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?”
Greenfield-Saunders’s answer is that, at an age when boomers should be embracing their present, “we’re stuck chasing our pasts,” he said. “We’re trying to go back to the days when we were young, when we felt no responsibilities, when you never thought about what you were doing the following week.” So thrilled were we with how cool we were, he suggests, we haven’t figured out how to – or wanted to – move on. Look at Madonna. She had the zeitgeist in her yoga-strong grip; she could have shown us a new way to be 50, or at least given it a new sheen. Instead, she got a $30,000 facelift, and hung onto her disco shorts like grim death.
I have noticed small glimmers of change, however. The first is a TV commercial (as is often the case), for the Toyota Venza sport vehicle: A twentysomething girl sits at her computer and disses her parents because they’re not on Facebook and therefore have no life. Meanwhile, said parents are out whooping it up on mountain bikes with fellow aging adventurers. (Interestingly, the ad has elicited a flood of negative responses from irked millennials – on the Internet.)
I’ve also seen a few films in which the older set is asserting itself, if only a little. In To Rome with Love, Alec Baldwin plays the sage voice of experience to stumbling twentysomethings Greta Gerwig, Jesse Eisenberg and Ellen Page. (Baldwin’s wife is played by Carol Alt, one of About Face’s former supermodels.) In Bruce Beresford’s Peace, Love & Misunderstanding, which came out last month, a hippie mama (Jane Fonda) tries to show her uptight attorney daughter (Catherine Keener) how to love life.
In The Expendables 2, due on Aug. 17, a holster-full of grizzled former action heroes (iconic enough that the poster lists only their last names: Stallone, Schwarzeneggar, Willis et al.) prove that they can still kick butt while making terrible puns. And in Oliver Stone’s Savages, characters played by the seasoned pros Salma Hayek, Benicio Del Toro and (especially) John Travolta are funnier, faster, slyer and even sexier than those played by their half-their-age costars – Blake Lively, Aaron Johnson and Taylor Kitsch – who, though gorgeous, just don’t emit the same dangerous, knowing spark.
Interestingly, the group that seems most open to exploring the power of fiftysomethings is an unexpected one: TV creators and filmmakers 30 and under. In addition to Lena Dunham’s series, there’s the recent indie Lola Versus, written by Daryl Wein, 28, and Zoe Lister-Jones, 30: The titular twentysomething heroine (Gerwig) is dumped by her fiancé, weeps over the loss of her conventional dreams, and panics at the thought of living life untethered. It’s her cool parents (Debra Winger and Bill Pullman, swathed in chic scarves and jackets) who tell her to lighten up, have a party, and exult in exploring her options.
In the current relationship dramedy Ruby Sparks, written by the 28-year-old Zoe Kazan, the hero, Calvin (Paul Dano) is an uptight writer paralyzed by early success, who feels washed up at 29. By contrast, his mother (Annette Bening) is having the time of her life: Once a preppy-looking golfer, she is now a caftan-wearing, ringlet-headed free spirit who coos maternal encouragement while puffing on pot, and is clearly enjoying sybaritic delight in a stunning, woodsy home with her second husband, a maker of rough-hewn twig furniture played with roaring charm by Antonio Banderas.
“A lot of Calvin’s issues are about being unable to let go,” Kazan told me recently. “He’s unable to just enjoy things. Control trumps pleasure for him. I thought it was interesting to give him a mother who’s absolutely in the total pleasure of her life. She’s living just for happiness, and he’s unable to accept that.”
It seems to me that these millennials are envying the boomers for the very things boomers don’t want to let go of: their economic power, once-limitless job opportunities, and sexual freedoms. Growing up in a recession-prone, post-Internet, post-AIDS era, millennials long to feel the power they know their parents once possessed.
What filmmakers of any age need to realize if they want to reach boomers is that the most appealing, vital people, on screen and off, are the ones who do two things: tell the truth and keep moving forward. “The models who went on to do other things as they got older are the happiest and most confident,” Greenfield-Saunders said. “Lisa Taylor [who survived a cocaine addiction] is comfortable with her age, partly because she’s just happy that she’s alive.”
The woman who best sums up this idea doesn’t appear in Greenfield-Saunders’s film at all. Verushka, the 60s-era supermodel and star of Blow-Up, was the only subject to turn him down. “She wasn’t interested,” he said. “She said, ‘I don’t care about that period of my life. I’m an artist now, I have nothing to say about the past.’” No matter what the age, nothing is more fascinating than momentum.