News Column

Age appropriate: Older audiences now in Hollywood's sights

October 31, 2013

YellowBrix

Oct. 31--Hollywood has discovered older people.

After years of catering and pandering to teenage boys with action, sci-fi and fantasy films, studios have begun to realize that older people are customers, too. They have disposable income and time on their hands.

And they enjoy seeing people their age portrayed in films that don't insult their intelligence or descend into caricature. Or that sometimes do. As with anything, it's unwise to generalize.

Such films can be escapist fare, like "Last Vegas," opening Friday (see review on Page 7E), in which "Grumpy Old Men" meets "The Hangover." Or they can explore age-appropriate material in an original fashion, as in "Amour." That film's star, 86-year-old Emmanuelle Riva, became the oldest Oscar nominee ever, and next year, veterans such as Meryl Streep and Bruce Dern are expected to be nominated for performances in films about aging and family.

If media portrayals of a subculture are an indication of their social status, older actors are front and center -- and older audiences are coming back to the multiplex. According to A.C. Nielsen Co., as many movie-ticket buyers -- 34% -- were between the ages of 45 and 74 as were 25 to 45, and the younger group's numbers are dropping while the older one's are rising.

"The adult drama is seemingly making a resurgence," said Paul Dergarabedian, senior analyst for the global media measurement company Rentrak.

The top movies of 2013 include "Gravity" and "Captain Phillips," whose respective stars, George Clooney and Tom Hanks, are in their 50s; Sandra Bullock of "Gravity" is 49. Older audiences like the "brand-name recognition" such stars provide, said Dergarabedian.

"It makes them more comfortable spending their money," he said.

Amanda Keeler, assistant professor of digital media at Marquette University, said such films "star actors people have grown up with for the last 20, 30 or 40 years and are still really popular. You have to find vehicles to showcase them. So you invent the road movie or retired-rich-guys buddy movie," in which women play a minor role or none at all.

In "Last Vegas," Robert De Niro plays a widower, Morgan Freeman is divorced and Kevin Kline's wife gives him a condom to take with him to Las Vegas. Mary Steenburgen plays the lounge singer love interest.

But "plugging in an older star doesn't guarantee a movie will be a hit," said Dergarabedian.

"It has to do with content. It's still about the movie. The same rules apply if the same movie starred younger actors. The marketing has be there, and the concept has to be there."

Yet the concepts are often buddy films for and about "older gentlemen," like "Last Vegas" or "The Bucket List," said Keeler.

"It's not that these films don't appeal to both sexes, but it is striking they are about groups of men and their experiences with each other," Keeler said.

Many such films also deal with the experiences common to aging, like illness and facing mortality. And yet others, like "Last Vegas," show that "you're not too old to have a good time," Keeler added, and "that your life isn't over at retirement."

The list below reflects the ebb and flow of the representation of older people in film over the years.

"That Championship Season"(1982) Film based on play about men reuniting with their high school basketball coach is a portrait of male bonding preserved in amber and pickled in whiskey.

"Cocoon"(1985) The Ron Howard film about a group of seniors rejuvenated by an alien presence is a granddaddy of the genre.

"August: Osage County"(tentatively Dec. 25) Film based on a play about emotionally scarred women and their emotionally abusive mother. Julia Roberts actually leaps across the table to tackle mom, played by Meryl Streep.

"Nebraska"(tentatively Nov. 27) Portrait of small-town lives with Bruce Dern as a boozy retiree who, determined to to claim a sweepstakes prize he thinks he's won, travels to Nebraska with his son, played by Will Forte.

"Love Is All You Need"(2013) A breast cancer survivor and a widower who meet at the wedding of their children are so different that they were meant for each other. An adult portrait of emotional intimacy.

"Red"(2010) Bruce Willis, Helen Mirren, Morgan Freeman and John Malkovich as retired secret agents. Our critic called it "Grumpy Old Hitmen."

"The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel"(2012) This tale of a diverse group of retirees spending their golden years in a ramshackle hotel in Mumbai will seem exotic only to those who see one or two movies a year.

Anything by Woody Allen His films today, like "Blue Jasmine," may star a revolving door of younger actors, but Allen never changes. Over the years, audiences who enjoy his work have become accustomed to a continuity in theme, style and quality.

"Stand Up Guys"(2013) Retired mobsters Al Pacino, Christopher Walken and Alan Arkin reunite for one last heist. My review called them grumpy old men with guns. Starting to see a pattern?

"The World's End"(2013) Forty-somethings reunite to re-create the epic pub crawl of their youth. It's "Last Vegas" with zombies.

"Quartet"(2012) Film set at retirement home for classical musicians and singers answers the musical question, "Is there such a thing as too much Maggie Smith?" with a resounding "No!" Directorial debut of Dustin Hoffman.

"Space Cowboys"(2000) Who you gonna call when an ancient satellite goes awry? Experts in obsolete technology played by Clint Eastwood, Tommy Lee Jones and Donald Sutherland, as former astronauts who were replaced by chimpanzees.

Email: ddudek@journalsentinel.com

Keep up with movies on Dudek's blog, The Dudek Abides: www.jsonline.com/dudek.

Twitter: @TheDudekAbides

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