Gray is good

For years, the movie business has blown past older audiences.

Could the breezes finally be changing direction?

Hollywood is, of course, still persistently, obsessively interested in young audiences. Yet in certain quarters, at least, it’s a little less about the prepubescents these days. Two of the most notable action movies of 2010 were “The Expendables” and “Red” — films that not only prominently feature actors over 55 but that also turn characters’ length of tooth into central plotlines.

Some of the end-of-year crop of serious movies, meanwhile, submit that a character’s twilight years represent the most interesting phase of his or her existence. “Barney’s Version” tells of a man ( Paul Giamatti) who’s lived a full but complicated life and enters old age as feisty as ever. The Robert Duvall-starring “Get Low” describes an eccentric hermit who throws his own funeral while still alive. “True Grit” examines a down-and-out bounty hunter ( Jeff Bridges) who finds redemption despite a jaded temperament forged by decades of doing the same difficult work.

And in Mike Leigh’s “Another Year,” perhaps the most age-explicit film of the bunch, a graying middle-class couple ( Jim Broadbent and Ruth Sheen) form the center of a constellation of dysfunctional friends and family.

What in the name of Betty White is happening?

Movies have explored mortality and aging for a long time, going back to the navel-gazing road trip of septuagenarian Dr. Isak Borg in Ingmar Bergman’s 1957 film “Wild Strawberries,” and long before that. But a few exceptions aside ( Alexander Payne’s 2002 post-retirement dramedy “About Schmidt,” perhaps), on-screen old age, particularly in North American cinema, has fallen into one of two buckets: as something to fight futilely against (as it was in Ron Howard’s 1985 science-fiction fantasy “Cocoon” or Tamara Jenkins’ 2007 drama “The Savages”) or something to suffer with quiet dignity (as it was in Peter Masterson’s 1985 “The Trip to Bountiful,” Bruce Beresford’s 1989 “Driving Miss Daisy,” which won the best picture Oscar, Sarah Polley’s 2006 tearjerker “Away From Her” and countless others).


What many of the newer films have in common, on the other hand, is a willingness not only to delve into the texture of the senior experience but to upend conventional notions of older age. “Hollywood used to treat older people as dead ends — at best they sat in a chair and provided wisdom to a younger generation,” said Bill Newcott, the entertainment editor at AARP The Magazine and founder of its Movies for Grownups awards program. “There’s a much more well-rounded vision of older people now.”

Both “Red” and “Expendables,” for instance, feature characters at a crossroads who have little doubt about which way they’ll go. Not content to accept a societally encouraged retirement, they jump back in the game (as black-ops agents and mercenaries, respectively), guns still blazing.

Leigh’s movie, meanwhile, shows that golden years can take on many hues. Tom and Gerri (Broadbent and Sheen) indulge the daffy Mary ( Lesley Manville), who’s trying, unsuccessfully, to stave off a solitary old age — even as the couple themselves have created a contented existence rarely seen with characters in their 60s or 70s. “The film is about time passing and age and how we look at our lives,” Leigh said. “This is an old man’s film. Or an older man’s film, if you want to be more charitable about it.”

It’s unlikely that Hollywood is forsaking its recent preoccupation with teens and twentysomethings; indeed, many of these older-skewing movies were made outside or on the fringes of the studio system. But the movie business is, if nothing else, adept at recognizing a niche. And older audiences represent a very promising one.

With the first wave of baby boomers set to hit 65 in this new year, seniors are the fastest-growing segment of the U.S. population. And the elderly are spending their newfound free time going to movie theaters, an experience many grew up with but didn’t have much time for until recently. According to the Motion Picture Assn. of America, men and women over 50 constitute 20% of the “frequent moviegoing” population — the same percentage as Americans ages 25-39.

Hollywood veterans also note a phenomenon at the other end of the age spectrum. Though Gen-Y-ers and millennials are more susceptible to marketing and will rush out to see a movie on opening weekend, they also are more interested, insiders say, in spending their time on noncinematic forms of entertainment.

“We believed that people 35 and over would start to make up and will continue to make up a more and more important part of the filmgoing audience for the very simple reason that that age group has grown up going to the movies, loves going to the movies and, in truth, is less distracted by the new media as opposed to younger people,” said Andrew Kosove, a veteran producer behind movies such as “The Blind Side.”

And some of the movies are the result of 1960s-bred filmmakers coming to terms with their own advancing years, as it is for Leigh, who will turn 68 next month.

But to judge the trend as a simple function of demographics is to underestimate the dramatic possibilities presented by middle and old age, say those creating it. “I wanted to explore a man who’s been around and who understands pathos and absurdity and all the foibles that he’s come to acquire through the years,” said Richard J. Lewis, the former executive producer of TV’s “CSI” who is just 48 but opted to direct “Barney’s Version.” “I wanted the audience to experience a complete emotional life, and it’s hard to do that with a young protagonist.”

In Lewis’ movie, based on Mordecai Richler’s novel, Barney Panofsky (Giamatti) sets out, via a series of flashbacks, to offer his take on his life after learning a rival has written a malicious biography about him. The movie eschews a third-person point of view and tells its story intimately from Panofsky’s perspective in a way that seeks to understand old age from the inside.

Not that movies made for older people always have to feature characters of that age, of course. The inspirational Chinese-American drama “Mao’s Last Dancer” became a hit this past fall among filmgoers over 50 by tapping into a vein of redemption and second chances. “It’s the kind of movie that if older audience members like, they’ll tell all their friends, who will then tell all of their friends,” said Michael McClellan, the head buyer for the specialty Landmark Theatres.

And sometimes, the converse has happened, as older-skewing movies and actors have become popular precisely because of younger audiences. That certainly explains the Betty White phenomenon, in which the octogenarian actress has been embraced with a kind of hipster irony. And it at least partly accounts for the success of movies such as “The Expendables,” which have performed nearly as well with younger audiences as with older ones.

Younger people now view the elderly differently from how previous generations did, experts say. One result? Movies capable of appealing to people across the age spectrum. “The demographics and attitudes of the nation,” Newcott said, “are going to yield more movies aimed at an older demographic that also appeal to a younger audience.”