Elderworld: A Hot New Trend in Cinema?

There's a heartening new trend in cinema: Films that assume that there's life after middle age. Suddenly AARP-age actors -- and, more significantly, actresses -- are starring in notable movies that portray seniors (is there a more cloying word?) as vital individuals in flux and working through challenging issues just like anyone else on the planet. And these folks are perused by a loving camera as if liver spots were the new beauty patch.

In the recent I'll See You in My Dreams with Blythe Danner, the tagline reads "A widow and former songstress discovers that life can begin anew at any age." Good news, though you'd never guess from most recent films. In the world according to Hollywood, older actors are simply extras in stories about the young. Now, reversing that trend, is the marvelous 45 Years (opening in December) toplined by Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay, a drama about a long-time marriage in crisis. And the soon-to-be-released Youth with Michael Caine, Harvey Keitel and Jane Fonda, assembled for a more sardonic take on aging.

The Boomers have long made a habit of shaping the culture, so no surprise that cinema has begun to reflect their concerns, offering films that delve deeper than the fantasy retirement comedy of The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. In the must-see 45 Years, a longtime marriage founders after the husband learns that the body of his lover from 50 years ago, who died in a tragic accident, has been discovered -- a brilliant metaphor for past "baggage." The film's premise ensures it could be cast only with mature actors. And Rampling and Courtenay go for it --- what joy to watch these Brit screen legends at work.

Rampling wears her age beautifully, carrying much of the drama just through close-ups of her face, like silent film stars, only subtler. You know how dialogue in films often sounds canned, like the Tin Man stretching his joints? In 45 the exchanges between Rampling and Courtenay feel so authentic you wonder how they pulled it off. Much of the credit must go to the film's sizzling Brit director/writer Andrew Haigh (of Weekend, about a gay hook up).

Curiously, Haigh and Paulo Sorrentino -- another director fascinated by septuagenarians -- are both young, as if to face down the future were to tame it. Sorrentino's Youth stars Michael Caine (b. 1933), along with Harvey Keitel and Jane Fonda, also way up there. More tone-poem than straightforward narrative, Youth features Caine and Keitel as a pair of grizzled grumps at a Swiss spa-hotel, parading their displeasure over a coming attraction called Mortality. The cinematography is mind blowing and a touch surreal (as in Sorrentino's last The Great Beauty) and the film is peppered with nostalgia, lust, and dark comedy: two hotel guests collide in wheelchairs, and Caine and Keitel riff on how they can't remember whom they've slept with.

Jane Fonda uncorks a cameo in Youth as a Hollywood diva so garishly made up she would scare the horses. "Didn't you mind getting uglified like that?" I ask Fonda at an industry party. "Not at all," she says, "it was necessary for the role. And in her own way she [the diva] looks kind of gorgeous."

Riding the hot new elder trend, Fonda is about to star opposite Robert Redford, she tells me, in a film based on Kent Haruf's last novel. "I play a widow," she says excitedly, "and it begins when I knock on the door of a longtime neighbor and ask if he would like to come to my house at night to lie in bed -- not for sex, but to talk and fall asleep together."

Back home, I find the passage in Haruf's novel, Our Souls at Night. "I'm talking about getting through the night," the widow says. "And lying warm in bed, companionably. Lying down in bed together and you staying the night. The nights are the worst. Don't you think?"

"Yes. I think so," he says.