The longer you’ve lived, the more you have to tell. Of course that’s not a stringent rule of thumb, there are exceptions (Haley Joel Osment… Wayne Rooney, anyone?) – but generally speaking, if you’ve been around for longer, you’ve witnessed more things, experienced more life events. So surely that should translate to cinema? It’s a means of storytelling after all, and we all know the elderly have the best tales. When you’re six years old, wanting to be told a bedtime story, you don’t ask your 11 year old cousin to take on the honours – you go straight for the grandparents.
Cinema doesn’t reflect this reality, however, as an industry that thrives on profit. While that is entirely understandable, and budgets and finances are naturally so paramount, at the same time, there is a distinct lack of stories being told through the eyes of older generations. There are terrific actors out there still working, and yet in a bid to remain on the screen (and put some money away themselves) find themselves taking on the only roles they’re offered – generic parts, usually nondescript grandparent roles, the weird creepy neighbour, or the confused pensioner on the night bus. But they’ve got a vulnerability to their demeanour, able to bring in not only a psychological depth born out of their wealth of experiences, but also a physical one, not quite the whippersnapper they once were, using that fragility to evoke empathy from the viewer.
But we so rarely see characters of that nature – but thankfully, Paul Weitz wrote a screenplay called Grandma, which, you guessed it, is about a grandma, and Lily Tomlin takes on the titular role. Her performance is electric, and again by having a character of her age in the lead, this opens the door and works as something of a catalyst to explore themes seldom seen in cinema – like the loss of a long-term partner, and coming to terms with life after they’ve passed away, after having spent decades in one another’s company.
A one-time Oscar nominee (for her performance in Nashville), Tomlin hasn’t lost her ability, she’s just lost the faith of studios, wanting to find actors who can sell their product – in other words, the youth. The idea is that young people go to the cinema, and they only want to see films about people their age. There is no denying this is the case in many circles; Grandma would be a tough sell to a 16 year old, but all markets should be catered for – and there is still a demographic of regular cinema goers who would argue that Spring Breakers is a tough sell for them. Though perhaps that’s just what we’re being exposed to, and thus have decided is what we want. Look at Pixar’s Up – children adore that movie, and it’s not just because of the talking dogs. Or how about The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel – remarkable box office numbers for a film that centres around characters we’re led to believe we don’t care much about.
Older characters tend to come equipped with more nuance and layers. Just take the grand theme of love; falling in love is arguably the most prevalent theme in the history of cinema, the notion of two, star-crossed lovers wanting to get together but not quite knowing how, is a structure that lays the foundations for so many glorious narratives. The protagonists are generally younger, but what about those searching for love when widowed? Or those struggling to maintain a marriage after 30 years? Or caring for one another during the hardest times of all; illness. Michael Haneke’s Amour was a revelation, a strikingly upsetting picture that could only have worked with characters of a certain age. There’s also Tom Browne’s moving drama Radiator, starring Gemma Jones and the late Richard Johnson – another which puts older actors at the heart of their own story, and is all the better for it.
So let’s see more. Grandma is a fine example of not only having an older performer illuminate the screen, but does so working with age-specific themes, that will resonate with so many of those watching. Well, maybe apart from the fact she’s a pot-smoking, non-conformist grandparent with an inclination for violence. But you get the drift.