Aging on the big screen

Doris Roberts won five Emmys in her lifetime, four of them for her role as Marie Barone on “Everybody Loves Raymond.” The peak of her career, and her highest earnings, came in her 70s. Unusual for anyone and nearly unheard of by Hollywood standards.

Roberts, who died earlier this month, frequently talked about ageism in Hollywood.

“When I was a young women, some of the most powerful and popular actresses were women way in their forties, women such as Joan Crawford, Bette Davis, Katherine Hepburn and Barbara Stanwyck, who continued to work, getting better and better in their craft as they got older, and many of my friends, talented actresses in the 40 to 60-year-old range, are forced to live on unemployment or welfare, because of the scarcity of roles for women in that age bracket” Roberts said at Senate hearing about the image of aging in media and marketing in 2002.

Aside from a token grandparent or wise elder, why is there nobody with grey hair on the big screen? I hoped it was driven by million-dollar box office revenues and sexy marketing campaigns.

So, when the 2016 Cleveland International Film Festival (CIFF) lineup was announced, I was optimistic. The festival has grown in the last several years and continues to break records. There were 192 feature films and 213 short films from 72 countries. CIFF groups films into sidebar categories that cover interests and topics, including African diaspora, family films, Jewish and Israeli visions, female empowerment and LGBT themes. Unfortunately, aging didn’t make the cut.

I searched the lineup for keywords like aging, elderly and senior. I retrieved a few results, ordered my tickets and went to the theater.

I liked what I saw. The stories were deftly told with moving performances, beautiful backgrounds and high production. But thematically, I had seen most of those stories before: people reminiscing about bygone days, coming to terms with their past decisions, death and mortality.

Aging is an unavoidable and universal fact of life. And yet, the films and shorts struggled with the narrative.

The unexpected bright spot was “Death Loves Life,” a five-minute animated short about an emo boy, Death, falling in love with vibrant and radiant Life. Filmmakers Clara Lehmann and Jonathan Lacocque were present for a question and answer session after a screening. They described their creative process, and how the decision to animate the story gave them freedom to address the topic of death without being grim.

“We wanted to create a warm and comforting way to show death isn’t frightening,” Lehmann told me when I trailed her into the hallway. “We don’t see the beauty when we die.”

Lehmann and Lacocque are married with 2-and-a-half-year-old twins. Their girls have seen the short several times and like the animation, color and warmth. Lehmann wonders when the girls will understand what death is and how that might change their opinion of the story.

“We are hoping to make people comfortable with the topic and maybe start a conversation later down the road,” Lacocque says.

I think a lack of films about aging at the CIFF is an even bigger problem than Hollywood. It’s a reflection of our youth-driven society. We don’t want to concede to our invincibility and address our own mortality, let alone see it on screen.

Roberts was trying to broach the topic with studio executives back in 2002. She developed a project with an Emmy Award winning writer/producer. He refused pitch the project with Roberts for fear of age discrimination.

“When they see my gray hair, honey, we are finished, he said,” Roberts said in her testimony. “Why do they think that a man in his fifties does not have anything to say about love or youth or relationships?

“He has a lot to say if anyone would listen.”

By writing off older adults, we’re missing out some really great stories.

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