Long doomed to be cast off into nursing homes and the faded memories of time past, the elderly, while historically strong voters and ardent supporters of the flea market, are the most underutilized demographic in Hollywood. Like the black farmhand who loves singing or the irrational woman who needs the consolation of a man, the elderly have been sentenced to grin and bear it as grandfathers who read the Princess Bride and grandmothers who can’t help but comment on how your boobies are coming in. But every now and again, a funny thing will happen on the way to the viewing. Sometimes Maude lets Harold get to second base. Sometimes Mrs. Peacock really is the murderer and every now and again, Joseph ’Blue’ Pulaski gets a bid into the frat.
In this weekend's major releases, both Drag Me to Hell's baddie Mrs. Ganush and Up's hero Carl Fredericksen are major elderly characters who do more than just nap, watch QVC and tell long-winded stories. Far from simply a weird phenomenon or outside the box marketing scheme, these two films represent further entries into geriatric Garden Of Eden, a mythical, timeless place where all behave recklessly, impulsively and with a bit of youthful flair. C. Montgomery Burns is running the power plant, seducing younger women and posing for naked pictures. Blow it out your ass, young Hollywood. Here are ten Goldwater Girls and Exeter Academy Boys who still party, fight and fuck every bit as hard as their grandchildren.
Walt Kowalski (Clint Eastwood), Gran Torino
There’s something beautiful about a man sitting on his porch, petting his dog and pounding back Pabst Blue Ribbons from a blue cooler. I guess it’s reminiscent of a simpler time, like Walt Kowalski’s polished ’72 Gran Torino Sport or his no-apologies racism. America has grown up, become more sophisticated and in doing so, passed many of our greatest by. But while so many of those products of a different generation compromise and spend their days figuring out the new-fangled Tivo, Walt Kowalski and his horrifying sneer keep on living, balls-to-the-wall without apology or second thought. He’s pissed his granddaughter would show up to a funeral in casual attire, and honestly, it’s our fault for not sharing his hostility.
Curly (Jack Palance), City Slickers
We all remember Jack Palance doing one-armed push-ups at the Oscars when he accepted the statue for this hard-bitten role. But even though City Slickers is most remembered as a Billy Crystal showcase, Palance is the man in this thing, delivering grizzled glares and withering cut-downs as if he were the Marlboro Man incarnate. Sure, it sucks that Curly has to die halfway through and give the stupid New Yorkers a chance to be real men on their own. But at least we know that, in real life Palance could have arm wrestled the hell out of all of them-- newborn cow Norman included.
Captain John Patrick Mason (Sean Connery), The Rock
Not only did Mason steal J. Edgar Hoover’s personal microfilm files documenting every secret Uncle Sam had to spill, the bastard broke out of Alcatraz successfully and read more books than any of us will ever get to. He’s an over-educated, slyly hilarious knifesman with no qualms about taking human life to protect his daughter, a smoking-hot daughter, I might add, who he conceived at a Led Zeppelin concert with a chick whom I can guarantee was hot. Like crazy hot. Oh, and did I mention he knows how to avoid gang rape in the shower? Yet another life skill to check off the list.
Alvin Straight (Richard Farnsworth), The Straight Story
The original Carl Fredericksen, Alvin Straight-- a real person!-- drove his tractor across the Midwest to visit his brother when his driver's license was revoked and he couldn't afford a bus ticket. In David Lynch's quiet, completely un-Lynchian movie, Straight emerges as an icon of American resilience and stubbornness, refusing to stop on his trip even when his tractor breaks down, even when it doesn't even seem that clear that his brother wants him visiting. And during filming Farnsworth, at 79, was suffering bone cancer so painful that he killed himself the next year. Farnsworth got an Oscar nomination, Straight made it to see his brother, and all of us should be ashamed of what lazy assholes we really are.
John Hammond (Richard Attenborough), Jurassic Park
Sporting a pimp suit and a white cane, John Hammond, CEO of InGen, owns an island filled with dinosaurs, gigantic, scary, life-will-find-a-way dinosaurs. This, ladies and gentleman, is perhaps the only man in history who can truthfully claim he’s hugged his grandchildren and watched a T-Rex consume a goat on the same day. He also has Samuel L. Jackson, Newman and that effeminate sidekick from Father Of The Bride on his private staff and openly hates lawyers to the point of ridiculing them without mercy to their faces. Your move, Andrew Carnegie.
Ben Luckett (Wilford Brimley), Cocoon
Much like Benjamin Button Wilford Brimley was born old (and probably mustachioed), but he’s never let that keep him from being the world’s oldest badass. In The Firm he scares the hell out of you from behind his burly mustache, in his Quaker Oats commercials he stares straight into your soul and demands you eat their homey goodness or else. He was only 51 when he made Cocoon but as Ben Luckett he convincingly plays an elderly fellow staring down the grim reaper and refusing to go quietly into the night, even if it means enlisting the help of aliens to feel young again. Wilford Brimley may have been born old, but that doesn’t mean he has to act like it.
Queen Elizabeth II, Helen Mirren, The Queen
This isn't just the ruler of one of earth's most powerful countries we're talking about. This is a woman who, well into her 70s, takes hikes out into the countryside with the corgis, looks a stag dead in the eyes, and thinks to herself "Hey, you're just like me." Oh, and then there's the whole "I'm not bowing to national pressure, shut up everyone, I do what I want" attitude, which seemed cold after Princess Diana's death in 1997, but in the context of this movie is totally justified. Not to mention that in real life, this is a woman who can't be touched by Michelle Obama without it becoming an international scandal. You stay classy, Liz.
Gandalf (Ian McKellen) and Saruman (Christopher Lee), The Lord of the Rings trilogy.
Yes, they're mortal enemies, one of them protecting the hobbitses and one of them a filthy turncoat on Sauron's side. But really, Gandalf and Saruman are two sides of the same coin, two old wise men with staffs who understand the influence of their power and have great resources to make their goals happen. Of course, only one of them can be resurrected after being dragged into the pits by a flame beast, which is what gives Gandalf the White the upper hand here. But as depicted by Ian McKellen and Christopher Lee in Peter Jackson's two movies, they're both two old guys you'd want on your side in any fight.
Royal Tenenbaum (Gene Hackman), The Royal Tenenbaums
Living out of a hotel with his former assassin and current manservant, Royal Tenenbaum lies, cheats and schemes his way through life like a brilliant six year old tricking his first grade classmates out of their fruit rollups. But he does so with an aww-shucks grin, begging you to forgive him because, well, he just couldn‘t help himself. Think of him as a likeable Dick Cheney or a less trigger-happy Frank Costello. Either way, he’ll be doing brunch at his mother’s grave, and he’d like it if you’d pay your respects--unless she’s not your real grandmother, in which case you can stay at home and write mediocre plays.
Doc Brown (Christopher Lloyd), Back to the Future
How old exactly is Doc Brown supposed to be when the time-traveling kicks off in 1985? Old enough to have had crazy gray hair for the last thirty years, but young enough to romance Mary Steenburgen when the time comes. Really, he's the kind of old person we all want to be, hip enough to hang out with a high schooler, still in charge of all his mental faculties (well, at least as in charge as he ever was), and not giving a damn that Strickland calls him a real nutcase.