Old Folks Offer New Insights on Film–WISE UP on Aging Helps Hollywood Hear From Real Elders

Authors: Kathryn Cherkas, MIPH, is Program Manager at Friendship Center Montecito, where she coordinates the project; Stuart Greenbaum is director of the WISE UP On Aging initiative and a Governor’s appointed to the California Commission on Aging.

Who better to judge whether art accurately imitates life than those with plenty of life experience? So, when Hollywood attempts to fictionalize aging-related storylines, it would make sense, practically and experientially, for creative content developers to consider the source–as in real older adults.

Elders can provide studios with a reality check concerning authentic representations of aging. Moreover, there’s a financial incentive to favoring this demographic, a rapidly growing population who enjoy consuming small- and big-screen entertainment.

Fortunately for Hollywood, when representations of aging matters, a fountain of knowledge lies just up the coast. At Friendship Center in Montecito, California, an intrepid group of a dozen 70-, 80- and 90-somethings gather monthly to critique what the industry has to offer mature audiences.

Last month the critics took in “The Hundred-Foot Journey,” the Harpo Films 2014 feature, and several episodes of two current Netflix series, “The Kominsky Method” and “Grace and Frankie.”

Beyond being entertained, a stated challenge for the group is to find portrayals of individuals who are “aging normally.” According to our critics, in this area reality rarely coincides with fiction. In their opinions, few older adults have either the resources or the capacity to engage in the type of busy lives elders are depicted as leading in these three projects.

The group, however, lauded “The Hundred-Foot Journey” for featuring not one but two believable older adults–Madame Mallory, played by Helen Mirren, 74, and Om Puri (1950-2017) in the role of Papa. They appreciated that these characters represent genuinely complex personalities, ranging from stubborn to shrewd to charming. Overall, the film earned a thumbs-up from our group.

On the small screen, the critics particularly liked the role played by Alan Arkin, 85, on “The Kominsky Method.” Norman Newlander is somewhat of a lost soul after the passing of his beloved wife, upon whom he had grown wholly dependent. “He’s a combination of sad and dazed and questioning the point of going on alone,” one viewer summarized. “All this with an even-mannered, realistic attitude, as opposed to a younger man who would likely deal with this with more extreme behaviors.”

Some widows and widowers themselves, the critics delved further still into love and life and loss. “In films we often see death as something tragic, but many of us didn’t lose our partners like that,” another viewer observed. “Most of us spent our lives with someone we love and walked with them until the end.” The truth is, all agreed, with this kind of loss you don’t feel the same sadness you might earlier in life. “You feel empty. It can be quite boring when you lose a spouse after spending so many decades together.”

Time can become the enemy to surviving spouses, which is why companionship–not just condolences–is so important. The writers of “The Kominsky Method” get this, determined our viewers, who were quick to recognize that their gathering to watch the show is healthy, too.

Commendable as well was how “The Kominsky Method” covered the issue of abandonment by friends as older adults’ health declines. This includes the personal fear shown by the Michael Douglas character, Sandy Kominsky, of his own mortality and of seeing his friends passing away. This show also got a thumb-up, with an expressed interest to watch more episodes.

The popular Netflix series, “Grace and Frankie” fared less well with this cohort. “The show tries too hard to make aging look positive,” one critic said. “No one in their seventies can actually look like that without a huge wallet,” another remarked. All agreed the relationships among family members were unrealistic. “In my experience, very few people that age, especially women, can live such glamorous lives,” said one woman. “Watching this just makes me feel old.” By contrast, none minded the sexual references, though several found the harsh language occasionally offensive and inappropriate. “Grace and Frankie” got a collective thumbs-down.

The Friendship Center’s film and TV reviewing project is co-sponsored by the Wise Up On Aging initiative, supported by the California Commission on Aging. The goal of the initiative is to encourage Hollywood’s content developers to authentically represent aging and older adults. The intent of sharing the critiques of the group assembled by the Friendship Center is to inform and influence such direction.