Chapter 46: Geezers in Hollywood

How old is old? The answer is at the movies.

This past August, an action movie opened in North American cinemas to great fanfare. The Expendables 3, like its two predecessors, concerns the exploits of a group of veteran mercenaries whose proficiency at shooting bad guys and blowing things up seems at odds with the advanced ages of the Hollywood stars playing them: Sylvester Stallone, 68, Arnold Schwarzenegger, 66, Harrison Ford, 72. The Age factor – the The Expendables 2’s poster proclaimed “573 years of action expertise” – provoked predictable snarkiness. But all that sniping hasn’t deterred audiences from flocking to the series, which has been a major money-maker. Along with another action franchise featuring “mature” stars, RED and RED 2, The Expendables has launched a new film genre: “GwG” – or “Geezers with Guns.”

I find the use of the word Geezer interesting: it’s funny and jarring at once. Geezer as a friendly nickname definitely points to our demographic finally getting our due on screen. Culturally, this confirms what we’ve been saying all along. On the other hand, Geezer, funny and friendly as it may be, is also an anachronism, out of sync with the reality of the New Old. How out of sync? By my reckoning, as much as two, maybe three decades: that’s how long it seems to take language to catch up to major cultural change like the evolution of Old Age! Meanwhile, the Arts – literature, theatre, music, film – have known about this cultural shift for some time. We’ll get to “Geezer Lit” and “Geezer Music” et al, as promised, in coming chapters; for now, movies have centre stage.

To test how well movies have mapped the evolution of Geezerdom over the past 30 years, I recently re-watched several age-related films from that period. Three seem groundbreaking in their reflection of the Geezer Shift.

My first selection is Murphy’s Romance, a 1985 film starring Sally Field and James Garner. Other noteworthy age-themed films came out before 1985 – Harold and Maude, On Golden Pond, Robin and Marian, Terms of Endearment – but Murphy’s Romance, which earned James Garner an Oscar nomination for Best Actor, did something unique. The last two words Garner spoke in that movie clearly identified the watershed definition of “old” at the time. The film’s plot centres on a 33-year-old divorcee named Emma Moriarty (Field) who moves to a small town in Arizona with her young son, Jake, to try to get back on her feet. She’s befriended by the town pharmacist, Murphy Jones (Garner), an eccentric older widower, who helps Emma’s business, protects her from the ex-husband and pays attention to Jake – all the while refusing to tell Emma, who’s dying to know, exactly how old he is. Their relationship moves from the impossible to the possible; the last scene finds them standing outside Emma’s house, goes like this:

Emma: Stay to supper, Murphy?
Murphy: I won’t do that unless I’m still here at breakfast.
Emma: How do you like your eggs?
(They turn to walk into the house together.)
Murphy: I’m 60.

“I’m 60” said it all in 1985. Garner himself was 57 at the time (Field, 39), but if he had said “I’m 57,” it wouldn’t have been the same. Thirty years ago, 60 was the watershed; 60 was old. That’s what made Murphy’s statement so meaningful; he was entrusting a younger woman he loved with the fact that she was about to make her life with, yes, a Geezer. But he was saying something else too: “I’m 60” isn’t a surrender; it’s a boast and a challenge to the world!

Over the next 15 years, on into the new millennium, various movies advanced this heretical notion that Geezerdom might be a fluid thing, that people who had always been consigned to creaky irrelevance once they’d hit a certain age, might in fact be capable of living active, meaningful, sexy lives. Shirley Valentine (1989), Waking Ned Devine (1998), Space Cowboys (2000, James Garner again) all pushed the envelope of “How old is old?” But I give my second groundbreaker prize to the 2003 comedy Something’s Gotta Give, starring Jack Nicholson and Diane Keaton. Nicholson plays Harry Sanborn, a 63-year-old media mogul and playboy who only dates women under 30. His current conquest is the 20-something Marin Klein (Amanda Peet), who invites him to her mother’s beach house in the Hamptons, where they’re walked in on by Marin’s mother, a successful playwright named Erica Barry (Keaton) who happens to be, horrors, in Harry’s own age bracket. That night, during foreplay with Marin, Harry suffers a heart attack; he’s treated at a local hospital and, following doctor’s orders, ends up recuperating at Erica’s beach house where, predictably, he accidentally walks in on Erica when she’s naked. The exchange that follows is now famous:

Erica: Ahh!
Harry: [Seeing Erica] Oh! Oh.
Erica: No! STOP!
Harry: OH! OOH!
Erica: [hides behind door] AAHH! STOP!
Harry: [covers his eyes] Oh, I’m sorry! Oh, God … am I sorry.
Erica: WHAT ARE YOU DOING?
Harry: I’m sorry! I didn’t see anything … Just your tits.

It’s a great moment: the 60-ish roué walking in on a 60-ish woman and being “forced” to gaze at her imperfect flesh. What makes the film iconic, though, is what happens next. Harry falls in love with Erica, and they start sleeping together. The rest of the movie is window dressing. The great anti-Geezer leap is the notion that not only might a 60-year-old man still be attractive but a 60-year-old woman as well; and, as a bonus, that that older girl might be more attractive to the older guy than the sub-30-year-old. The what-is-old bar for women has always been lower than for men. Something’s Gotta Give pushed that bar higher for everyone.

In the next decade, movies like Away From Her (2006), It’s Complicated (2009), Robot and Frank (2012) and, of course, The Expendables (2010-2014) did their own bar-raising. But I’m awarding my third Geezer-shifting moment of movie distinction to Red 2, the 2013 sequel to the 2010 Red.

RED stands for Retired [and]Extremely Dangerous, apt for a cast of superannuated spies and secret agents who get hauled out of retirement and are played by such Geezers-with-Guns luminaries as Bruce Willis, John Malkovich, Morgan Freeman, Richard Dreyfuss, Ernest Borgnine, Anthony Hopkins and, most notably, Helen Mirren. Mirren, who plays the former British “wetwork” agent Victoria Winslow (as sexy now as she was depicting Morgana Le Fay in Excalibur 30 years ago) stars in the iconic scene. It takes place in an MI6 interrogation room, where she’s sitting in handcuffs, about to be garroted from behind by a young and supercilious operative.

MI6 Interrogator: They say you’re a legend around here. I’ve, um, never heard of you. Must have been a bit before my time.
Victoria: [somehow escapes from the handcuffs and, in a matter of seconds, kicks the agent, karate chops him several times and leaves him senseless on the floor] Well, you’ve heard of me now.

One of the things people say most about getting old is that as we age, we become invisible. People forget who you are and, if they remember, it’s only dimly. Mirren’s scene is a stock setup from a hundred potboilers, but performed by a 69-year-old actress with enough chutzpah for a roomful of 30-year-olds, it’s remarkably satisfying to watch.

Watching the scene reminded me of another Academy Award-nominated movie that has an older protagonist: Atlantic City (1980), directed by Louis Malle and starring Burt Lancaster, Susan Sarandon, Kate Reid, Al Waxman (and me). Yes, moi! I play a street villain who threatens Lancaster and is ultimately shot by him; people tell me I’m convincing. A small-time Atlantic City would-be mobster named Lou (Lancaster) becomes infatuated with a much-younger small-town girl named Sally (Sarandon), who has come to Atlantic City to learn to be a croupier. Lou regains his self-respect by wooing Sally and by killing two younger bad guys who threaten her during a botched drug deal. I was one of the bad guys.

When it came time for my death by gunshot, three suits were prepared by wardrobe: only three chances to die convincingly at Burt Lancaster’s hand. So I slipped 50 bucks to the special effects man, and he suspended his professional ethics to triple the charge he would normally place in the breastplate I would have to wear for the scene. When the squib went off, it lifted me off my feet, no “acting” necessary, and I died perfectly on the first take to enthusiastic applause from the crew. At the film’s wrap, I went around to get autographs on my copy of the script. Burt wrote: “Kid,” [I liked that! I was in my early 30s then, about the same as Susan, 33, and Burt was 66, younger than I am now.] “Kid, you died so good, you’d better be careful or they’ll have you playing stiffs the rest of your career.”

It’s a lovely film but of its time and a little too restrained for triumphant Geezer status. Watching it today, I find myself wishing Lou had been given his own Helen Mirren moment, a chance to defiantly answer the “When is old?” question with the same pride we’re now discovering and voicing: “Old is what we, what I, decide it is!”

And, by the way, who are you calling Geezer?

Moses’ Zoomer Philosophy — which launched in ZOOMER Magazine in October 2009 — is a series of monthly essays on age and aging, and the secrets and the science to living better, longer, healthier and happier lives. The first volume of his collection is now available in e-book format on the Kobo Books website.  Click here for more information.