Welcome to the ninth edition of our monthly series on ageing in film! As Pride Month draws to a close, Danny Elliott discusses the portrayal of older LGBTQ+ relationships in Grace and Frankie. For something a little more action-packed, try April’s study of vigilante thriller Harry Brown here.
My wife and I have been watching Grace and Frankie since the first season was released in May 2015. It’s a Netflix original, and I got an email pop into my inbox saying ‘We have something you might like’.
Netflix certainly seem to have me sussed – when they send an email with a subject line like that, they’re invariably right!
We were drawn to the series because of the star names attached – Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin play ‘Grace and Frankie’, the title characters, and are stellar older actresses. When Lily Tomlin’s character took over from ‘Mrs Landingham’ in The West Wing, she had big shoes to fill, but she did so admirably. Martin Sheen, who also appeared in The West Wing (playing Jed Bartlett, the greatest President America never had!) and Sam Waterston, our favourite actor from The Newsroom, made up the rest of the headliners.
You can possibly get a bit of an insight into our TV viewing habits (dominated by Sorkin, clearly!) by reading the above, but we settled in on a Saturday night to watch a few episodes.
Firstly, brilliant actors and actresses, all in their 70s – this series really does blow anything else I’ve ever seen out of the water. But, the plot…
Never have I been more surprised. I hadn’t picked up what the show was about in the email I received. I’ll have a crack at a synopsis:
Grace and Robert are married to each other, as are Frankie and Sol. Robert and Sol are business partners, in a law firm in San Diego, while Grace and Frankie have never particularly gelled. They’re thrown together when Robert and Sol reveal they’re in love, have been having an affair for years, and are leaving their wives for each other.
The 39 episodes so far have looked at a whole range of issues. It’s also relevant as Pride month draws to a close to be looking at a show that is about older LGBT* people, and features a prominent LGBT* actress (Lily Tomlin).
Robert and Sol were scared of ‘going public’ with their relationship for many years. Now, some of that has to do with the fact they’re already married and didn’t want to hurt their wives more than they already had, but far too many older men and women felt forced into repressing their feelings for far too long.
Organisations like Opening Doors London are changing the way older LGBT* people are treated. They offer, ‘specialist training and consultancy for statutory and voluntary organisations, such as care homes, housing associations and hospitals, to help them understand the needs of older LGBT* people.’ Their campaigning work is changing the attitudes of society as a whole.
The series deals with many sensitive issues around this – we see how Grace and Frankie accept, and sometimes struggle to accept, their new found situation and their ex-partners’ new lives. We see how their kids do the same – loving their dads and wanting them to be happy, but also seeing the pain caused to their mums.
None of this is easy – and the show doesn’t give simple answers. It’s not clean, in more ways than one, and it is meant to make you think.
Grace and Frankie is, ultimately, a comedy – and it really does make you laugh!
In the season three opener Grace and Frankie pitch their sex toy business (there’s a lot of plot left unexplained here, I know!) to a bank manager to try and get a loan.
This scene – talk about tackling ageism!
Firstly – older people are sexually active. If you’re older and reading this, you’ll think that’s a ridiculous thing to have to state – but so much TV and film ignores this completely.
Secondly, the two entrepreneurs are ultimately denied a loan. Why? Because, ultimately, the bank manager is pretty sure they’ll die before they pay it off. As more people are living longer, the traditional cut-off points for loans, particularly mortgages, are becoming increasingly prohibitive for older people. They have always been discriminatory but, with 146,000 households renting privately in London alone, many of those older people are being denied their own home definitively. This has to change.
Both are outraged at this. They storm out… only for Frankie to realise that, in a moment of forgetfulness, her phone is still in the office they have so dramatically left behind.
Perfect comic timing.
I highly recommend watching Grace and Frankie. Season three was only released a couple of weeks ago, and my wife has ‘paused’ the other programmes we were watching so we can get stuck straight into this – it’s one of her favourites.
You’ll laugh and cry. You’ll be moved as you encounter issues that face older LGBT* people. You’ll recognise the ageism that the characters meet and cheer them on as they defeat it.
All of this is acted out by four towering figures in the acting world – with numerous awards between them. Together they are four people aged 75+ entertaining a worldwide audience about issues facing older people. That deserves something. The series, and Lily Tomlin in particular, has already been nominated for awards, but they’re yet to win any. Maybe season three will change things.
My final verdict – I can’t think of a better show about older people.
Peter Bradshaw’s Bechdel Test Score: 5/6 (alas, the lack of Celia Imrie is the only downside to this show. If a British version were made, I’m sure she’d be considered as Grace, perhaps along with Sue Johnston as Frankie.)