Is Hollywood finally growing up?

Tom Courtenay and Dame Maggie Smith in Quartet

Emmanuelle Riva, 85, has delighted the film world by winning the BAFTA for Best Actress - the oldest ever winner - for her part in Amour.

But for many, the movie business is all about big-budget CGI action films, horror movies, or teenage comedies. Hopefully, that's about to change. An unexpected trend for films focusing on ageing issues, in which older people take the leading roles, seems to be taking hold.

Nick Smurthwaite talks to some experts in the film industry to get their view on cinema and the older generations.

 

Who’d have thought a film about a bunch of genteel English pensioners retiring to India would have been one of the biggest screen successes of the year, both here and in America?

The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, which cost £7.5m to make, brought in worldwide profits of £84m and rising. A gentle tragi-comedy devoid of sex and violence, it took everyone in the film industry by surprise.

And maybe, just maybe, things are changing a little, when it comes to older people being the focus of films.

A new trend?

As well as The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, which stars Judi Dench and Maggie Smith, we’ve had Hope Springs, in which ageing married couple Meryl Streep and Tommy Lee Jones seek therapeutic help with their moribund sex life.

Meanwhile, there's Amour, a French film about a couple in their 80s, coping with the inevitable deterioration of their mental and physical powers.

January 2013 also saw the film version of Ronald Harwood’s play Quartet (main picture), set in a retirement home for opera singers, and starring Maggie Smith, Tom Courtenay and Pauline Collins.

Vanessa Redgrave and Terence Stamp in A Song for MarionThen there's Song for Marion (right)– inspired by the American rock choir for oldies Young@Heart.

In this picture, Terence Stamp stars as the disgruntled husband of a woman in terminal decline (Vanessa Redgrave), who nevertheless manages to rope him into her lively pensioners’ choir.

Why the sudden interest?

Whether this new spotlight on age concerns is down to the decline in cinema’s previously-youthful audience, or an increase in the older audience is hard to discover.

For years cinema seems to have been the preserve of the under-25s, enjoying a steady diet of popcorn, romcoms and action movies with eye-popping special effects.

Now the tide appears to be turning in favour of what you might call “greycoms” with a marked absence of pyrotechnics and a more realistic and sensitive take on the human condition.

'The recent success of The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel alerted many studios to the fact that there is a sizeable audience for films with older protagonists,' admits Daily Mail film critic Chris Tookey.

'Film-makers are starting to realise there is a big market to be tapped, and that relatively low-budget films which may not attract a huge youthful audience on the first weekend of their release may nonetheless be more profitable in the long term than big budget blockbusters aimed at the under-30s.'

Acting naturally

Veteran actor Dustin Hoffman, 75, director of the upcoming Quartet, asked his 60- and 70-something star actors to forget about acting and just be themselves. He said, 'We're all in this so-called third act of our lives, and what we feel about ourselves in terms of ageing, what we feel about our work, is what I’d like to see on the screen.'

Meanwhile, Dame Maggie Smith, who plays an ageing diva, is in no doubt about the film’s underlying message: 'It’s about surviving, and surviving with dignity. I think people will take away the idea that there may be life after a certain age. It’s definitely not a time to despair.'

Producer Finola Dwyer began working on Quartet before the success of The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel and The King’s Speech and was worried that it might not find an audience. 'Now I feel a lot more hopeful because there does appear to be an audience for these films out there, according to the statistics.'

For Finola, it was a personal crusade, too. 'I wanted to make Quartet an aspirational film in terms of the retirement home itself. I’d recently gone through the business of finding a home for my mother in New Zealand and it was depressing seeing all these places, the way they were furnished and set up. I despaired of what was on offer.

'The one in the film, Beecham House, is definitely somewhere you feel you’d like to finish up. I hope the film will spark a debate about the quality of care homes and the way they present themselves.'

No rose-tinted glasses

Meanwhile, Michael Haneke’s award-winning film Amour, which opened in cinemas in November 2012, is an uncompromising look at a married couple.

Both are retired music teachers in their 80s, trying to come to terms with frailty and death. Its truthfulness and lack of Hollywood gloss makes it harrowing yet engrossing.

Asked why he thought so few films dealt with end-of-life issues, director Haneke told one interviewer, 'I think lots of people are afraid a film dealing with the prospect of death won’t sell. For me, Amour is about how you deal with the suffering of someone you love, not about whether or not they are going to die.'

The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel - posterBaby boomer boom

There seems to have been a change of heart even in Hollywood where studio executives are talking about the baby boomer generation who grew up going to the pictures.

'At times Hollywood forgets them, but invariably comes back and realises how steady and dependable they are,' says Rob Moore, vice-chairman of Paramount Pictures.

On their way across the Atlantic next year are new films starring Billy Crystal and Bette Midler, both now in their 60s, Arnold Schwarzenegger, 65, Jane Fonda, 74, and Barbra Streisand, 70.

While we baby boomers may not be interested in crude, campus high-jinks or robotic alpha males blowing each other to smithereens, we're more than likely to turn out for an intelligent yarn well told by actors we admire and respect, hence the massive box office success of The King’s Speech, War Horse and The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel.

Chris Tookey of the Daily Mail puts it down to the power of the baby boomer generation: 'Some are still in positions of power and influence within Hollywood. Even more have grown into relatively affluent consumers demanding to see films they find involving.'

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