Those of us who aren't getting any younger and who believe that movies influence us, ought to read Sally Chivers' book, The Silvering Screen, (University of Toronto Press, 2011) It is a study of old age and disability as represented in cinema. Chivers is chair of and associate professor in the Canadian Studies Department of Trent University.
Although recent years have brought us more movies about aging, and more roles for older actors, Chivers does not see much to cheer about, for most movies "reflect an ongoing pathologization of changes associated with age." In other words, they treat aging as if it were a disease. In the movies, senior characters have to look youthful and be active. Looking old is equated with being ill. In the movies and in society in general, youth is seen as the norm and "healthy aging" is an imitation of youth.
"The idea that an old person has value that exceeds the value attached to young appearance is not what we see on the silvering screen," writes Chivers. She quotes film scholar Martine Beugnet who wrote, "In the context of late capitalist culture, old age is a disease, equivalent to the categories of low consumer value and low productivity, a social stigma..."
In Chivers' view, the elderly and the disabled face some of the same concerns. The "social positioning" of both categories is low. Both age and disability are treated as medical problems. The field of Disability Studies, which has focused on younger people with disabilities, rather than older ones, has found that being differently-abled can give a person a valuable alternative perspective on society. Chivers wishes that healthy and successful aging were defined as a "transformation of self and world", and included disabilities.
Chivers' perspectives on certain films interested me keenly. She liked Pauline and Paulette (Belgium, 2001) because the mentally handicapped character had an "indomitable spirit" and because her aging caregiver/sister, who wanted to retire away from her, missed her when she was not around.
Chivers liked the film, Away from Her (Canada, 2006, directed by Sarah Polley) because Fiona, the character with Alzheimer's Disease, (played by Julie Christie) was in a power position, rather than being acted upon. After she is admitted to a care facility, her husband, Grant, dismayed at her affection for another resident, has to find strategies to win her back. At times, to him, her dementia seems just an enhancement on her lifelong eccentric personality. As well, Away from Her shows that if one partner in a marriage needs special care, and the other does not, there is probably no way they can continue to live together as a couple in the care facilities that exist now.
I agreed with Chivers' praise for The Straight Story (U.S, 1999) starring Richard Farnsworth. He played Alvin Straight, who, in his old age, no longer having a drivers' licence, travelled by riding lawn mower and trailer across several midwestern U.S. states to visit his brother. Chivers points out that most people he met on his way underestimated Alvin, and that many wanted to feed and shelter him, but that he declined their offers politely, saying that he wanted to complete his journey his own way. Again, the elderly person thought and acted for himself instead of being acted upon - a rare thing in films involving the old.
I liked Nobody's Fool (U.S., 1944) and About Schmidt (U.S, 2002) more than Chivers did, and for that reason I read her analysis with great interest. Based on my observations of life, I thought that the roles played by Jessica Tandy and Melanie Griffiths in Nobody's Fool were realistic enough. Regarding of About Schmidt, I saw it not so much as a movie about aging as about a seemingly successful but essentially mis-spent life. It was made pretty clear in the movie that Schmidt's perceptions and conclusions were flawed.
In general, I share Chivers' thoughts on movies in which aging male actors are cast in bad boy roles similar to those they played in their prime.
Sally Chivers would like movies to address the real issues that face us as we age. She mentions, as an example, the "internecine struggle for employment", with younger people blaming boomers for holding down the good jobs and refusing to retire, not realizing that many of the next generation's jobs have gone offshore.
I highly recommend The Silvering Screen, and hope that someday, being old will be deemed a valid way to be, both in the movies and off screen.