Not a Vintage Year for Theatrical Films on Aging

Times Staff Writer

There will be a touch of disappointment today when films and videos dealing with issues important to the aged are honored at the fifth annual Retirement Research Foundation National Media Awards.

Never before has the engraved porcelain Owl and the $5,000 first-place prize for theatrical fiction gone unawarded. Three honorable mentions--one in theatrical fiction and two in other categories--will not be awarded either.

“We didn’t find a film that met 100% of the criteria,” Marilyn Hennessy, the foundation’s senior vice president, explained about the theatrical fiction category. But, she said, the foundation will recognize Hollywood’s effort, and honor two productions for their portrayals of older people.


“Madame Sousatzka,” starring Shirley MacLaine, will receive the second-place award and the TV movie “Marcus Welby, M.D.: A Holiday Affair,” starring Robert Young, will receive an honorable mention, both in the theatrical fiction category.

The Chicago-based foundation, funded by money left by the late philanthropist John D. MacArthur, hopes to promote positive portrayals of the elderly through its awards program.

The smaller number of awards this year highlights a continuing gap in film making--the lack of quality films and videos on subjects important to increasing numbers of older Americans.

“Its like wine,” said foundation trustee William T. Kirby. “You have vintage years and non-vintage years.

“We’re interested in the way people think about the aged. Films about being old used to be sad because the ultimate prognosis is death.”

More than 380 entries, most independently produced, were screened this year. Judges from the media and experts in gerontology looked for productions that portray the aged without using stereotypes, and for meaningful and insightful treatment of economic, biological and social issues related to this growing segment of the U.S. population. There are about 31 million Americans 65 and older today; that group will grow to about 35 million in 2000, according to Department of Commerce projections.


Foundation officials believe that Hollywood, concerned with demographics that show the largest portion of the movie-going audience to be under 30, favors romances and comedies and action films that feature younger stars. Thus, big-budget Hollywood films depicting older people in a positive light are rare. “Cocoon II,” for example, was rejected by the foundation’s judges because they believe it condones the preservation of youth, rather than accepting age.

Most entries are not for mass audiences, but are nonfiction works responding to needs and questions that come with growing older: where to reside, who to turn to for help, how to deal with impairments and diseases. These were entered in categories for independent films and tapes, television nonfiction and training films and tapes.

“There is a crying need for a lot more understanding of both the problems and opportunities of the elderly,” said Joe Parkin, foundation president. “This kind of program, maybe, will (show) the need and attract the better independent producers to scratch their heads and say, ‘Maybe I’ll take a crack at that.’ ”

“Independent film makers might like to make a film about aging, but fund-raising is difficult,” said Dai Sil Kim-Gibson, a media consultant.

Two-time Owl recipient Susan Stone Shapiro--this year for “In Their Own Words: The Story of Search and Care,” a 28-minute video about services for the elderly living at home--relies on grants to produce her community videos. “I think it’s helping as we write proposals to be able to say we are award-winning,” she said. “The award is recognition that we’ve done something good for a group we believe in, for a cause we believe in.”

Owl award money--from $500 to $5,000--is insufficient in itself to produce a quality film or video. Stone Shapiro’s budget is $3,500 per video but she said that in-kind contributions bring the dollar value to $7,000 to $8,000.


“Independent film makers tend to live project to project,” said Steve Talley, who will receive a second Owl this year. “The awards have helped me keep body and soul together so I can pursue my dreams.”

Talley’s latest winning entry, “A Cost of Caring,” explores the economics of long-term health care. His winner last year, “Final Choices,” looks at the right-to-die issue. Both pieces were funded by Los Angeles public television station KCET.