Talking of getting old in cinema, American actress and star of silent classic Birth of a Nation (1915) Lillian Gish, provides an instructive anecdote. In just over thirty years, the same leading man apparently played – in separate films and in this order – her grandfather, her father and, finally, her husband. Gish predicted that, had on-screen daddy-cum-hubby, Lionel Barrymore, lived a few years longer their next relationship would have been as mother and son. “That’s the way it is in Hollywood” she remarked. “The men get younger and the women get older.”
Hollywood is notorious for measuring women’s ages in cat years and men’s in light years. Attacks on the time-gender continuum are therefore an everyday hazard. Bogart and Bacall in To Have and Have Not; Marlon Brando and Maria Schneider in Last Tango in Paris; Angelina Jolie and Colin Farrell in Alexander: old men date teenagers/young women play mothers to young men. The consequences can be severe. One minute Sally Field is Tom Hanks’ love interest (Punchline, 1988). Six years later she’s his mother in Forrest Gump. And incest is surely a blessing compared to any female actor who over the last twenty-five years has had to star opposite Clint Eastwood. The life of a film star is like being on an elevator. The men start at the top and go down, the women at the bottom and go up.
There is a point, however, when this “happy” arrangement for the blokes must come to an end. Even the most virile of geriatric movie stars eventually throws in his Casanova cape, hobbles off the elevator and embraces the only role for which he is now capable: The Old Man. Old and bitter, young at heart, decrepit, spirited, grumpy or just crazy, the Old Man is an essential feature of the filmic landscape. A graveyard for the chronologically dispossessed, he is not a star (though he may once have been), not even an individual. Frequently, the Old Man is but a symbol; an empty overcoat and trilby waiting to be filled with the political, social and generational concerns of his time.
When the Old Man laments, the world laments with him. So often he is representative of a bygone age, the last gasps of a dying way of life. In The Big Sleep (1946), Howard Hawks’ adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s novel, General Sternwood (Charles Waldren) longs for his youth, a time when men were men and not the gangsters and pimps with whom his two rebellious daughters have become entangled. Wheelchair-bound and frail, the general’s one small pleasure is to reminisce the indulgences of youth with a man in his own mould – tough hero Humphrey Bogart.
Fragile health means that poor Sternwood can’t even rely on a drop of grandpa’s medicine to see him through the dog days. Such misfortune certainly doesn’t afflict the Western Old Man. This sub-sect of the pensioner motif refers to the frequently inebriated fellow whose role is to pompously recount his glory days whilst falling off a horse. “During the late war…I fought mid shot and shell and cannon roar,” declares Dr. Josiah Boone in prototypical western Stagecoach (1939). Such militaristic pride is ever-accompanied by a bottle of something strong or, if unavailable at present, a request that he might have one on credit. The stereotype was well-parodied in Cat Ballou (1965) a comedy western in which Lee Marvin adopts the drunk old man role with gusto, staggering and slurping and burping while at the same time trying to reclaim his six-shooter prowess. So often the western old man serves as warning to human frailty; that the gifts we are given at birth might be taken away through a life of overindulgence and boozing.
Old Men are ridiculed and ignored. In 12 Angry Men (1957) Sidney Lumet’s tense drama about a jury deliberating the fate of an alleged murderer, the old man (played by Joseph Sweeney) harks back to a bygone age of frontier spunk: “It’s not easy to stand alone against the ridicule of others” he explains to his fellow jurors. This is why he gives the one man offering a not guilty vote, Henry Fonda, his support. Yet this old man’s antiquated beliefs and folksy logic is the butt of several jibes from certain jurors. Even Fonda seems to regard him as something of a relic, dispatching him with a quick “so long” at the film’s conclusion. Your work here is done.
Not for Fonda though, he would see out his life’s twilight in On Golden Pond (1981). It figuratively (and perhaps literally) reunites him with his hippie tearaway daughter, Jane. The wrinkly, cantankerous Fonda Sr. is representative of the older generation unable to understand their baby boom kids’ unorthodox lifestyles and promiscuity. Grumbling eventually gives way to acceptance; dad and daughter embrace. The generations come together.
And they are funny, aren’t they? Old Men. Who believe in old things. Like the Old Man in Darling (1965), graced with the beautiful Julie Christie’s presence at an upscale soiree. His sexual arousal is implied through a strained smile and varicose hands clutching desperately at the armchair. Yet Christie is not the agent in this very British orgasm; rather it is because she is reading an excerpt from Shakespeare’s Richard II. English heritage and a nod to the classics put the wind in his titanic: “This green and pleasant laaaaah.” Twenty years later and Uncle Monty would take the Old England Old Man representation to the level of high camp in Withnail and I (1987).
For lonely old men, one need look no further than some of the European classics. More so than teenager obsessed Hollywood, European filmmakers have been willing to give the elderly prominent roles. Umberto D (1952) a particularly bleak tailender to Italian Neo-realism (a film movement not exactly known for its cheerfulness) sees scorned old-timer Mr. Umberto penniless and homeless. Even his one friend and confidant, his dog, loses patience in the closing scene, trotting off in disgust at Umberto’s despairing attempts to end their lives. In one old man resides the poverty and hopelessness of Italy in the aftermath of World War II. If any movie deserves a health warning for sheer misery it is Umberto D.
A little less apocalyptic, but lonely all the same is Dr. Isak Borg in Ingmar Bergman’s Wild Strawberries (1957). Past and present collide as Borg hallucinates failed romantic encounters and missed opportunities. Bad life choices have led to an existence devoid of warmth of spirituality. Old Men warn against youthful complacency. Monuments to failure? Tragic figures that encourage us to seize the day? Is the glass half-full or half-empty? Guido, the fictional director of Fellini’s 8 ½ demands to know where are his old men. When several frail looking gentlemen are rolled out he angrily declares them “not old enough.” Guido’s state of mind at this point in the film might well explain his desire for some kind of decrepitude that befits his own feelings of frustration and impotence.
But Gish’s statement holds: men, even old men, are getting younger. Unlike the dignified, if depressed, old men mentioned above, the recent Old Man is about as mature as a teenage boy on cocaine. Consider, for instance, any of Jack Nicolson’s, Robert De Niro’s, or Dustin Hoffman’s latest films. This batch of newly minted Old Men will not let their youth go gently into the night. They will act like spoilt brats, disrupt family gatherings, embarrass their children. If having sex with starlets is less and less possible, then they can still act like big doddery old kids.
It is likely that Old Men will get younger and younger as the years go by. Hollywood has recently tried to come to terms with this phenomenon. In The Curious Case of Benjamin Button an old man dithers into this world too arthritic for love. As he “grows up” the wrinkles fade, the hair returns. He becomes Brad Pitt, has a relationship with Cate Blanchett. She ages, he gets younger, and the film comes to an end with middle-aged Blanchett cradling baby Benjamin in her arms.
If this tells us anything it is that we should fear for the women of Pitt’s generation, who in twenty years time will have to deal with spouses, friends and lovers incapable of anything but the occasional gurgle and squirting poo from out their trouser cuffs. And things are getting even worse. Anyone who has seen a recent picture of Haley Joel Osment will, I’m sure, share my fears that for this poor soul, dementia has already set-in.
Oliver Gruner is a writer on film, and former contributor to Mercy live events. He is currently lecturing and producing PhD research on 1960's Contemporary Hollywood Biopics, at UEA. Sean Halligan is a photographer who specialises in pinhole photography. His work was one of the central features of Mercy's ]Bracket THIS[ 3 exhibition at the 2006 Liverpool Biennial, and he has been instrumental in documenting Liverpool's changing faces over the last 30 years.