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The Golden Years on the Silver Screen

An Essay by Robert Yahnke

Cinema acts as a great mirror of our cultural attitudes, yet filmmakers often idealize older adult characters on the silver screen. Most likely these characters come across as wise, courageous elders who are adept and honored in the community. They have a lot to teach the younger people around them, and they serve as mentors and guides for youth and the middle aged alike.

During the movie, the elders might be dealing with a personal issue of their own - reconciling a conflict or bringing peace to an intergenerational relationship. Yet they are able to tap into a reservoir of inner strength and hardihood to handle the situation.

Through these depictions of the elderly, filmmakers are imagining a world the way it could be —not necessarily the way it is. Of course, not all elders are complete people without personal baggage. But through these characters, we see an idealized version of what life might be like for us as we age.

For example, in The Queen, Oscar-nominated Helen Mirren transforms herself from an out-of-touch monarch dealing with the aftermath of Princess Diana's death to one who has empathy for her former daughter-in-law. She learns to reconnect with her people, who are grieving the death of the "people's princess," by begrudgingly holding a state funeral for Diana.

In Rocky Balboa, Sylvester Stallone revisits his very familiar boxing character in later middle age. Rocky is an effective character because he allows himself to be portrayed as a caricature of his former self. In the process, the audience sympathizes with him and others who are trying to relive the shining moments from their own lives.

Often seniors in film embark on elderquests, a term coined by Charles Nicholas from Cambridge, Massachusetts, who earned a National Endowment for the Humanities grant to study aging in film and literature. Generally, the movie or story follows the senior through a quest for resolution to a conflict or completion of a significant task as part of his or her life's journey.

A wonderful portrayal of an elder embarking on an elderquest can be found in Trip to Bountiful (1985), the story of an older woman who wants to visit her childhood hometown of Bountiful, Texas, one more time before she dies. After months of plotting she makes the trip happen, despite the opposition of her son and daughter-in-law. In the end, the main character guides her son through a mid-life crisis and completes her elderquest after enjoying one last trip home. Other examples of elderquests include About Schmidt (2002), Central Station (Brazil, 1998), and The Straight Story (1999).

Through films, we can learn how to make positive contributions throughout life. As movies depict plucky, wise, and complete older people who help the young people around them, we see a roadmap for our own later years. These older adults blaze the trail and show us there is more to be experienced - and accomplished—in late life.

Robert Yahnke has been a professor of film and the arts at the University of Minnesota for more than 30 years. The author of The Great Circle of Life: A Resource Guide to Films and Videos on Aging (1988), Yahnke focuses on the contributions of film and literature to gerontological education. He is the co-author with Richard M. Eastman of Aging in Literature: A Reader's Guide (1990) and Literature and Gerontology: A Research Guide (1995). February 2007

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