And so we arrive at the top ten films about middle age, at which point I must finally ask myself: did I become a perpetual adolescent because I make lists, or do I make lists because I’m a perpetual adolescent? At any rate, while I had intended to exorcise my inner fanboy by accepting my age, I find that I have simply repeated patterns already set. Perhaps this is what it really means to be stuck in the middle…
10. Georgia (1985)
Nothing is worse than being compared unfavorably with a more successful sibling, and the virtue of this film is that it doesn’t take that predictable and judgmental route. Although the downward spiral taken by drug-abusing singer Sadie (Jennifer Jason Leigh) is a sad one, the staid, predictable life of her sister Georgia (Mare Winningham) is hardly exemplary. The choice to name the film after the less compelling sister is an apt one, reflecting as it does her commercial success as compared to her needy and depressive sister's lack thereof. Although the encounters between the sisters are ostensibly the film’s center, the real drama occurs onstage. Director Ulu Grosbard lets the camera roll allowing Leigh to give some of the most emotionally exhausting performances of her life, screeching her way through alt-country numbers as she bares every nerve. Like her life, these scenes verge on the unbearable, but are infinitely more fascinating than her sister’s accomplished but ultimately dull renditions of folk classics. While films about musicians usually suggest that it’s better to burn out than to fade away, this one actually suggests there might be a dark virtue in doing both at the same time.
9. Jackie Brown (1997)
The opening credit sequence of this film alone makes it worthy of inclusion on this list, as we watch a middle-aged flight attendant ride a moving walkway through LAX to the accompaniment of Bobby Womack’s “Across 110th Street.” Pam Grier conveys a mood of resignation as the automatic machinery of her life pulls her forward, the blue mosaic tiles rolling by behind her, marking the passage of time. By casting a middle-aged black woman as the central character in a crime drama, Quentin Tarantino not only revives the politics of liberation that fueled the blacksploitation genre in the seventies, but also explores the role nostalgia plays in our lives. The film’s touching portrayal of awakening mid-life passion, in the relationship between Jackie and her bond agent Max Cherry (in a mesmerizing late performance by seventies character actor Robert Forster), is conveyed by the couple’s mutual fascination with Philly soul group The Delfonics. Although Jackie’s criminal life prevents her and Max from finally getting together, they are still able to share the past.
8. Hannah and Her Sisters (1986)
A film with a happy ending for a change, although the anguished moments the characters go through to arrive continue to linger even while they celebrate that rare thing: a happy Thanksgiving. Structured around three main narratives, providing intimate perspectives on the many ways of being stuck in the middle, the story gradually weaves these different experiences together so seamlessly that we conclude feeling like we’ve lived an entire life in the two years of the story’s tight arc. From Elliott’s (Michael Caine) reawakening of passion for his wife’s sister, to Holly’s (Dianne Wiest) stumbling attempts to find her life’s direction, to hypochondriac Mickey’s (Woody Allen) belatedly discovering joy as the meaning of life, all reflect on distinct aspects of the middle age experience. The settings, too, resonate with a nostalgia only those of us past our thirties can know: wandering through New York’s old bookshops, seeing a Marx Brothers movie at the Metro, and bumping into an old acquaintance while shopping at Tower Records: these lost places are almost as romantic as the love affairs.
7. All That Heaven Allows (1955)
Lavish Hollywood melodrama at its finest, this also remains a daring account of a Spring-Autumn romance, largely because of its reversal of the expected gender roles. Middle-age and well-to-do Cary Scott (Jane Wyman) falls for her hunky gardener Ron (Rock Hudson) and Cary’s propriety-obsessed set is scandalized. Particularly incensed are her daughters, who so forcefully scorn her that she gives up her paramour. In one of the most painful scenes of 1950s American cinema, the children give their mother a television set to keep her company, now that they are all moving away from home. But in time-honored melodramatic convention, they are reunited via an improbable deus ex machina, and the film ends with a lapidary Technicolor image of a deer in the snow blessing their reunion, so kitsch it actually works. It’s all so marvelously complete that when Todd Haynes reprised it in Far From Heaven, he could only write in the margins.
6. Groundhog Day (1993)
Bill Murray was forty-three when he made this film. The premise of being trapped in a repetitive life is a quintessentially middle-aged dilemma; and thankfully, so is the promise of self-reinvention that the story offers. The brilliance of the film’s conceit is in the fact that only by embracing every nuance of what we see every day can we make it new, a potent metaphor for the possibilities that lie in what seems to confine us. As a revision of Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life, Harold Ramis’ masterpiece brings a greater sense of relevance and urgency to the premise of appreciating what you’ve got by shifting the emphasis away from small-town communities and into the experience of rutted repetition in general. The result is at once more universal and more precise, and I continue to go back to this film for perspective on whatever frustrates me.
5. Savages (2007)
Tamara Jenkins’ subtle, understated account of two alienated siblings dealing with their father’s dementia is a darkly comic relief from the sentimental twaddle with which such life-experiences are too often met. Philip Seymour Hoffman gives one of his subtlest performances as Jon Savage, who teaches drama in a Buffalo college while writing a book about Bertolt Brecht. His sister Wendy, played by Laura Linney with a curious mixture of childishness and world-weariness, is a struggling playwright so anxious about her lack of success that she lies to her brother about receiving a Guggenheim Grant. These mid-life dramas are played out against a background of encroaching mortality, which the characters confront with a gracelessness so extreme it verges on grace. In one particularly brilliant scene, during an argument in the parking lot of a high-class nursing home from which their father has just been rejected, Jon shouts: “People are DYING, Wendy! Right inside that beautiful building -- right now! It’s a fucking HORROR show! And all this wellness propaganda and landscaping is just trying to obscure the miserable fact that people die and death is gaseous and gruesome and filled with piss and shit and rot and stink!” The camera then pulls back to reveal a nurse pushing an elderly patient past in a wheelchair, and Jon and Wendy hang their heads in shame. Mixing dry wit with stark sadness, the film is something like what Charles M. Schulz might have produced in later life if he hadn’t been stuck writing comic strips about children.
4. Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (1974)
Focusing on a female character for a change, Martin Scorsese’s portrait of Alice (Ellen Burstyn), a middle-age woman struggling to make it after the death of her husband, flirts with the conventions of melodrama, though tempered by astonishing candor and naturalism. If Burstyn never made another film, this should have been enough to make her a legend, and her interactions with her mouthy son Tommy (Alfred Lutter) are as funny and endearing as those in Paper Moon. Like that film, this is also an unconventional road movie, but instead of selling bibles, Alice is trying to sell herself, as a singer that is, and Scorcese films her sweet but rather awkward performance scenes with a touching intimacy that doesn’t cover up or mock the signs of age that lie just beneath her make-up and tawdry dress. The tensions that beset her developing love affair with rancher David (Kris Kristofferson) are real, as when he disciplines Tommy to harshly for her mother’s liking, so that when the film concludes with a rather formulaic happy ending, you believe it because you want to. Burstyn’s Alice may be film’s most enduring and endearing middle-age everywoman.
3. Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)
“Like Halloween for grown-ups,” Roy (Richard Dreyfuss) says to Jillian (Melinda Dillon) as they anxiously wait for the aliens to arrive, and indeed the entire film is a magical evocation of the resurrection of childhood dreams in middle age. What keeps this from straying into the trite sentimentality of Spielberg’s later fantasy films is its attention to the emotional costs of following the sense of wonder, as Roy increasingly alienates and is ultimately abandoned by his family. “I guess you've noticed something a little strange with old Dad,” Roy says with rueful self-mockery, and he might be talking about any number of mid-life crises. But the magic of this film is in the realization of Roy’s dream of escape, one that is anything but nihilistic but almost an evolutionary step beyond the human self, as the realization of a fantasy becomes a kind of heroism.
2. Amarcord (1973)
With a few minor exceptions, none of the characters in this film are middle-aged, only the director, as he brings his childhood past to lavish life with unembarrassed affection and hyperbole. Was the snow once so deep that the townspeople had to dig paths like high ceilinged corridors through the streets? Did the cruise ship come that close when the bewitched boaters rowed out to see its dazzling lights at night? Was the late-winter bonfire really that high? Were the tobacconist’s breasts really that big? Of course not, and that’s the whole point. Fellini simultaneously mocks and relishes nostalgia’s penchant for fabrication, creating a magical realist portrait of a world that hasn’t so much faded away as never really existed, except in the middle-aged film-maker’s mind.
1. Adaptation (2002)
Mid-life self-doubt as post-modernism: this is Charlie Kaufman’s raison d’etre and this may well be his finest, most ambitious rendering of that wholly original conception. In this layered self-portrait we watch Kaufman struggle to adapt Susan Orleans’ seemingly unadaptable The Orchid Thief, as the struggle becomes a metaphor for, or perhaps just the most acute manifestation of, a mid-life crisis. Just as Kaufman is unable to settle on one plot line he is incapable of opening himself up to others, particularly to his female friend Amelia Kavan (Cara Seymour), on whom he has a blindingly obvious crush. Kaufman’s divided self is hilariously embodied by his twin brother Donald, both played by Nicholas Cage in what is surely his greatest performance. Kaufman’s anxieties are matched by Susan Orleans’ herself, whose loss of passion forms a subtext to her book: “I want to know how it feels like to care about something passionately,” she writes, and this desire to desire draws her to orchid hustler John Laroche (Chris Cooper). She discovers that to care passionately about something “whittles the world down to a more manageable size,” and this becomes the principle discovered by Kaufman as he puts his script and his life into a (barely) manageable order.
to read Part One of this journey into the films of middle age...]
to read Part Two of this journey into the films of middle age...]
Jed Mayer is an Associate Professor of English at the State University of New York, New Paltz.