I must go on, I can’t go on, I’ll go on: here we are with Part Two of the list of what I consider to be the best movies about middle age. If you’re still with me, you’ve admitted your age, and acceptance is the first step towards… whatever, here’s the list.
20. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1969)
Like so many of us at middle age, teacher Jean Brodie (Maggie Smith) likes to proclaim she is in the prime of her life, and the devoted following of her select girl students (whom she dubs the crème de la crème) would seem to confirm it. But as much as she inspires her charges with a love of art and nature, she also leads them astray through her misguided adoration of Francisco Franco and Mussolini. The film implies that aging without grace can sometimes land one on the wrong side of history, and it can also land one on the wrong side of the young. Pamela Franklin brings a severe intensity to her performance as Sandy, a student who grows to resent her former idol and takes revenge by stealing Brodie’s former lover, exposing her dark secrets. As Brodie leaves in disgrace, only Maggie Smith could make us feel sorry for a misguided fascist.
19. The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962)
One of John Ford’s most emotionally complex Westerns is also an ambivalent meditation on the aging process. The film begins with Senator Ransom Stoddard (James Stewart) returning to the once lawless Old West town that made his name. He’s there to attend the funeral of his old friend Tom Doniphon (John Wayne), and as this frame narrative gives way to flashback, we hear a story that is as much about the historical as the personal past. As “Ranse” Stoddard progresses from emasculated dishwasher and busboy to the killer of the film’s title, his brand of pacifism and justice is juxtaposed, and finally undermined, by his rival turned friend, Doniphon. While I’m no fan of “the Duke,” he gives a stunning performance here as a man embodying frontier values at the very moment of their dissolution. His trademark wooden delivery somehow manages to capture the alienation of a man whom history is passing by, and Stewart’s familiar earnestness is almost childish by contrast. The film leaves us wondering if what we call the wisdom of age might simply depend on a selective memory of the past.
18. The Big Lebowski (1998)
When I first saw this film in the theater, I felt that it was one of the funniest, but also the most pointless, of the Coen brothers’ films; now I regard it as offering one of their more pointed political commentaries on generational politics. Set less than a decade before its release, in 1990, the film raises complex questions about how history is made, and what role we play in the making of it. In characteristic fashion, the Coens foreground the constitutive role of language in shaping how we perceive events: the Dude (Jeff Bridges) acts as a kind of linguistic sponge, picking up and recirculating phrases spoken by those around him, including George Bush, Sr.’s (in)famous “This aggression will not stand” speech. Once a member of the subversive political group “the Seattle Seven,” “Dude” Lebowski now spends his time bowling, getting high, and drinking White Russians, seeming to confirm the accusation leveled against by his namesake: “Your ‘revolution’ is over, Mr. Lebowski! Condolences! The bums lost!” But in a world where the possibility of meaningful political change seems to have been shut down, perhaps the best answer is to echo back the meaningless rhetoric of the status quo, making of its very emptiness a kind of accusation: “This will not stand, ya know, this will not stand, man!”
17. Sideways (2004)
This hilarious road movie about a couple of buddies on a kind of “stag” wine tour moves effortlessly into a moving meditation on slowly fading joie de vivre, for which wine serves as ironic metaphor: ironic, because the characters aren’t necessarily getting better with age. In the film’s most memorable scene, Miles (Paul Giamatti) and Maya (Virginia Madsen) share their passion for pinots, while tacitly reflecting on how other passions have grown sour. Maya movingly observes how “a bottle of wine is actually alive -- it's constantly evolving and gaining complexity. That is, until it peaks—like your '61—and begins its steady, inevitable decline.” Though the film offers a glimmer of hope and possibility at its conclusion, this is its abiding mood, but fortunately, as Maya adds, “it tastes so fucking good.”
16. The Accidental Tourist (1988)
Writing travel guides for people who don’t want to travel, Macon Leary (William Hurt) is a walking advertisement for middle age malaise. Fittingly, the symbol used on his popular series of books is a lounge chair with wings. The loss of a son has further strained his marriage, and Macon seems fated to spend his life in a chair for one until his dysfunctional Welsh corgi leads him to winningly daffy obedience trainer Muriel Pritchett (Geena Davis), who awakens in Macon something bearing a vague resemblance to passion. In addition to its compellingly eccentric love story is, the film also includes an ensemble cast of other aging eccentrics, offering diverse perspectives on the waning and rekindling of affections. Macon’s siblings are all co-dependently repressed, until spinster Rose (Amy Wright) manages to capture the heart of her brother’s publisher (winsomely played by Bill Pullman). The fittingly beige-toned yet romantic conclusion manages to land somewhere between “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” and Breakfast at Tiffany’s.
15. The Squid and the Whale (2005)
This semi-autobiographical journey into the dark places of family life is as much an exploration of middle age as it is of adolescence. Though told largely from the point of view of two boys, Walt and Frank, their parents’ split-up becomes the focus of the film, resulting in a funny and sad account of how people grow apart. Their father, struggling writer Bernard (Jeff Daniels), forces his tastes and lifestyle onto his boys, a habit that grows worse as he feels threatened by his estranged wife’s publishing success. The film shows how early we can become middle-aged in spirit, as the older son, Frank, begins spouting the formulaic literary preferences and dislikes of his father, and adopts his cynical, self-serving worldview. As he gradually comes to realize the uncredited role his mother (Laura Linney) played in his life, we understand that the conflict between his middle-age parents has become Walt’s inner conflict as well. Our mom and dad, they fuck us up, indeed…
14. Picnic (1955)
This film is as much an enactment of mid-life crisis as it is a portrayal of one, in that star William Holden is an actor in his late thirties playing a character in his early twenties. The result is wildly implausible but, because it’s William Holden, unexpectedly poignant. As aimless drifter Hal, he shows up in a small Kansas town on Labor Day, seeking out a fraternity brother whose father owns a local mill. Along the way he encounters Madge Owens (Kim Novak), and passion smolders. But a sadder, and in some ways more compelling, romance is also taking place, that between middle-aged schoolteacher Rosemary (Rosalind Russell) and store owner Howard Bevens (Arthur O'Connell). Rosemary has been trying to get Howard to marry him, and her desperation spills over as the whiskey flask grows emptier at the annual town picnic, culminating in a painful scene where she throws herself at William Holden to make Howard jealous, accidentally ripping the shirt of the “young Adonis” in front of all. Layers of awkwardness are at work here: Rosalind Russell’s vivid portrayal of mid-life sexual desperation ironically paralleling William Holden’s mid-life desperation as an actor playing well beneath his age. Yet it somehow works.
13. Now, Voyager (1942)
Bette Davis is mesmerizing as a middle-age spinster coming out of her shell. Bullied to the point of mental breakdown by her oppressive mother, mousy Charlotte Vale seeks the help of psychiatrist Dr. Jaquith (Claude Rains). As she grows more confident under his care, she gets away from it all on a therapeutic cruise where she reinvents herself and falls in love with married man Jerry (Paul Henreid). If their star-crossed love affair were all this film were about, it might be just another forties Hollywood melodrama, but when Charlotte ends up at an asylum under Dr. Jaquith’s care, she befriends Tina, a young woman who reminds her of her own repressed self. Though Tina turns out, rather improbably, to be old flame Jerry’s daughter, the film ends with Charlotte taking the girl under her wing, and settling for a life of quiet female companionship rather than torrid romance. This resolution is somewhat sad, but poetically right, offering an unconventional view of middle-age life choices.
12. Mildred Pierce (1945)
As with Picnic and The Wrestler, this film gains added depth from the middle-age drama of the actress as much as that of the character she portrays. Thanks to Mommie Dearest, we all know how desperate an aging Joan Crawford was to get this part, and how much she threw herself into her role; thus, it’s difficult not to see the character of Mildred as autobiographical. Left by her husband, Mildred Pierce works herself out of her and her daughters’ financial desperation, first as a waitress, then as the owner of a successful chain of restaurants. Along with Barbara Stanwyck’s Stella Dallas, this is one of the most powerful portrayals of a working woman from Hollywood’s golden age. Yet, while she finds satisfaction in work, her wayward second husband reminds her of her age when she finds him cheating—with her own daughter. Rarely has the generation gap been so nastily rendered.
11. Lost in Translation (2003)
From the moment Bill Murray stood on the diving board in Rushmore, belly sagging over Budweiser swimsuit, cigarette hanging out of his drooping mouth, he has become Hollywood’s great icon of middle age. Here he internalizes that sad-sack pose, making it more tragic by hiding it behind the pasted-on smile of Bob Harris, an aging actor doing a photo shoot for a series of advertisements for Suntory, a Japanese whiskey (!). Paralleling Bob’s mid-life crisis, Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson) is having a “mid-twenties crisis,” and many of the film’s most compelling scenes are without dialogue, showing her walking through Tokyo, where nothing seems to make sense. When they meet at a hotel bar, their mutual malaise is a perfect match. “I'm planning a prison escape; we first have to get out of this hotel, then out of the city, then out of the country,” Bob tells her, and she answers: “I'm in,” leading to a night of bar-hopping that ends in a karaoke bar. Murray’s off-key rendition of Roxy Music’s world-weary “More Than This” is surely one of cinema’s great moments, turning the classic song into a mid-life anthem. When they part, Bob whispers something inaudible in her ear, and they both wander off in irresolution: a perfect way to (not) end this movingly understated film.
[Click here to read Part One 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.