'Fade To Gray' Is an Insightful Study of Aging in American Cinema

Henry Fonda and Kathryn Hepburn in On Golden Pond (1981)

Timothy Shary and Nancy McVittie’s rewarding, accessible study explores representations of aging and older characters in American film from early cinema to the present-day.

Fade To Gray: Aging in American Cinema

Publisher: University of Texas Press
Length: 288 pages
Authors: Timothy Shary and Nancy McVittie
Publication date: 2016-09

The view of American cinema generally, and Hollywood cinema in particular, as youth-obsessed is so prevalent as to be cliché. Yet it’s a perspective that might well seem to have become more accurate than ever over the last couple of decades, since the success of the Scream and American Pie franchises consolidated the infantilisation of US film in the late '90s.

Fade to Gray, the new book by Timothy Shary and Nancy McVittie, seeks to provide a kind of counter-history of US cinema by focusing on the ways in which American film has engaged with aging and the experiences of elderly characters, from its early years to the present-day.

The results are rewarding overall. Immediately outlining their conviction that older age has been neglected in discussion within the sphere of popular culture, and that many of the representations of elder characters in mainstream film have been inadequate, problematic or even offensive, Shary and McVittie describe their project as one that “aims to open up the discussion of ways in which age can be used as a lens to clarify our understanding of our cultural world and its media products” (p.7).

Written in an informed but approachable style, the book is particularly good at highlighting the ways in which changing socio-political conditions (the implementation of Social Security, for example) have impacted upon American cinema’s engagement with the experiences of older people. Indeed, the critics’ attention to those social contexts is sometimes more considered than their close readings of the individual films themselves, for, while an impressively broad range of titles are covered in Fade to Gray, the amount of careful critical attention given to each film is somewhat variable.

The book’s structure -- at once thematic and chronological -- does allow Shary and McVittie to construct a clear arc, though. Chapter One explores a selection of pre-World War II films, identifying several tropes and types -- elders as hindrances, elders as helpers, elders as recipients of help -- that characterize the representation of older people in early cinema, and that underscore its concern with generational conflicts. A focus on Frank Capra’s films is engaging, but Chapter Two gets a little bit stuck on a repetitious definition of “adult” films.

The text hits its stride in Chapter Three, however, which explores the '60s post-Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? trend for casting older actresses in grotesque roles in camp “psycho biddy” thrillers. Shary and McVittie’s contention that these films “embody anxiety about the roles that society dictates to older woman” (p.80) isn’t precisely new. However, it leads the critics to the development of the term “elder kitsch”, an extremely useful concept that they explore in relation to many cultural figures and products, from the arch wise-cracking of George Burns and Estelle Getty to the recent likes of Bad Grandpa and the Red films.

A chapter on “elder odysseys” intelligently places road movies such as The Trip to Bountiful, The Straight Story and Nebraska alongside less obvious examples, and culminates in an enjoyably acerbic critique of 2014’s Tammy, while the final chapter on depictions of illness and death is generally strong, notwithstanding an embarrassingly dismissive reading of Jason Robards’s role in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia. The chapter on elder romance is more problematic, in particular due to the critics’ questionable judgments regarding the films featured, with praise for the misconceived Beginners and the soapy The Notebook versus criticism for the considerably more nuanced likes of Love is Strange and Last Chance Harvey.

There are also some surprising omissions in the text. While John Madden’s The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel isn’t an American film, its international success and the range of movies that it’s subsequently inspired means that it surely merits some mention here, particularly as the book’s brief forays into a comparative mode -- such as a reference to Michael Haneke’s Amour -- are illuminating.

However, while Shary and McVittie arguably place a little too much emphasis on the cultural significance of a film as related to its box office success or awards received, they do also valuably highlight some under-seen features, among them Charles Burnett’s James Earl Jones and Lynn Redgrave-starring The Annihilation of Fish.

Despite some flaws, then, Fade to Gray proves a worthwhile and often insightful study that makes a compelling case for the vital importance of cinematic representation. As the critics persuasively state, American film “can help the entire population” (p. 204) by providing more truthful and complex depictions of elderly characters. This well-researched book constitutes a valuable contribution to this conversation.

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