In a medium as youth-obsessed as cinema, even stories of aging often address the problem of simply not being young anymore. This can take a variety of forms, the most potent of which often involves a character being forced to face their actions as they realize that the socially acceptable age for such behavior, even an entire profession, has either passed entirely or is nearing that point. The film in which they are starring may have varying perspectives on the matter, but there’s little question that everything (and, more often, everyone) in their environment is severely condemning them. In honor of recent releases Fading Gigolo and Bad Words, here are ten great movies about people who are too old for this shit.
10.) The Major and the Minor (Billy Wilder, 1942)
Boasting one of the more perverse premises of Production-Code-Era Hollywood, here is a film about a military officer (Ray Milland) who falls in love with a young woman (Ginger Rogers) whom he believes to be a twelve-year-old girl. This being a screwball comedy, the complications pile up, forcing Rogers to maintain the ridiculous facade, all the while feeling all manner of warm feelings towards the office himself. Rogers is quite literally too old for this whole scene, having only begun the ruse as a way of dodging a higher train fare she couldn’t afford, while Milland’s aging problem is more inherently obvious.
9.) The Wrestler (Darren Aronofksy, 2008)
Nowhere does one’s advancing age become more apparent than in the realm of athletics, and the way one must push oneself well past one’s limits makes such an arena (if you’ll pardon the pun) the perfect lens of exploration for a guy as obsessed with the outer boundaries of human capacity as Darren Aronofsky. Mickey Rourke stars as Randy “The Ram” Robinson, a former professional wrestler now relegated to independent circuits that, besides offering far less in the way of glory and money, encourage a level of violence that would do in even a young man. Rourke’s own contentious relationship with his own body might serve as a metatextual element, but it also lends the actual film the very real horror it needs.
8.) The Last Laugh (F.W. Murnau, 1924)
The Last Laugh is something of a challenge, auteuristically speaking, containing as it does one of the more egregious and absurd instances of a tacked-on happy ending. Executives at the German film studio UFA weren’t too keen on the extraordinarily depressing finale Murnau and screenwriter Carl Mayer concocted, so they created something so wholly ridiculous only the most desperate audience members could possibly accept it. The film that comes before, however, about a doorman (Emil Jannings) who prides himself as the face of a magnificent hotel, is deemed to have aged out of his role and demoted to the status of a washroom attendant, is a towering work.
7.) Applause (Rouben Mamoulian, 1929)
Kitty (Helen Morgan) is a burlesque star hoping for a better life for her daughter, April (Joan Peers), when she sends her away from the seedy dance halls to a boarding school. Unfortunately, Kitty is still trapped onstage, succumbing to alcoholism in the face of her fading looks and increasingly limited appeal to the customers. Applause came out at the dawn of the sound era, and was Mamoulian’s first film, yet it feels like one made at least ten years later by a master of the medium, so free is his camera.
6.) Fantastic Mr. Fox (Wes Anderson, 2009)
Wes Anderson has always been preoccupied (to a fault, I’ve sometimes heard from a very few select people) with the rather thin line separating children and adults, and how the traits of the former are often carried into one’s later life. At the beginning of his sole animated film to date, Mr. Fox (voiced by George Clooney) promises to give up stealing chickens upon learning that he’ll soon be a father. A couple years down the line, he’s starting to get the old itch again, and before long (the film’s only 87 minutes, after all), he’s right back in the coop with a bird between his teeth. And, well, the consequences are not all so sunny. But Anderson deeply understands the appeal of youthful play amidst the responsibilities inherent in one’s adult years, and the desire to find some way to make one fit with the other.
5.) The Life of Oharu (Kenji Mizoguchi, 1952)
The Life of Oharu is one of many, many, many Japanese films of the postwar era to explore the degradation of prostitution, the possibility of escape, and the ultimate resignation to one’s fate. What makes Mizoguchi’s melodrama especially affecting is that he shows, moment by moment, the many instances in which his title character’s humanity was stripped from her, leaving her to fend only on her own as a prostitute, and now, due to her advancing age, she can’t even do that job.
4.) Monkey Business (Howard Hawks, 1952)
Cary Grant plays Dr. Barnaby Fulton (what a great name), an absentminded professor cooking up a formula to reverse the adverse effects of aging. After a mix-up involving – what else – a chimpanzee, Barnaby ends up taking some of his own medicine, and it works better than he could have ever predicted, stripping away not only the physical ailments that have plagued his of late, but also the various emotional and behavioral traits that a person might devise past their teenage years. So before long, he’s trimmed his hair down to a crew cut and is taking his boss’s curvy secretary (Marilyn Monroe) for a ride in his brand-new convertible. And this is even before his wife (Ginger Rogers) gets a dose of the stuff. Perhaps youth isn’t everything we imagine it to be after all.
3.) You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet (Alain Resnais, 2012)
A group of French actors, all playing some version of themselves, gather to watch a taped presentation of a new version of a play in which they once performed. Caught up in the excitement of the text and the memories it elicits, they take to an imagined stage themselves and start performing right alongside their video counterparts. Resnais has continuously sought opportunities for his aging company of regular actors to play more youthful roles, and here he found the perfect outlet, allowing his sixty-three-year-old wife to play, magnificently, a part written for a girl in her late teens. These actors may be too old for this material, but you wouldn’t know it from the result.
2.) All That Heaven Allows & Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (Douglas Sirk, 1955 & Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1974)
There comes a certain age at which people – women in particular – are essentially asked to stop living. Regardless of circumstance, the expectation goes that whatever thrills or joys or passions you were to find in life, you are expected to have done so by the time you reach thirty or have children, whichever comes first. So it is with Cary Scott (Jane Wyman) in Sirk’s 1955 film, and Emmi (Brigitte Mira) in Fassbinder’s 1974 feature, inspired by Sirk’s. Both single women, both embark on new romances with much younger men, much to the disapproval of their children and neighbors. Emmi’s situation is complicated by the fact that her lover is Arab; Cary’s, by the fact of her lover’s status as her former gardener. Better that each should stick to their kind, if they have to stick anywhere at all. Sirk and Fassbinder each wring passionate films about longing, isolation, and the tricky nature of independence.
1.) When a Woman Ascends the Stairs (Mikio Naruse, 1960)
Keiko (Naruse regular Hideko Takamine) is a young widow who has managed to make ends meet as a hostess at a Ginza nightclub. Realizing that her appeal to men is waning as she enters her thirties, she embarks on a plan to open a bar of her own, one that, in tried and true melodramatic fashion, will be met with innumerable complications both practical and emotional. Naruse remains something of an unsung force in postwar Japanese cinema, but this film, along with a dozen other near-masterpieces, should really be held up as essential works.