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Film Old is the new Cool: The silver screen is finally living up to its name

For years, it’s driven me crazy how movies and television series depicted people over 60. Often, the characters were dying, which was either grim (Amour, Iris) or patronizingly fantastical (Cocoon). If they showed signs of life, they were reckless or desperate (Going in Style, The Bucket List, The Cool Kids). They were prudish about sex (Hope Springs, Book Club). Or, if they were still sexual, it was played for hooting laughter (The Golden Girls, Hot in Cleveland, It’s Complicated). There were three choices: grey (Grey Gardens), golden (On Golden Pond) or grumpy (Grumpy Old Men).

This makes no sense. People who are now in their 60s were born in the 1950s – which means they were in their 20s in the 1970s, the acknowledged decade of libertine excess. They did a lot of drugs, had a lot of sex, saw their share of illness and death. They went to universities in record numbers, protested governments, changed laws, got woke. They came out, made families, screwed around, got divorced, got remarried. Their lives were rich with everyday drama. And though this may come as a shock to the desirable under-25 cohort, most adults are, on the inside, the same person they’ve been since about the age of 7. They don’t suddenly become old, to themselves, because the calendar says they are. So why in our entertainments are they routinely reduced to twinkly?

It’s especially puzzling since boomers have one undeniable thing going for them: economic power. Disposable income, and leisure time in which to spend it. They’re the last cohort loyal to old media, in favour of buying cinema tickets and against illegal downloading. Why wasn’t Hollywood falling all over itself to make stuff for them?

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But lately, just a scooch, I’m feeling a change. I’m seeing signs that, in the right hands, Old is the new Cool.

Take The Kominsky Method (Netflix), a tidy eight-episode series about two long-time pals, played by Michael Douglas, 74, and Alan Arkin, 84. It’s not perfect: There are too many prostate jokes; the freeze on Ann-Margret’s face is discouraging; and Douglas doesn’t need a scarf and a jaunty cap and sunglasses and stubble to prove he’s hip.

Alan Arkin and Michael Douglas in The Kominsky Method.

Mike Yarish/Netflix

Arkin is masterful, though, the definition of unforced and unhurried cool. There’s a raucous doctor’s exam that Danny DeVito conducts on Douglas, which is heightened by knowing that the two are lifelong friends. (The between-take hilarity must have been epic.) Most importantly, there are wised-up moments that in their honesty feel fresh.

“You’re not madly in love with me,” Douglas says to a new flame, played by Nancy Travis.

“You amuse me,” she says.

“I’ll take it,” he replies.

Also unforced and unhurried: The Old Man and the Gun, about Forrest Tucker (Robert Redford), a career bank robber, written and directed by David Lowery, the undeniably cool auteur of Ain’t Them Bodies Saints and A Ghost Story. Lowery, 37, is clear-eyed about his characters’ stage in life – the film begins with the elegiac sentence, “This story is also mostly true,” suggesting lifetimes of stories gone before. But he shows us the mature pleasures to be found in languor.

The dialogue he gives to Redford and his co-stars Sissy Spacek, Tom Waits and Danny Glover is every bit as careful and singular as that he’s given to Rooney Mara and Casey Affleck in his earlier films. The characters are wry and itchy, lonely and self-aware. They say, “My bones hurt,” but they also say, “Let’s show off,” and the newscasters and cops who underestimate or mock them are proven wrong. There’s a sweet nod to The Sting, and a shot of young, beautiful Redford from the 1966 film The Chase that will give you a slap of mortality. But mostly, you’re aware of how different this film feels, because Lowery never condescends. That’s rare, and it’s a relief.

More signs: The recent deaths of the directors Bernardo Bertolucci and Nicolas Roeg and the screenwriter William Goldman prompted an outpouring of praise and gratitude for the ways in which they changed the culture of their day, and made the best things about our current culture possible. The 72-year-old writer/director Paul Schrader (Taxi Driver, Raging Bull) is currently raking in screenwriting awards for First Reformed; Liam Neeson, 66, is having a good season, with Widows and The Ballad of Buster Scruggs; Steven Spielberg, 71, just created a role for Rita Moreno, 86, in his upcoming West Side Story remake; and Spike Lee, 61, is being lauded for BlacKkKlansman, as urgent a film as any in his oeuvre. (The hippest cameo in it belongs to Harry Belafonte, 91.)

As well, the hottest documentaries of 2018 are about people 60 and beyond. There’s Westwood: Punk, Icon, Activist, about the designer Vivienne Westwood, 77, who’s lived as vividly as a person can; Springsteen on Broadway (coming to Netflix Dec. 16), which is like listening to an evening of your grandpa’s reminiscences and reckonings – if your grandpa were a 69-year-old musician/god; and Won’t You Be My Neighbor, a.k.a. the Mr. Rogers doc, which I dare you to get through dry-eyed.

Finally, there’s the Ruth Bader Ginsburg industrial complex. The 85-year-old U.S. Supreme Court justice is the subject of a hit documentary, RBG; a new feature film, On the Basis of Sex, opening Christmas Day; a recurring Kate McKinnon character on Saturday Night Live – her Ginsburg is a baller; and countless social-media memes.

Goldman, Ginsburg, Rogers et. al. are having this moment, I think, because they possess an elusive quality prized by millennials: authenticity. The 60-pluses were there at the beginning of New Hollywood, second-wave feminism and public television. They had a voice, but they also had a battle – which, reawakened under Trump, is newly relevant. The log line for Westwood couldn’t make that plainer: “She fights to maintain her integrity, her principles, and her legacy.”

Beating below all that, is time. The languor of Redford, Arkin and Fred Rogers is a quiet but forceful argument for slowness, ongoing conversation, eye contact. For young people, that slowness is a luxury they don’t have. The richness of the 60-plus experience – especially the kind of experience that makes one more expansive, less judgmental, kinder – is something we’re all thirsting for. Why do you think the artist and director Julian Schnabel, 67, hired Willem Dafoe, 63, to play Vincent van Gogh in his new film At Eternity’s Gate – even though van Gogh died at 37?

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“What we see on screen is part of who we become,” Rogers says in Won’t You Be My Neighbor. When he died in 2003, at 74, he was still fighting to ensure that included goodness. So the idea that he’s now a hero – he and these other cultural figures, who in the last third of their lives represent something, because they still stand for something, real – well, I’ll take it.

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