While there have been many notable films centered on older characters before — like “Amour” and “Away From Her” — 2015 stands apart for having a concentration of them.
Most actors would yip with joy if an Oscar-winning director were to ring them up offering a starring role. But not Michael Caine, whose first thought — so he said — when he found himself in that very spot last year was that the director, Paolo Sorrentino, had gone a bit barmy.
“I was surprised he’d ever heard of me,” Caine, deadpan and 82, said recently at a film-industry lunch in midtown Manhattan. “I was puzzled about why he wanted an old guy like me in the lead.”
Sorrentino, who collected an Academy Award in 2014 for the very lush, very Italian “The Great Beauty,” didn’t just cast Caine as the lead of “Youth,” about contemplative, way-over-the-hill, vacationing creatives, but he made Harvey Keitel and Jane Fonda the co-stars.
The threesome’s average age is 78, and the studio, Fox Searchlight, is giving each of them an awards push. The movie won best film, best actor and best director at the European Film Awards, and Fonda collected a Golden Globe nomination.
Most Read Entertainment Stories
- Peter Aykroyd, Emmy nominated 'SNL' actor-writer, dead at 66
- Take a backstage peek at how Seattle’s ACT Theatre creates the magic of ‘A Christmas Carol’
- Two Fox contributors quit, citing 'irresponsible' voices
- Explore life-size Lego models at the Awesome Exhibition, plus other things to do this week
- Where to see holiday lights, dance performances, Santa and more in the Seattle area this 2021 holiday season
In any given year, having that many long-in-the-tooth contenders in the speculative echo chamber of Oscar season would be an aberration. And while there have been many notable films centered on older characters before — like “Amour” and “Away From Her” — 2015 stands apart for having a concentration. The “Youth” actors are among a dozen or so born in the Great Depression and World War II years, or just afterward, who have garnered awards or nominations or, let’s be inclusive here, buzz. And — fetch some smelling salts — half of them are women.
Along with the stars of “Youth,” there’s Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay (“45 Years”), Sylvester Stallone (“Creed”), Lily Tomlin (“Grandma”), Helen Mirren (“Woman in Gold” and “Trumbo”), Maggie Smith (“The Lady in the Van”), Ian McKellen (“Mr. Holmes”), Blythe Danner (“I’ll See You in My Dreams”) and Sam Elliott (for his scene-stealing work in “Grandma”). At 69, Rampling and Stallone are the youngest of the bunch.
Is that you, Hollywood? What is going on? Wondering as much himself, Caine said he did some sleuthing and happened upon what might be termed “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” effect. That 2012 film, starring Judi Dench and Smith, among others, as British pensioners who retire to India, grossed $136.8 million worldwide, and its sequel drew nearly $86 million. This coincided with new data showing that while younger moviegoing audiences were shrinking, older audiences, especially those 60 and up, were growing at quite the clip.
“The baby boomers haven’t abandoned their culture,” said Steve Gilula, a co-president of Fox Searchlight, the studio behind the “Marigold” films and “Youth.” “They want to see stories about themselves.”
He added, “It’s a much richer and deeper cultural menu when you’re dealing with more diverse stories with wider-age range.”
“Youth” aside, most of this year’s older-themed films are independents. The filmmakers and producers behind three of those indies said what propelled their films had to do less with economics than with a sense of venturing into fresh terrain.
“It just feels more new to do a film about a 70-year-old than a story about a 20-year-old,” said Paul Weitz, who wrote and directed “Grandma,” which is about an acerbic septuagenarian lesbian poet, played by — who else? — the world’s most famous acerbic septuagenarian lesbian, Tomlin. “Even in the age of Katniss, there’s room for Gandalf,” he said.
Tomlin, who picked up a Golden Globe nomination for “Grandma” last week, said she was surprised to learn there were many young fans of her Netflix show — who stop her to say so in the street. The show, “Grace and Frankie” (for which Tomlin earned a second Globe nomination), also stars Fonda.
“Young people are more aware that age is inevitable,” Tomlin said. “Or they kind of have an inkling.”
Brett Haley, who directed “I’ll See You in My Dreams,” and who is 32, said he never set out to make a film for a specific audience. “I was trying to tell a story that I needed to tell — it just so happened to be about older characters,” he said by email.
“There seems to be a theory around town that if you make a film starring older actors aimed at the baby boomer audience, they’ll come by the truckload,” he continued. “This couldn’t be further from the truth.”
Audiences did go by the truckload to see Haley’s film, which stars Danner as a widow seduced by Elliott. In its opening weekend, in three theaters, it bested the per-screen average take of “Mad Max: Fury Road,” and during a promotional stop at an AARP convention, Elliott caused a minor frenzy.
This year’s films with seasoned stars (“please don’t say ‘veteran,’” McKellen, a hale 76, implored during a recent fireside chat at his hotel suite) also largely depart from familiar narrative arcs, like wrestling with dementia. (An exception is “Mr. Holmes,” in which McKellen’s famous detective struggles with a failing mind.) They don’t reduce their characters to what have become antediluvian caricatures: wholly sweet, or sharp-tongued, or doddering or dotty. In this year’s batch, the characters have sex; smoke marijuana; flirt; curse a mean streak; and, in the case of “45 Years,” ache over fresh emotional wounds.
“There’s a lot of people of our age still very alive and still very normal, but they’re just a bit older, that’s all,” Rampling said during a recent interview at the Soho Grand Hotel. “There’s an intelligent audience who really like intelligent films. They like not just to be pandered to.”