By Matt Perry
California Health Report
When last Sunday’s Academy Awards gave its Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film to the French-language “Amour,” it was another indication that the stories of older adults are going mainstream.
In fact, the same night of the Oscars, all three of the screens at the state Capital’s historic Tower Theater were playing films about older adults. Showing alongside “Amour” – the tragic account of a wife who pleads with her husband to care for her after several health failures – were “Quartet” about four former musicians living in a retirement home, and “Stand Up Guys,” starring aging stickup men Al Pacino and Christopher Walken joining forces for one last hurrah.
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Topping all three of these films in popularity was another film chosen “Best Movie For Grownups” by the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) that reached a much larger audience and is today considered one of the most complex and richly satisfying portrayals ever of older adults.
“The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” follows seven aging British citizens in crisis who travel to India, where they find romance, meaning, and resolution to lives in their twilight.
With its Who’s Who of British actors – Judi Dench, Tom Wilkinson and Maggie Smith – the film was a surprise international box office hit.
“I can’t tell you how many times we were told that this film simply couldn’t make money, even in its best incarnation,” says screenwriter Ol Parker of “Marigold Hotel,” which has grossed over $46 million in the USA alone on an estimated budget of just $10 million. “Of all the things I’m proud of about Marigold Hotel… the greatest is that we proved them wrong. And hopefully helped open the gates for many more, and better, stories being told.”
The gates are opening, with one surprising addition to the oeuvre seen by more people during last month’s Super Bowl than all these other films combined.
The amusing yet controversial advertisement for Taco Bell begins with an elderly man being tucked in at a cozy retirement home. He flees the confines of institutional living and joins four rebel friends to swim, tattoo, and rave alongside partiers generations younger.
On the surface, “Marigold Hotel” and the Taco Bell ad couldn’t be more different.
The movie was directed with exquisite artistry by “Shakespeare in Love” helmsman John Madden, while the Taco Bell ad blasts a Spanish-language version of “We Are Young” that includes a provocative tryst between a grandma and frat boy who emerge sheepishly from a bathroom stall.
The ad ends with the Taco Bell slogan “Live Más” – “Live More.”
Some experts on aging criticized the ad for a common media failing: showing older adults acting like kids.
But the shocking truth is far more intriguing: “Marigold Hotel” and Taco Bell share a similar, welcome view of aging.
A scholar who coined the phrase “Gero-Punk” says ageism is shrouded in stereotypes, and anything that breaks through is progress.
“What is ageist about having real old people in the ad doing wild stuff?” asks Jennifer Sasser, who writes the Gero-Punk Project blog. “It seems to me that it would be ageist to suggest that old people wouldn’t do these things, that they’d be too bored or sick or frail or mindless to be interested in booty and junk food and transgression.”
In short, Taco Bell’s subversive ad tells the world that older adults are just like the rest of us.
“I very consciously wanted to write about people doing things, as opposed to old people doing things,” says Parker. “And if that breaks down any specific stereotypes in the process, then that’s a happy accident.”
A conversation with Taco Bell’s advertising agency echoes these sentiments.
“The important thing about this ad is that we put people in the ad – we didn’t put old people or young people in it,” says Jeffrey Blish, chief strategy officer for Deutsch L.A. “This is a mind set, not a demographic.”
The film and commercial celebrate the possibilities of life still remaining rather than dwelling on sickness or the past.
“Another obvious misconception (about aging is) that old age is all about grimness, despair and waiting for death,” says Parker. “There are so many laughs to be had, so much life yet to be lived.”
In short, our shifting priorities and declining agility do not have to squash our life force or future adventures.
“Before we left for home, Judi Dench described the experience of having gone to India as ‘life-changing,’ which I thought was a remarkable thing to say,” says Parker. “Because for anyone aged 76 to describe anything as life-changing is awesomely cool, and it shows they’re still looking forwards, not back.”
To Parker – and the characters of many of these films – Dench experienced what every older adult: more life at any age.