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Does Hollywood Need More Franchises About Old People?

on March 07, 2015, 10:00am

The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel opens this weekend, and Sarah Kurchak and Blake Goble decided to have a little chat about the notion of “Elderly Franchises” and how they might be more viable than you think.

Blake Goble (BG): Before we get too far, I just want to make sure we’re using the right term for adults over the age of say, 60. Is that considered “old?” Is there a better label for it? There’s “elder adults” or “the elderly” or “geriatric.” My grandmother mocked my youth not long ago only for me to jokingly retaliate by calling her “feeble.” She didn’t take too kindly to that, and I apologized to the old bird promptly. I guess I’m just being careful because I want to talk about old movie stars with respect. With apologies to the older cast members of The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, we’ve got to talk about their advanced ages (and they’re all available on Google, so it’s fair game!) when discussing their latest project. Judi Dench is now 80. Maggie Smith, too. Bill Nighy a lean 65. Richard Gere, as well.

They’re all of a certain older age, and they’re all starring in a sequel to the modestly successful (at $10 million to produce, it damn well should have been) and very dear 2012 rom-com about British retirees living it up in India. Granted, plenty of that film’s essence comes from basic geezer humor and cross-cultural consternation before falling in love with the country, but it’s still a cute, earnest, breezy jaunt. It had great characters and a sappy but kind mood to it.

But most impressively, it made enough to merit a sequel. A sequel populated by well-respected and much older talents.

Think about that for a second.

This is a sequel that is not based on a YA book or a comic. There are no commercially dependable, sexy, young leads to market here. It’s a sequel, just happy to be around, that happens to be coming out with a quality cast of a certain age, with female leads, and only modest familiarity.

I mean, it’s not unheard of (Cocoon: The Return, The Odd Couple Part 2, Grumpier Old Men), but it’s certainly rare. Sarah, did I forget my Friday pills, or am I seeing a possible trend, or better yet, opportunity here?

the second best exotic marigold hotel poster Does Hollywood Need More Franchises About Old People?

Sarah Kurchak (SK):  I was so disturbed by the notion that you might consider 60 geriatric that I just spent a good 20 minutes going down a ridiculous rabbit hole and trying to get a consensus on the proper old age cutoff. And now that I’ve consulted the dictionary, a World Health Organization paper detailing how to define old age in relation to research they’re doing on geriatric care in Africa, and, um, Yahoo Answers, I can safely say that it’s largely cultural, and depending on the context in which a person ages, they will enter their geriatric years at some point between the ages of 55 and 75. Which tells me nothing, really, except that the very concept of age and aging is so toxic and fraught in our society that I’m already starting to freak out about being called elderly when I’m 60 (in 2042).

To actually bring this back to the point of conversation, I can safely say that at least part of my age panic is pop culture-induced. There aren’t exactly a plethora of vital old people – women in particular – in our modern arts and entertainment, which contributes to the notion that seniors are stodgy and boring. That might be true in some cases, but it’s such a limiting way to look at the world. And it’s a limiting way to tell stories.

I think The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel struck a chord because it was a movie that realized that: 1. Pensioners are still human beings with lives every bit as silly and moving and entertaining as they ever were; and 2. Audiences will always want more Judi Dench and Maggie Smith, because they’re brilliant (and Tom Wilkinson and Bill Nighy are pretty OK, too).

It might be too early to call it a trend, but there’s certainly the potential for one. It’s also a huge opportunity both financially and artistically. Baby boomers aren’t getting any younger, after all, and they’ve got all sorts of money to throw at films that haven’t forgotten that they exist as more than cutesy grandma and dirty old man window dressing. And there’s a lot of room for creativity here, because it’s largely uncharted territory outside of the fledgling franchises you mentioned above.

The biggest challenge, I think, is going to be avoiding the sad youth-clinging clichés of sad romps like Last Vegas and Space Cowboys.

BG: Not only that, but old people as the butt of jokes because of old age. God the Lipitor jokes in Last Vegas or It’s Complicated.

Take one of the sturdiest and most daring films about old age in recent memory, Venus, with Peter O’Toole. It was the last acting nomination he received before passing away in 2013, and it was about an old cad actor living it up with a teenager. Now, while it has requisite hallmarks of an old-man film (pill jokes, a story about clinging to youth, a grim reality third act), it still had something you don’t see enough of: an old guy having the time of his life. Extra points for the lack of makeup and the fact that O’Toole, a seasoned vet and handsome actor, really looked his age. And people dug it. Same with About Schmidt and Nebraska. And only in Nebraska did we get a proud, endearing female lead character. June Squibb’s Oscar-nominated performance as Kate showed an 80-year-old woman flashing a tombstone, not just as a cheap gag, but a great joke of immodest, no-bull empowerment. The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel had real plotting to it. It wasn’t entirely comprised of old-age beats, which is kind of why we welcome the sequel.

That’s the hurdle. Can you make movies about older people just being that age? There’s room for wheelchair jokes and nostalgia, but keep it dignified, even a little proud.

Sarah, is there room to franchise characters like that? I mean, I’d more than welcome Golden Girls or Murder She Wrote-style movie series. I know there’s a cheap Sex and the City joke in there somewhere, but, you hear what I’m thinking?

SK: You know, there’s probably untapped comedy potential related to Lipitor, but, like any age-related humor, it takes a measure of skill we don’t often see in mainstream or mainstream-adjacent movie making about older people. I believe the trick to a good story that deals with seniors is that age must be an influencing factor, but it can’t be the driving force of the joke or the narrative. “They’re OLD! Lol!” is not a story. “They’re old, but they’re still virile/vital/lovable old scamps” is limited. “They’re old and…” is when you really get somewhere.

This is why Venus and Nebraska work so well and why there’s enough material to make more than one The Best Exotic Marigold film. They’re stories of fairly well-rounded characters whose actions and foibles are influenced by their age as much as they’re influenced by everything else going on in their lives. There are old-age jokes along the way, but the characters themselves aren’t the punchlines. Forget dignity and pride, they just need humanity.

BG: Well, yes and no. Yes, great characters in Venus or Nebraska merit more stories, but those kinds of films don’t beg for sequels like Grumpy Old Men. The framework doesn’t readily allow for continued exploits. But, yes, the characterization and desire to spend time with characters is key.

SK: The bigger hurdle, which you’ve touched on by bringing up June Squibb’s Kate in Nebraska, and the fact that there’s a Sex and the City joke lurking in any conversation about old women on screen, is whether or not people are willing to both make and see films about older women as more than half-assed jokes and window dressing. Marigold makes it work, and the Cocoon films, from what I recall, were OK in terms of gender equality (although I refuse to think about Cocoon too much; I had separation anxiety as a child, and those films convinced me that my grandparents were going to abandon me for aliens). Nebraska was incredibly refreshing, because Kate and her motives tapped into both the stubbornness and the complete lack of shit-giving that comes with age in a way that gave her purpose. But for every Kate, there are multiple Grumpy Old Men movies and Last Vegas-type bro comedies on Viagra that reassure men that they will still be virile and vital after 70, but leave women wondering if they’ll still exist after 55.

Much like you, I’d love to see a big screen franchise – or even a standalone picture – along the lines of a Golden Girls, but are we in the minority here? And even if there are millions of us willing to watch it, are there enough people willing to make them? To even take a chance on them to begin with?

BG: Remember when Helen Mirren’s Prime Suspect, the amazing serial crime show got rebooted in America with the younger, sassier Maria Bello (who’s great, but come on NBC)? Not to cast assumptions, but maybe that’s a factor in Best Exotic Marigold Hotel’s ability to exist: the British are a little more respectful of age. Look how long they’ve let the Queen hang around!

But that leads me to an idea. I’m going to throw out another hypothetical, free of charge for studios. This is the best shot at an elder franchise with some dignity. Find detective/crime/mystery franchises with older women, and give them a chance. Give the Miss Marple books a shot at a franchise, or better yet (and more obscurely), the Sarah Peretsky, V.I. Warshawski books another shot at a big screen trilogy. Look at how studios are so hot to trot for popular properties (there are like, five Frankensteins in production right now); a witty femme detective series is in order.

Miss Marple has been in film and television for years (Geraldine McEwan, Margaret Rutheford, Joan Hickson, and so on), so what about the Guy Ritchie treatment for an extraordinarily clever woman? Julie Christie or Vanessa Redgrave as Miss Marple, for, I dunno, Edgar Wright? Tell me I’m dreaming, but this could sell!

SK: Speaking of the Brits and Helen Mirren in particular, they also gave us Calendar Girls, which is another decent template for a charming older romp that I think could be replicated pretty well into a sequel or two.

But back to your idea: I would be all over that. I think the reason older female detectives work so well, especially across the pond (although Jessica Fletcher’s stateside television efforts in Murder She Wrote deserve a shout-out here, too) is that it’s kind of amazing what you can accomplish when society has already written you off as a sweet and potentially doddering old lady. Combine that with the increasing lack of shit-giving that comes with age, and you’ve got almost limitless opportunities in terms of both plot and character development. I wonder if Stephanie Cole is up to a mystery thriller or three on the big screen. She’s still got a fair amount of goodwill in the US and UK thanks to her time on Doc Martin, and her delivery on the BBC Radio Show Cabin Pressure is so consistently withering that I would love to see her bring bad guys to justice and tear a strip off of everyone around her in the process.

This is just one great example of the kind of opportunity you were talking about when we started this discussion. We’ve got an aging population, which means both an aging audience and aging creative class. There’s always going to be demand for hot young things on the screen – and I think we’ll all continue to watch that as we grow up/old – but there can and should be room for other stories, too. If they’re written, acted, and filmed by people who want to explore their post-retirement years in a way that isn’t gimmicky, overly nostalgic, or overly defensive, I think there’s a lot of potential for both financial and artistic success here.

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