Price: 76 years old

Lillian Gish had her start in film near the birth of the artform, most famously working with D. W. Griffith, a collaboration that began when she was 19 years old. Expressive and sincere, Gish’s performances can still connect with audiences who (needlessly) resist the stylistic changes in cinema’s various eras. Gish’s career can hardly be contained in a mere paragraph or two, but it’s enormously pleasing that she continues to have opportunities to take key, powerful and atypical central film roles despite entering an age that Hollywood still barely has any real time time for, especially when it comes to women, who face an unacceptable lack of decent roles regardless of their age (so much for the progressive times we supposedly live in).

Gish was around 62 when she appeared in Night of the Hunter, and it’s a role that places her in a position of strength that is nevertheless defined purely by warmth, nurturing care, and a protective, non-judgemental instinct, shepherding the growth of her young charges in opposition to the controlling and prurient power employed by the sham preacher played by the equally wonderful Robert Mitchum. Gish may wield a shotgun and not be afraid to use it, but it’s clear that her real strength is knowing how to put it down and draw people closer together rather then forcing them away. It’s an image of non-aggressive strength, poise and power that’s too rarely lauded in mainstream media, and that sadly remains under-appreciated and underpaid in society, whether embodied by women or men.

Gish’s showdown with Mitchum, whose terror is rendered almost ridiculous in the face of Gish’s warmth, is one of the great confrontations in film history. I tend to agree with the great critc Danny Peary: watching Night of the Hunter, I get all teary a third of the way into the film just anticipating Gish’s upcoming presence.

But heck, Gish was only 61 in Night of the Hunter and wasn’t even close to being done. In 1987 at the age of 93, Gish starred with a 79-year-old Bette Davis and a 76-year-old Vincent Price in Lindsay Anderson’s The Whales of August. Somehow, Gish manages to be the most spry of the bunch, delivering a performance that asks for no concessions due to age.

Though not without controversy (her continued defence of D. W. Griffith and The Birth of a Nation (1915) remains highly problematic), Gish is a key figure in film’s history (Victor Sjostrom’s 1928 The Wind is one of my favourites, incidentally) and can no more be overlooked than Griffith himself. Sadly neglected, Whales of August‘s casting alone makes it one of cinema’s most valuable treasures, and may have made Gish cinema’s oldest leading lady, along with one of the most enduring.

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