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Ageism in Film #10 – What I’ve Learned

Over the last year I’ve been watching films and TV series featuring older performers and about age related issues and writing a blog series about them called Ageism in Film. My colleague George has contributed three on various occasions where I’ve been out of action (becoming a dad for the first time led to a lot more hiccups than I’d bargained for!).

Between us, we’ve watched and written about: Grace and Frankie, Harry Brown, Still Game, Nebraska, Still Alice, The Lady in the Van, Esio Trot, Ethel & Ernest and Up. I also wrote one blog on ‘A 21st Century Tea Dance’, not a film, but one of the best arts events for older people I’ve ever been to.

Alongside those I’ve written about, I’ve also watched: Last Chance Harvey, The Quartet, Last Vegas, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, Little Miss Sunshine, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Philomena, August: Osage County and What We Did on Our Holiday.

After four and a half brilliant years at Age UK London, today happens to be my last day. So I’m going to take this opportunity as I finish off the Ageism in Film series to ask: what have I learned about older people, both through watching and writing about these films, and in my work since March 2013?

On the film front, I’ve been hugely encouraged that there’s a plethora of really good (and a few bad!) movies about older people. There seem to be more films than TV shows, even if the two series’ I wrote about (Still Game and Grace and Frankie) are two of the best examples of representing age onscreen.

In my introductory article to this series I quoted Peter Bradshaw, who said:

“Only 11% of characters in the top-grossing films of 2016 are older than 60, compared with 18.5% of the overall population… Well, it’s quite true – and complicated by sexism. Older characters become invisible, but the women go first. In contemporary drama, old people can be snowy-haired, unimportant grandparents. Or they can be homeless people.”

I can’t argue with the facts. Bradshaw (whose article was the catalyst for this whole series – thank you!) suggested a ‘Bechdel Test for Ageism’, under which I’ve scrutinised all the movies I’ve written about. (Still Game got a perfect score of 6/6, though a few others got 5/6, missing out only because of a lack of Celia Imrie! At the other end of the scale, Still Alice scored 0/6 but, then again, it wasn’t really about ageing!)

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Still Game racked up a perfect score on the Peter Bradshaw Bechdel Test for Ageing!

While the research is undoubtedly correct and, across all cinema, older people aren’t represented nearly enough, I’m glad that there’s a good stock of films that do depict ageing and are (generally) not ageist.

Something else which has struck me is that there are a host of brilliant older actors and actresses. I’ve watched Michael Caine, Jane Fonda, Dustin Hoffman, Lily Tomlin, Martin Sheen, Judi Dench, Bruce Dern and many others dominate in their performances.

IMDB’s list of ‘The Top Actors and Actresses in Their Seventies’ also features Robert De Niro, Helen Mirren, Harrison Ford, Anthony Hopkins, Maggie Smith, Ian McKellen, Al Pacino, Christopher Walken (which reminds me, I watched Seven Psychos not so long ago – he was great in it!) and Patrick Stewart.

Quick aside: did you notice how many of those I’ve just named were British? Seven! Maybe we’re doing better at celebrating older actors and actresses on this side of the Atlantic than our friends on the other?!

Great actors and actresses stay great. Robert De Niro has made some questionable film choices in recent years, but he’s still a great performer. Many would argue that Helen Mirren, Michael Caine and Maggie Smith have got better as they’ve got older. And I don’t just mean they were better in their 40s compared to their 20s. I mean better in their 60s and 70s compared to their 20s, 30s, and 40s. I love Dustin Hoffman, and I like him more as an actor the older he becomes. Even in Last Chance Harvey and The Choir (there’s another one!) he was great in average films.

More actors and actresses should get opportunities as they age to continue performing in leading roles in films that aren’t ageist.

And so, to ageism in film itself.

I’ve been generally happy with what I’ve seen. Peter Bradshaw’s test was an interesting lens to view films through. One of his criteria is, essentially, that not all older people are portrayed as being nice! Nebraska and The Lady in the Van certainly exemplify that.

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“I love Dustin Hoffman, and I like him more as an actor the older he becomes”

Harry Brown may have been slightly over the top in its revenge/vigilante style, but Harry and Len are as far from your stereotypical older person as you can get. The way this film dealt with loneliness, isolation, death and community was also, in my opinion, helpful and true-to-life for many. The film’s setting, London, helped – as someone working for Age UK London I saw some of what I know older Londoner’s can experience.

I think my favourite film over the course of the last year was Ethel & Ernest. George actually wrote about it for the series, but we both watched it together in a free private screening along with 45 older people (as organisers, we were allowed to sneak in!) that we partnered with Universal Pictures Home Entertainment Content Group for.

The film was, to its very core, about ageing – following the lives of Ethel & Ernest, Raymond Briggs’ (author of The Snowman and, obviously, Ethel & Ernest) mum and dad. The film, literally, shows them ageing, from the first time they set eyes on one another to their last goodbye. As I sit in the office now, I’m getting emotional just thinking about it.

As a good Liverpool lad, I was particularly moved by the song played over Ethel and Ernest’s credits, In the Blink of an Eye by Paul McCartney. The introduction on strings, followed by that 75 year old, slightly croaky, 1960’s South Liverpool-style Scouse-accented voice singing:

“In the blink of an eye,

Many songs have been sung,

Many lives have gone by.

We will never give up,

We will hold on to love,

With no reason to cry.”

My four and a half years at Age UK London have indeed gone by in the blink of an eye. McCartney claims that life does too. Ethel & Ernest, and many of the other films I’ve seen this year, showed me that he’s right.

We’re all ageing. I’ll be 30 in just over a month. Turning 50, 60, 70, 80 or 90 feels like a lifetime away. But it’s only the blink of an eye. After all, just yesterday George and I chatted about the fact that we still think of 1998 as being ‘only the other year’!

Working for Age UK London has, genuinely, taught me that all of us have to fight for older people. There are so many reasons to list, but if for nothing else, then for the fact that it’s our turn next. Older people must have a voice now, if only so that we can have our voice then.

I arrived here as a communications professional. I leave a little older and –  if I can be so bold – an age-sector expert.

I intend to use that expertise in everything I do from here on out as I work, age, love and live; hopefully long enough to become an older person who isn’t simply a non-conformist when it comes to stereotypes related to age, but one who lives in a society that no longer recognises those stereotypes at all.


Danny Elliott

Danny is the Communications and Fundraising Officer at Age UK London

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2 thoughts on “Ageism in Film #10 – What I’ve Learned

  1. Ageism in the film and TV industry isn’t just confined to actors and on screen portrayal of older characters. The industry itself is ageist against people…usually over 35…who want to work on the production side. Most training schemes, film funding grants and career boosting programmes are aimed at under 25s. A great number of production companies hire younger film crews to keep costs down, as they can exploit them with low wages and promises that they have to endure working in bad conditions with poor managers as a “rite of passage” that everyone has to go through. Experience is undervalued in a film crew and I’ve experienced young film crew personnel openly challenge me about my age on a film set: “Aren’t you too old for this sort of thing?” Depictions of older people in film are often shaped by people under 30, so you don’t often get a good representation on screen.

  2. Hi Danny, what will you be going on to[ do????
    Thinking of you and still praying for you.

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