10 Ways the Movies Got Aging Right in the 2010s
Actor Sylvester Stallone reprised his action hero role as John Rambo at age 73 in 2019’s Rambo: Last Blood, 37 years after originating the role. Photo: Yana Blajeva courtesy of VVS Films
Hollywood isn’t exactly known as a bastion of acceptance and understanding when it comes to aging. Just ask any Tinseltown plastic surgeon or actress over 30. While films related to aging like On Golden Pond and Driving Miss Daisy leap to mind from previous decades, the 2010s proved a boom period for late-in-life movies.
Whether spurred by a genuine desire to represent the stories of an aging population on screen or simply a chance to cash in on the greying demo, films like Amour, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, Quartet, Beginners, Nebraska, Book Club, Last Vegas, Mr. Holmes and others not only focused on different aspects of aging but came at the subject matter in unique, modern, sometimes hilarious and often touching ways.
The decade also bore witness to the rise of the aging action hero, beginning with the Expendables franchise — a boon for 50-plus big-screen butt-kickers — that a then 64-year-old Sylvester Stallone launched in 2010. Stallone himself reprised classic roles like Rocky Balboa and Rambo while in his 60s and early 70s at various times throughout the decade; Arnold Schwarzenegger played the Terminator twice in the last 10 years — most recently at age 72 in 2019’s Terminator: Dark Fate; Linda Hamilton also returned in Dark Fate, blowing away bad guys at age 63; Jamie Lee Curtis made Halloween a nightmare for Michael Myers at age 60 in 2018; and Bruce Willis and Helen Mirren teamed up in the Red action franchise twice in the last decade while in their late 50s and late 60s respectively.
“We have a right to happy endings. We have a right to prevail in the storytelling that we give one another in fiction and in movies,” Oscar-winner Richard Dreyfuss, 72, explained in an interview with Zoomer about his 2019 film Astronaut, in which he plays a septuagenarian who blasts off into outer space. “We need those happy endings far more than we will admit. And we desperately need stories where love prevails and all the things that come with a happy ending.”
Throughout the course of the decade, Zoomer spoke with Hollywood heavyweights like Michael Douglas, Helen Mirren, Robert De Niro, Julianne Moore and others who’ve starred in films that focus on important aging-related issues. So as we close out the 2010’s, we revisit 10 more of our favourite films about aging and our conversations with the stars that appeared in them.
And So It Goes
A cantankerous and grieving widower (Michael Douglas) discovers that not only does he have a nine-year-old granddaughter but that he’s forced to care for her when his estranged son returns to hand her off to him. Luckily, a loving and lonely widow (Diane Keaton) lives next door and, between the two of them, they care for the child while learning to overcome their own loneliness and despair. Sure, this 2014 film is a little sappy, but it’s still an entertaining and important story of loss, downsizing and recovery later in life.
“It’s part of our population, it’s part of our culture and there certainly should be movies for people of an older age,” Douglas, 75, said on the phone from Los Angeles in 2014. “And I like And So It Goes because it deals with a lot of the problems that older people have … If you can tell those stories in an entertaining fashion and with humour, so much the better.”
For his part, neither age, nor a battle with tongue cancer, slowed Douglas down. Fresh off his Emmy-winning performance as Liberace in the HBO film Behind the Candelabra at the time of the interview, the actor noted, “Right now, this is as busy and active a time as I’ve ever had. I’m fortunate that, at an age where people talk about retirement, it’s the last thing on my mind.” Of course, since then Douglas has appeared in multiple films, as well as winning a Golden Globe for his work on the Netflix series The Kominsky Method.
“I do think you probably treat each day a little more valuable; part of that is overcoming cancer, part of that is just getting a little older,” he added. “You know, you’re on the other side. You can count the years ahead. So you try to think a little more carefully about each day and what you’re going to do.”
A sincere and dignified portrait of the toll Alzheimer’s disease takes on both the patient and those who love them, 2014’s Still Alice is, without doubt, Julianne Moore’s most poignant performance. In fact, the 59-year-old actress won an Oscar for playing linguistics professor Dr. Alice Howland, who struggles through both the inevitable cognitive decline from early onset Alzheimer’s and the struggles, both physical and emotional, it causes her family.
The film, however, wasn’t the only time Moore tackled age-related issues in a role in the last decade. In 2018’s Gloria Bell, a remake of the 2013 Chilean-Spanish drama Gloria, the actress played a middle-age divorcée who gets back into the dance club scene and strikes up a romance.
“For me, as an actor and as a human being, because I’m the centre of my narrative, I want to play people who are at the centre of their narrative, too,” Moore said in an interview with Zoomer in 2018. “It’s not any different for me than it ever has been but it is unusual to see women who are [in their 50s] at the centre of their narrative, which is a shame because we are. I mean we are at the middle of our own story. So for me, I want to do that on film.”
In 2018, Moore also pushed back against a cultural paradigm that focuses on aging in terms of diminishment, noting she’s constantly asked about aging in the media. “So that’s what I’m tired of,” she said in the same interview.
Canadian stage and screen legend Christopher Plummer, 90, exemplified the spirit of aging with grace and vitality in the 2010s, enjoying what some called a career renaissance. It began in 2010 at age 81 with his first ever Oscar nomination, for Best Supporting Actor for playing Leo Tolstoy in the film The Last Station. In 2012, at age 82, he won the statuette in the same category for Beginners — another brilliant film about aging in which he portrayed a dying father who comes out to his family and immerses himself in the gay community — becoming the oldest Oscar winner ever in a competitive acting category. He completed the trifecta of Oscar noms in that category in 2018 for a whirlwind nine-day shoot, replacing Kevin Spacey as J. Paul Getty in All the Money in the World.
But in 2015, Plummer starred in a unique Canadian-German film called Remember, about a dementia-stricken widower’s search for the Nazi prison guard who murdered his family in Auschwitz. The film, directed by another Canuck, Atom Egoyan, drew attention to both the rising tide of dementia as well as the importance of preserving the history of a generation that is slowly disappearing.
In a Zoomer cover story published around the release of the film, Plummer discussed the importance of films that focus on the struggles of aging, quipping, “For a while, everybody was totally indifferent to the aged and their problems. Now we’re living longer and we’re all on drugs and we’re having a ball.” He added that, “We’re hiding our age better and threatening to go beyond 100. I think the aged are being looked after better in the theatre and in movies.”
His co-star in the film, the late screen legend Martin Landau, then 87, told Zoomer the same year that he refused to play a “grunter,” which he described as “an old guy who sits at a table that the young people make fun of — this old grandpa that’s sitting there.” He enjoyed playing a Holocaust survivor in Remember because it offered him a challenge and then offered to share his theory about longevity.
“The point is if you can stay active and do the New York Times crossword puzzle with a pen, I think you’ll live a long time.”
Robert De Niro was 72 when he starred in this 2015 film about a retired widower who takes on a digital internship. The Intern not only addressed the digital divide between generations in the modern workplace, but it offered examples for bridging that gap and embracing the strengths each person, regardless of age, brings to the table.
In a 2015 Zoomer cover story that discussed the film, the screen legend declared that, “I feel young in many ways. You hear this from people getting older, they feel young, they don’t feel any different, da da da. That’s true for me.”
De Niro, a notoriously tight-lipped interviewee, laughed off the idea that he branched out into comedies like The Intern, as well as other business endeavors, in an effort to stay relevant. For him, he explained, it’s “just to do what I want to do. I see an opportunity, I say, ‘Let’s take advantage of it’ … I always say, ‘If you don’t go, you’ll never know.’”
And while the opportunity to employ technology to age and de-age himself in The Irishman arose a few years after he spoke to Zoomer — sparking excitement among fans imagining a return to Godfather or Taxi Driver form in the film — De Niro, ironically, voiced his disinterest in that sort of nostalgia.
“You can look back with nostalgia about certain things, how they were, appreciate what they were. But that’s then,” he said. “I’m here now. It’s not my attempt to feel young. That’s just the way I feel. I have a lot of great things in my past I can be nostalgic about, and there are times I can do that. But basically, I’m thinking about moving forward.”
The Leisure Seeker
The premise of the 2017 film The Leisure Seeker is simple — a married couple (Donald Sutherland and Helen Mirren), battling Alzheimer’s and cancer respectively, break from the shackles of their daily routines to peel off in their camper van for one final adventure.
It’s an end-of-life road-trip movie that provides a template for depicting age-related and terminal illnesses in a meaningful, encouraging and even playful context. When I suggested to Sutherland, then 82, that he and Mirren’s characters were using the road trip as an escape, he immediately corrected me.
“I think it’s less escaping and more pursuing. I think they’re looking for something. [They] look and look for an element of themselves, and they find it.”
The actor also believes in the importance of promoting more hopeful films about aging because, as he explained, “There is a hopefulness in being old. I mean, if you get out there a little bit. If you stick yourself in a corner and don’t move, you stay in a chair, it just gets worse and worse.”
When I asked him, however, if playing a character like the one in The Leisure Seeker makes him consider his own future pursuits, he shook his head.
“You’d hope that I would learn something from something, but I never do. I just keep going as if nothing’s going to change, and then a foot falls off.”
Falls Around Her
Falls Around Her served up more than one lesson about aging and perseverance in 2018. To start, the film stars Canadian Indigenous actress Tantoo Cardinal, then 68, as an Anishinaabe musician who returns to her northern Ontario community in a futile attempt to once again connect with the land and leave fame behind. It’s an important story about returning to one’s roots and truth later in life. Amazingly, however, after a 48-year career and appearances in major films like Dances With Wolves and Legends of the Fall, this film marked Cardinal’s first big-screen starring role.
“It’s been a great frustration for me many, many times that I am just a colour or some kind of background, for these lead characters,” Cardinal said in an interview ahead of the film’s world premiere at the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival. “In all those 48 years, it’s so rare that I was able to tell any Métis stories.”
Cardinal called the experience “a freeing stream for creative energy” and “a sheer pleasure,” all the while serving as an inspiration to viewers everywhere that age is no barrier to achieving lifelong goals. And for her part, the actress aims to use the film as a launching pad for an even more active role as a storyteller moving forward.
“I’m hoping to be able to be a part of creating some more of these [Métis] stories,” she said. “I haven’t really done that bit yet, to be writing or producing or directing, but right now I’m thinking in terms of researching and teaching. So we’ll see.”
Prosecuting Evil: The Extraordinary World of Ben Ferencz
This remarkable 2018 documentary by Montreal-born filmmaker and writer Barry Avrich delves into the life and work of Ben Ferencz, the 99-year-old former Nuremberg prosecutor who remains endlessly committed to crusading for justice as he approaches his centenary in 2020.
“This is what everything at Zoomer is about — the misconceptions of age and living life to the fullest,” Avrich, 56, said in 2018. “This man, brilliantly vital, still articulate and essentially for the last 60 years of his life has been giving a master class in being a better human being.”
While the film details Ferencz’s extraordinary life story and work as a Nazi prosecutor, it also serves as an inspirational portrait of vitality, celebrating a near-centenarian as he keeps fit — doing, as Avrich recalled, both his 100 push-ups a day and his 100 laps in the swimming pool — and remains engaged with the world around him.
“The worst thing that you can do getting older is to give up and not be aware of what’s going on. If you do that, then you age very quickly,” Avrich added. “And I’ve seen it in people I know all around me who just basically [give up], and then their lives end very quickly because they’re just not part of the current. And Ben has remained a swimmer in that current, no matter how strong it is. He has just been a man who continues to lead on his own terms, and it’s quite staggering.”
What They Had
Blythe Danner’s enjoyed a steady balance in her 50-year career, juggling stage, screen and television roles that earned her two Emmy Awards, a Tony Award and notoriety in hit films from The Great Santini and The Prince of Tides to the Meet the Fockers franchise. She has also kept audiences laughing as Will’s mom on the hit sitcom Will & Grace (both the original series and the reboot) and earned both Emmy and Golden Globe nominations for her work in the 2004 made-for-TV Hallmark film Back When We Were Grownups. And, of course, she has earned a degree of notoriety for being actress Gwyneth Paltrow’s mother.
Her 2018 film What They Had, however, fulfilled what the 76-year-old called a “need [for] films that are relevant and fill a need for this aging group.”
The movie centres around the difficult caregiver choices a family must make when their matriarch (Danner) is stricken with Alzheimer’s disease. In the realm of films about dementia, What They Had offers a blunt, honest and brutal glimpse at the struggles and heartbreaking decisions families face when unable to care for one of their own.
In terms of the role, Danner told Zoomer, “The number and quality of films and roles for older women have absolutely grown over the last few years.” She added, “I feel so grateful to be still working and am offered some of the best roles of my career lately.”
And when asked for her secret to staying healthy and active into her 70s, she again turned her thoughts to her career.
“Don’t stop working under any circumstance! It’s what keeps one young and vital. I wouldn’t recommend that anyone retire,” she said.
Of course, Danner isn’t all about work. She noted, “Every morning I try to stretch, walk a long way with heavy bags but sadly can’t do the push-ups Ruth Bader Ginsburg does. She inspires me, though, and I hope to get more serious about that!”
The Good Liar
At age 74, Helen Mirren is a poster child for aging with vitality and positivity. Aside from being an Oscar winner, social media superstar and a beauty industry spokesperson who speaks out about the exclusionary nature of the word “beauty,” she tackles film and television roles that continually challenge the conventions of aging.
In the last decade alone, she’s played everything from a crime boss in the Fast & Furious franchise to an army colonel ordering drone strikes in 2015’s Eye in the Sky to Russian Empress Catherine the Great in the 2019 HBO miniseries of the same name. This year, she also starred in The Good Liar, playing a wealthy widow who joins a dating service and meets a conman (Sir Ian McKellen) with a secret past who aims to steal all her money before the two find themselves more entangled than they’d expected.
It’s a film that touches on what Mirren described in a 2019 Zoomer cover story as the “wild country” that is the internet and digital technology, through which scammers prey on seniors and exploit vulnerabilities for profit.
“We all approach it with a sense of wonder and amazement because it’s not natural to use,” she explained of her age demo, adding that she finds, “The constant learning process of the world of technology can be sort of exhausting. It seems like every week you have to learn something new about how to pull up WhatsApp or something.”
And while the film focuses on the dangers seniors face online, Mirren avoided digital fear-mongering by considering the positives of digital tech and how it has “liberated older people,” relieving social isolation and making the world “accessible to them through their computer where it wasn’t before.”
The actress also discussed her feelings about age-appropriate casting in Hollywood, quipping, “Here is this role. She is a brain surgeon and she is 25 years old. No. That is not the way it works. But I still find that to a certain extent amusing. Luckily they appear to be growing out of that, moving on from that, which is great.”
Pain and Glory
Pain and Glory is a semi-autobiographical tale about an aging and ailing movie director who attempts to reconcile with his past while struggling to find creative inspiration moving forward. Antonio Banderas, 59, stars in the film, which is based on the life of the movie’s real-life director, celebrated Spanish auteur Pedro Almodóvar, and says he drew on both the experience of his own heart attack in 2017 and his long personal relationship with Almodóvar for the role.
“It has to do also with certain things that happened in my personal life — among them a heart attack that I had that actually showed me, exactly like Pedro is trying to express in this movie, to look back,” Banderas told Zoomer at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival, where the film made its Canadian premiere. “Because when that happened, the things that I consider really important came up to the surface immediately, and everything that I thought was important was not.”
Banderas added that he believes the film — which earned him the Best Actor award at the 2019 Cannes Film Festival and is Spain’s official entry in the Best Foreign Language Film category at the 2020 Academy Awards — connects with audiences because everyone has something in their past that they need to confront or reconcile. And speaking of his past, the film also allowed the actor to shed the sexy, mysterious hero image he enjoyed for the first part of his career and explore something deeper within himself.
“I put a lot of effort when [Pedro] called me to do this movie and just cleaned myself from old patterns,” Banderas noted. “I said, ‘Okay, let’s start from zero. I’m going to try and find myself in a different body, in a different look, in a different Banderas.’ And recognizing many things, that actually I am grown up, that I am now a year from being 60 and that you shouldn’t be afraid of showing that to audiences and to yourself.”