Of the many daring sex scenes in the HBO series Girls, written, directed by and starring Lena Dunham – she plays Hannah, an aspiring writer adrift in her 20s – arguably the most daring one features Hannah’s folks. All season long, Hannah and her comely peers got all kinds of laid, with varying degrees of enjoyment. But in an episode in which Hannah visits her long-married, university professor parents (played by Peter Scolari and Becky Ann Baker), the oldsters have a zesty, raunchy romp in the shower that puts the young ’uns to shame.
Until he slips and cracks his head, but that’s not the point. The point is, Dunham has enviable control over her show, and one of the many ideas she chose to dramatize is that fiftysomethings can be lustier, less inhibited and having more fun than their angst-riddled, quarter-life-crisis-suffering, millennial offspring.
Too bad the idea is such a radical one. Too many films aimed at the Baby Boom generation play infuriatingly coy about the cohort. I love the poster women for this genre, Meryl Streep and Diane Keaton; in real life, I have found them to be earthy, gutsy and honest. But put them in a relationship comedy, such as Something’s Gotta Give, It’s Complicated, or Because I Said So, and they go all dithery and weird, as if they have never had a sexual thought or seen themselves (or anyone else) naked.
The upcoming Hope Springs, due Aug. 8, is an especially egregious example. Streep and Tommy Lee Jones play a couple whose 31-year marriage has gone stale, and she attempts to zap it by weak-arming him into intensive couples therapy. Spoiler alert: It seems that all of their problems stem from the bedroom. But let’s do the math here: 31 years ago, it was 1981. These people would have been of legal age in the 1970s. Which means that, even though he’s an accountant and she sells mom clothes in a mall (don’t get me started on Streep’s hideous wardrobe), and even though they live in Omaha, chances are they’ve probably gotten down and dirty. But you would never know it by the way she flinches and flutters at the slightest whiff of phrases like “receiving oral sex” and “sexual fantasy.”
I find this completely baffling. Hope Springs director David Frankel (he worked well with Streep on The Devil Wears Prada), who is 53, also directed many episodes of Sex and the City and Entourage, two series that knew how to talk about (and depict) sex authentically. Its screenwriter, Vanessa Taylor, wrote episodes of Game of Thrones and Tell Me You Love Me, also no strangers to sex. Streep herself did a lovely job depicting long-married lustfulness opposite Stanley Tucci in Julie & Julia, where they clearly got it on a lot more than the young marrieds played by Amy Adams and Chris Messina. So why in this movie have they created characters who appear to be from, not Frankel’s generation, but his parents’? I mean come on, if there’s one thing the baby boomers knew how to do, it was romp around.
Clearly, there’s a 50-plus market to be mined by filmmakers. They are the last demographic of life-long, loyal moviegoers. They’re still willing to buy tickets for 2-D fare. Obviously studios would be remiss not to lob a few honest efforts their way. But that’s the key word: honest. Too many of the movies that do squeak through are dishonest – tone-deaf, wrong-headed, and condescending to the group they’re supposed to depict.
Why have the boomers not demanded better? They certainly weren’t shy about dominating the culture when they were in their 30s. Right now, for the first time in history, there are more humans in their 50s than in their 20s (I am one of them). So why have we ceded what should be considerable clout at the box office to the kids?
Timothy Greenfield-Saunders, the renowned photographer and documentary maker (HBO’s three-part series The Black List), has one theory. In his latest film, About Face: The Supermodels, Then and Now (which played at last spring’s Hot Docs festival, is now on HBO in the U.S. and will air on CBC’s The Passionate Eye in September), former fashion-world superstars including Isabella Rossellini, Beverly Johnson and Jerry Hall – literally, the faces of their generation – talk frankly about, among other topics, the loss of fame and power they experienced as they aged.
Rossellini sums it up: “As you grow older you don’t count any more,” she says. (Then she laughs.) As if concurring, a story about the doc in last Thursday’s New York Times described it with alarming words and phrases such as “still trying to be somebody” and “decaying beauty.”
“Isabella mentions that it didn’t use to be that way,” Greenfield-Saunders said in a phone interview this week. “It used to be that as you got older you were more appreciated for your wisdom. People would turn to you to handle a crisis or a difficult circumstance. That’s not the case any more, and she laments that. Jerry Hall talks about turning 50 and having a sense of achievement – she had a huge career, she raised a bunch of children, she married a rock star. She did a lot for a girl from Texas. She asks, Why shouldn’t we be appreciated for aging and having accomplished so much?”