Nowhere is the media’s double standard in aging between male and female more glaringly obvious than at that annual glamathon on the French Riviera, the Cannes Film Festival.
This year the main Cannes jury was headed by writer-director-producers the Coen Brothers, the first time two people have shared this role. The most lauded film of Joel and Ethan Coen, aged 60 and 57 respectively, is called No Country for Old Men. Yet there is certainly No Problem for Old Men in the movies these days. They are playing what have been called “geri-action” heroes well into their sixties (Liam Neeson, Sylvester Stallone) and even seventies (Harrison Ford).
Perks for aging male movie stars include wives and lovers young enough to be their daughters. Whereas a new word, cougar, had to be coined to describe the seemingly disconcerting phenomenon of older women with younger men.
“Is it so horrible to grow old?” asked former model and actress Isabella Rossellini at a Cannes focus on women in film. Now 62, she headed another of the festival’s juries.
Aging is apparently not an issue for Cannes royalty like Rossellini, whose late mother, Swedish actress Ingrid Bergman, brands the 2015 festival’s posters. “I don’t look at myself in the mirror and say, ‘I wish I was 20 years old’,” claimed Rossellini. She said she has never experienced age discrimination, glossing over her removal as Lancome cosmetics model for being too old at 44
Fortunately there was an antidote to this smug lack of sisterly solidarity around the issue of ageism and sexism in the media. Interestingly, it came from a male filmmaker.
Jonathan King is with a media company that makes entertainment aiming to inspire social change. Fueled by the billions earned from internet auction firm eBay, Participant Media produces feature films on social topics like race relations (The Help) and geopolitics (Syriana), and documentaries on issues like climate change (An Inconvenient Truth) and government surveillance (Citizenfour).
Speaking to a Cannes gathering of fellow producers, King said that if he hadn’t been reading up on getting older, his company might never have decided to make The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel film about aging. “I thought to myself, ‘There just might be an issue here in the changing demographics of aging’.”
The unprecedented growth rate of older people worldwide is an issue that has often been highlighted on this blog. King’s awareness of this trend launched the first, and now second film starring octogenarians Judy Dench and Maggie Smith frolicking in India.
“We’d never make a movie just to make money,” King maintained. Luckily for his company, many movies about and for older people have been money-spinners since the fast-growing 55+ demographic now rivals the 18-34 market. So much so that the Marigold Hotel sequel outperformed Fifty Shades of Grey at the UK box office, leading to a Guardian newspaper headline: “Age Before Bondage”.
The demographics that initially sparked interest in making movies on aging have brought surprising profitability. Retired people go to matinee screenings when cinemas tend to be empty of youth, so these films often enjoy sold-out afternoon shows. Another advantage of older audiences is that they are not buying less cinema tickets in favour of internet downloading, but remain stalwart supporters of the silver screen.
Participant Media sees the older market as still underserved, so look out for lots more movies with themes around aging. “Every year I want to make what I call a ‘Movie for Mom’,” vowed King.
The best review at Cannes for a woman Of A Certain Age was for veteran actress and activist Jane Fonda. “Sexy at 77? You’d better believe it!” announced People magazine when Fonda, who featured in two Cannes films, walked the red carpet.
The self-described “oldest living brand ambassador for skin care in world history” has not been dumped by L’Oreal cosmetics despite her age. (Nor for admitting to plastic surgery).
Fonda was characteristically outspoken when asked about unequal pay between men and women in film. “It’s unacceptable and we must be active in trying to create gender equity in terms of pay,” she said firmly. “Another thing that’s missing is older women in the media.”
Fonda confesses that she wasn’t always this confident about aging. “Owning who you are, being good in your skin, it takes a long time to get there,” she admitted when she turned 75. “It took me over 60 years.” If this is something we can all look forward to one of these days, getting old may be worth the long journey.