Judi Dench as Evelyn on the set of "The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel." (Ishika Mohan / Fox Searchlight )
"Getting old is not for sissies." That's a Bette Davis line, as quoted by a retired singer in Dustin Hoffman's directorial debut, "Quartet," but the world-weary wisecrack serves equally well as subtext for a bittersweet batch of new films that examine something that has been largely missing from the big screen: the aging process.
At 82, Christopher Plummer's Oscar-winning turn in 2010's "Beginners" stood as something of an anomaly. This year, the "senior cinema" entries have grown to include two late-spring releases: Clint Eastwood's grumpy-old-man showcase "Trouble With the Curve" and the surprise hit "The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel," in which Maggie Smith, Judi Dench and Bill Nighy appear as British pensioners in chaotic India. Still to come, Smith returns with fellow aging performers in the Dustin Hoffman-directed "Quartet" as a haughty diva adjusting to life in a home for retired musicians. And, darkest of the bunch, the French-language film "Amour" observes an elderly Parisian couple (Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva) beset with deteriorating health.
"It's tough to get movies made about old people because there's a perception that only young people go to the movies. This is insane," said "Quartet" screenwriter Ronald Harwood. "It's more of a market research notion that shows no originality and bows to the sales people rather than the creative people."
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He came up with his story after seeing the documentary "Tosca's Kiss," about a musicians' retirement home in Italy. "My interest is in people who have special gifts," he said. "This is a great, good fortune when the gift is working, but when that gift becomes old and rusted and tarnished, it's tough."
In the film, Smith, Tom Courtenay, Pauline Collins and Billy Connolly test their mettle as opera singers who contentiously reunite for a retirement home performance of their greatest hit, Giuseppe Verdi's "Rigoletto."
Courtenay, formerly pegged as one of the Angry Young Men for his 1962 breakthrough, "The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner," urged Harwood to adapt his 2000 stage version of "Quartet" into a movie so he could play the low-key Reggie. "Tom's getting on, so the character touched him in that way," Harwood said.
In the Dec. 28 release, Reggie rekindles a romance with Smith's prickly Jean, who broke his heart in their prime and is now afraid she can't hit the high notes. "Like dancers or athletes, singers have short careers, but the alternative to giving in to age is to be the guest of honor at the crematorium," Harwood said. "Dustin's fascination from the very first time he read the script was with these old people who wouldn't give in."
For "The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel" director John Madden, one of the appeals of the film is that "you actually see the lines on their faces. That alone makes the movie startlingly different, because you are allowed to see what age does to people, which is not a disaster in any way. It's fascinating and often beautiful, actually."
Theorizing about the film's robust box office, Madden said, "I think people enjoy laughing about something that the world requires them to feel serious about." As well, there's the fact of an aging population to consider. "The youth-oriented fixation [in Hollywood] is outdated and pernicious and needs to be looked at. Certainly in the U.K. and the U.S., people are living longer, and suddenly they're saying, 'Wait a minute, there must be something other than superhero movies,'" Madden added.
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The film's humor comes in watching how six aging Brits — Smith, Dench and Nighy joined by Penelope Wilton, Ronald Pickup and Tom Wilkinson — facing bleak social and financial futures at home adjust to their fresh start at the Rajasthan, India, residence run by an outrageously upbeat hotelier (Dev Patel of "Slumdog Millionaire"). "The key to making this film work was to contrast the energy of the young India against the gradual deceleration of these people who are moving into the lowest gears of their lives," Madden said. "That seemed like a delicious possibility."
In addition to its uplifting message, "Marigold Hotel" gave Madden a grand excuse to gather veteran British thespians, who collectively boast more than two centuries of acting experience, under one rickety hotel roof. What did these seasoned performers bring to the table? "It's knowing how to do a lot with very little," Madden says. "It's wisdom and experience, isn't it? India is a culture that tends to place old people at the center of life rather than the periphery, and the reason for that is perfectly evident in what actors of this age are able to do."
While "Marigold Hotel" celebrates a community of aging outsiders who draw energy from hectic Indian street life, Cannes Film Festival Palme d'Or winner "Amour" (opening Dec. 19) unfolds within the isolated confines of a dank Parisian apartment. There, a retired piano teacher (Riva) struggles after a stroke and is cared for by her heroically attentive husband (Trintignant ).
Writer-director Michael Haneke said, "I didn't set out to make a film about aging or dying. Rather, in my own personal life I was confronted with a case of someone in my family who was suffering very deeply, and I had to look on helplessly. That's what I was thinking about while making this film: 'How do I cope with the suffering of someone who I care about so deeply?'"
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