As you know I am ever alert to all things age-related in order to understand how society perceives you and me. It also begs the question of how we see ourselves reflected back in various ways.
I often bemoan the dearth of positive images of older women in the media or just generally in everyday life. Why are women in their fifties, sixties and seventies not routinely featured in fashion spreads or advertisements in the press and on TV when we are consumers of a wide range of goods and services, not just those aimed at ‘fixing’ our ageing bodies (glasses, stair lifts, incontinence pads or ‘Farm Fresh’ frozen ready meals)? My latest bugbear is the fact that the hairdressing salon I frequent in London has not a single photograph of an older woman adorning their walls when at least thirty percent of their clientele is over 50. I suspect that they want to be seen as trendy and fashionable and therefore fear that even a single image of a woman of my age, albeit with a great haircut, would taint their brand. That’s ageism for you!
Another place to experience ‘how older people are portrayed’ is in films and as I have just seen a particularly depressing example of what I like to think of as ‘Old Fogey Films’ I thought I’d explore the genre for this week’s blog post.
I think this particular kind of OAP rom-com (as I saw it described) kicked off with ‘The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel’ in 2011. This was a lovely film which had great acting from some of our most treasured thesps including Dame Judi Dench and Dame Maggie Smith, beautiful scenery in India, some gentle humour and a happy and uplifting ending. There was a degree of implausibility about the story lines, but like all the audiences who loved it, I was more than happy to suspend my disbelief and just bask in the delightful vibe of the whole thing.
The hugely positive reception and financial success of ‘Marigold Hotel’ clearly alerted various film production companies to the power of the grey pound. So I suppose we shouldn’t be surprised by some bandwagon jumping in an attempt to hit the same jackpot. Two that come to mind are Time of Our Lives in a rather unlikely pairing of Joan Collins with Pauline Collins and Finding Your Feet with Celia Imrie and Imelda Staunton, two of my favourite actresses. And the latest offering which I saw last weekend was The Leisure Seeker with Helen Mirren and Donald Sutherland as long-time married couple Ella and John Spencer.
There were some themes in Marigold Hotel which subsequent film-makers have seen fit to emulate. The first is the element of ‘escape’, preferably to somewhere sunny and warm. The old folk are seen as needing to get away from their present situation which is less than ideal. This escape invariably involves uncomfortable travel in unlikely vehicles, bad driving and the leaving behind of exasperated and baffled ‘children’ who are of course adults themselves. The older generation are viewed by their children as irresponsible, selfish and incapable of making their own decisions. There was considerable humour to be had from this in Marigold Hotel, when Celia Imrie’s character Madge told her outraged children that as she was off to live in India, she would no longer be at their beck and call as a babysitter. It was considerably less funny in The Leisure Seeker in which a very petulant son had no empathy for his sad and very sick parents.
Another seam of comedy in these films is mined in the grumpy old woman who has an epiphany when she is treated with great courtesy and kindness by the very people she is disparaging.
In Marigold Hotel, Dame Maggie Smith as Muriel goes from deeply nasty racist bigotry to fully embracing Indian culture, whilst in Finding Your Feet, Imelda Staunton’s snobbish Lady Sandra Abbott climbs off her high horse fast when presented with the realities of life on an inner city council estate with her bohemian sister Bif (Celia Imrie). Other common themes are sex and death. This is where I feel that we are most asked to suspend our disbelief. In two of the films sex and death are linked. In The Time of Our Lives and Finding Your Feet two of the male characters die of heart attacks either just before or just after coitus. Death also comes to other characters in all of these films. In a comedy this could be very jarring, so it usually comes suddenly but peacefully. The judge (Tom Wilkinson) in Marigold Hotel dies peacefully in his garden chair in the sunshine having finally found his lost love, Bif in Finding Your Feet dies in her sleep in a hotel room in Rome, having just a few hours before danced on a stage and (spoiler alert) John and Ella Spencer, who have Alzheimer's and terminal cancer respectively, decide to end it all together in their Leisure Seeker Winnebago as the sun sets over Key West.
I hope it doesn’t sound as though I’ve had a sense of humour bypass. I really loved The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, so I wanted to enjoy all these ‘lookalike’ films. Finding Your Feet came closest in setting out to paint a beguiling portrait of older age as a sunlit adventure with possibilities of love, reinvention and liberation from old modes of life, thought and beliefs. This was so deftly done in Marigold Hotel that I was perfectly happy to suspend my disbelief at the considerable implausibilities in the plot. I had no problem accepting that Muriel would transmogrify from a lonely and bitter old woman in a wheelchair into a financial whizz kid to rescue the hotel, nor that Evelyn (Dame Judi Dench) would be able to teach those young Indians in a call centre a thing or two about British culture. It also ended on a wonderfully uplifting note with later-life lovebirds, Evelyn and Douglas (Bill Nighy), serenely weaving in and out of the traffic on their scooter without a care in the world.
And surely (film-makers please take note) that’s what we OAP’s want from a rom-com aimed at us! We want to watch an uplifting portrayal of interesting characters whose ‘journey’ takes them to somewhere more rich, satisfying and filled with hope than the place they have left behind.
Last Saturday I came out of the cinema having seen The Leisure Seeker feeling very far from uplifted. My friend and I wondered who would possibly want to see a road movie about a (quite sweet if irritating) older couple one of whom had lost his mind and the other of whom was in the final stages of cancer. Helen Mirren and Donald Sutherland made sterling efforts with a script which included incontinence and fart jokes, but I’m afraid that by the end any initial charm had completely dissipated. By all means make romantic comedies about and for our age group to tempt us to spend our grey pounds, but please give some thought to your audience’s sensibilities. Maybe take a leaf out of Richard Curtis’s book. Give us something along the lines of ‘Four Weddings and a Funeral’ rather than ‘Four Funerals and a Wedding’. We need a big dollop of life and hope not death and despair.
How do you feel about this genre of film - those made about and for our age group? What bugbears do you have about the way that older women are portrayed in films and television? Do you ever see examples of ageism in the media (magazines, newspapers, TV or film) which bothers you and which you wish would change?