Summer of the mature woman onscreen


Women of “a certain age” (What a wretched phrase!) are alive and well onscreen this summer. Some pundits say visibility is axiomatically a good thing. But is that necessarily true? Presenting stereotypical or grating or just plain dull women is far worse.

The creative teams behind 5 Flights Up, I’ll See You in My Dreams, Ricki and the Flash, Grandma and Learning to Drive have their work cut out for them as they attempt to forge characters that are fresh and interesting—not necessarily likeable, but at least relatable on some level. As always, credibility must be the centerpiece.

This summer’s offerings are a mixed bag, though all the women (and men) reside in galaxies far removed from The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (I and II) and The Hundred Foot Journey.

Two wonderful films that gently and with good humor explore life’s autumnal season are I’ll See You in My Dreams and the short-lived 5 Flights Up, though the latter centers on an aging couple, not only its distaff member. Still, it’s worth noting.

Based on Jill Ciment’s haunting novel Heroic Measures, 5 Flights Up stars Morgan Freeman and Diane Keaton as Alex and Ruth Carver, a Brooklyn-based couple who are toying with the idea of selling their beloved walk-up apartment where they’ve lived for the 40 years of their marriage. They need an elevator. Indeed, their elderly dog can barely navigate the stairs either, a nice touch.

The Carvers have a solid marriage. They’ve weathered the experiences of a shared lifetime, perhaps made all the stronger by their being an interracial couple, especially in the early years when they faced thinly veiled scorn from many sources. Still, they’ve had a good life together and now gracefully face the inevitable losses that loom in the not-too-distant future. They are completely relatable, and thanks to the actors’ likability and Richard Loncraine’s deft direction, mortality is simply another fact of life.

Loss is also a central theme in I’ll See You in Dreams, starring Blythe Danner as Carol Peterson, a retired schoolteacher and longtime widow, who is not unhappy in her well-appointed and tastefully decorated Southern California home with her beloved, aging golden retriever, Hazel. Like the pooch in 5 Flights, the dog plays a significant role not simply as four-footed companion, but also as symbol of and connection to the life cycle.

The turning point is the death of Hazel, leaving Carol bereft, lonely, and receptive to the attentions of Lloyd (Martin Starr), her pool maintenance worker, more than 30 years her junior. Old dreams that never reached fruition also resurface.

When Carol and Lloyd go to a karaoke bar, with the help of heavy alcohol consumption she gets up and warbles, not half badly, “Cry Me a River,” conceding that at one time her ambition was to be a singer.

Carol also reluctantly joins her gal-pals (delightfully acted by June Squibb, Rhea Perlman and Mary Kay Place) on an age-appropriate speed-dating adventure that turns out to be a comic misadventure on a grand scale. The geezers and, for that matter, Carol’s “Golden Girls” friends, are drawn with broad comic strokes, most pointedly when the women get high on medicinal marijuana.

While the scene could quickly become an opportunity to cruelly mock seniors, it never crosses that line. Credit must go to the actors, but also to director Brett Haley and his co-screenwriter Marc Basch for their restraint.

But at its core, the film is about seizing the day at twilight and centers on Carol’s relationship with the slightly amused and devilish fellow-septuagenarian Bill (entertainingly evoked by Sam Elliott), who courts her and within short order wants to marry her.

The chemistry is mutual, which is emotionally seismic for Carol, who has lived a chaste life in the wake of her husband’s death 20 years earlier. Her unencumbered existence has suited her well, but ultimately Bill prevails and Carol spends a wonderful night with him. Not long thereafter—spoiler alert—he dies suddenly.

It’s tragic for her, though not totally shocking given his age. Still, his brief presence in her life aroused all kinds of feelings that now have no place to go. Once again she is grieving.

But life goes on and with time Carol begins to heal. In the final, seemingly anti-climactic, scene, she is adopting another dog. It is very real, very moving.


Straining Credibility

The same cannot be said for Ricki and the Flash, a Jonathan Demme film that misfires on every level, most obviously in the absurd casting of Meryl Streep as Ricki Rendazzo, an aging, failed rocker who years earlier abandoned her well-heeled Indiana-based husband Pete (Kevin Kline) and three kids to pursue her go-nowhere dream in Southern California.  

Streep is not remotely believable in the role. But her performance is the least of it in Diablo Cody’s script that evokes a hodgepodge of intent and just makes no sense.

And that’s a shame because Ricki is an unusual screen character: a post-menopausal singer with limited vocal talents performing in a sleazy night spot with her four-member band in front of an audience of paunchy, grey-haired baby-boomers who are as marginalized as she.

Leather-clad and sporting multiple earrings, Ricki also dons an American flag tattoo and voices Tea Party Republicanism. Does her persona represent a viewpoint, and if so, what is it? Or does her appearance coupled with her politics embody an oddball fashion statement? We never know.

It would have been challenging to answer those questions along with making her career choice and lifestyle aesthetically appealing or even understandable. But it might have been worth a try.

Instead, the audience is treated to a fish-out-of-water story. When Ricki’s daughter Julie (played by Streep’s real life daughter, Mamie Gummer) is dumped by her husband and turns suicidal, Pete begs Ricki to come home and play mom-cum-healer to their daughter, despite his long-term marriage to another woman, Maureen (Audra McDonald), who has fully assumed the role of mother to his kids and done a fine job in the wake of Ricki’s absence.

The old-fashioned and sentimental subtext is that only the biological mother can truly help her child. Ricki has never expressed any interest in seeing her daughter, nor her two sons, and they in turn have no desire to reconnect with her.

While the film’s creators would like the viewer to identify with Ricki as a misunderstood artistic outlier, it’s far easier to see her through the disapproving lens of her offspring, in-laws, former friends and neighbors. She is more than a little creepy, especially when she cops her ex-husband’s credit card and runs up a substantial debt as she shuttles herself and Julie to pedicures, hairstylists and other expensive indulgences in an effort to bond with her daughter.

Not unexpectedly, Pete’s former feelings for her are rekindled and Ricki and Maureen have their requisite confrontation. Maureen justifiably claims to be the kids’ mom, while accusing Ricki of being an unwelcome intruder. Still, in the end, she extends herself beyond the call of duty when she invites Ricki to the wedding of one of her sons.

In some ways Maureen is potentially the most interesting character in the film—and a mature woman to boot. She’s an economically successful black stepmother to white kids. It’s not a character we see often, though Demme effectively presented her (as played by Anna Deavere Smith) in Rachel’s Getting Married.

But in Rachel, the stepmother’s race is incidental. Not so in Ricki, where Maureen is an outsider in large part because she is an African-American in an all-white universe. On top of that, she finds herself playing stepmother, the ultimate—almost mythical—outsider. Yet she makes only one passing reference to her race. In reality, the racial discrepancy would be a more central issue, and her saintliness borders on political correctness run amok.

The wedding scene is a jaw-dropper, as Ricki, who cannot afford to buy a gift for the newlyweds, decides instead to give them and all the guests her “talent.” She and her band perform and a collective reconciliation is achieved as everybody, including the most uptight in the room, get up to shake their booty.

Empathy for Ricki largely stems from one’s tolerance for a mother jumping ship to “find herself.” In an onstage meltdown—there needs to be at least one public confession in these flicks—Ricki pleads her case from a feminist perspective, actually comparing herself to Mick Jagger (as if there is any parity in their circumstances) before moving on to make the familiar point that dads have liberties that moms don’t.

No one seems to have told Ricki they also have financial responsibilities like child-support. It may not be forthcoming, but they are hauled into court and dubbed “dead-beat dads.” The film is not helped by Ricki’s two-bit women’s-lib rant.


Politically Correct, but a Groundbreaker Nonetheless

In a very different vein, consider Paul Weitz’s Grandma, starring Lily Tomlin as Elle Reid, an aging, abrasive, foul-mouthed lesbian who despite appearances is a compassionate, rational human being. She’s also grieving the loss of her partner Violet of 38 years.

And like Tomlin herself—for whom Weitz wrote the role—Elle was “out” years before it was fashionable. Indeed, she and Vi jointly raised their daughter Judy (Marcia Gay Harden) in an era when a two-mommy lesbian couple was anomalous. Elle is now estranged from her daughter.

In contrast to countercultural Elle, a poet and sometime academic, Judy is a high-powered careerist. But on the personal front she is not all that removed from her mother. Though she is not gay, men are not part of her life, and she’s had her daughter Sage (Julia Garner) through artificial insemination.

And true to convention, Sage is as distanced from her mother as Judy is from hers. But she manages to forge an alliance with Grandma, even though she has never heard of The Feminine Mystique and is devoid of a political-social conscience.

The intergenerational portrait of a very, very contemporary family is a bit contrived. So too is the road-trip narrative that gives Sage and Elle the opportunity to come together as they explore the nature of choice and circumstance, a central theme in this film.

A pregnant Sage has an appointment for an abortion, but she doesn’t have the $600 for the procedure. She is uncomfortable asking her mother or her useless boyfriend for the funds, so she seeks out Grandma. There is never any question that Elle will support her choice to have an abortion, though she is almost as destitute as Sage.

Elle has just paid off her credit-card debt and in an impulsive “artistic” moment has cut up all her cards to create mobile chimes. She is “freed” from credit cards—yet another plot set-up—and is now propelled to team up with Sage in an attempt to track down someone who will give them money.

Her first stop is a local feminist bookstore where she tries to sell her collection of valued old books, including first editions of Betty Friedan and Simone de Beauvoir. Elle is an irascible haggler.

Elle’s economic situation and response to it is one of the most original elements in the film. How often does one see onscreen an older, highly intelligent, educated woman who is close to being a pauper? With the exception of Ricki—who is not all that bright to begin with—the mature women in this current flock are solvent. Their choices (for good or bad) are not defined by money issues at all.

But perhaps what makes this film a standout is the one brief scene—worth the price of admission all by itself—between Elle and Karl (powerfully played by Sam Elliott), a wealthy old lover whom Elle hopes will step up to the plate with a cash offering. Their relationship many decades earlier predates Elle coming out as a lesbian, though she always knew she was gay, she says. But that doesn’t preclude her from having loved Karl or even been attracted to him on some level, feelings that almost linger in the present. It is a multi-layered interpretation that subtly points to the complexity of love and sexuality.

Karl surely had strong feelings for her and was devastated when she dumped him and then unceremoniously aborted his child without his knowledge, an experience that has cast a long shadow in his life despite his multiple marriages and brood of children and now grandchildren. Her past actions have had lifelong resonance for her as well. Elle knows she has caused him great pain and hates what she felt forced to do.

The repeated abortion theme is a bit schematic, though it’s forgivable in a film that explores actions that have lasting consequences, where the past informs the present. While Elle and Karl’s lives have taken them in different directions, they will be forever linked.

The encounter between the former lovers is awkward, explosive, gentle and poignant. It is one of the most memorable movie scenes in recent years. It’s also a triumph for two 70-plus-year-old actors—and by extension everyone in the audience—who has seen the better side of 50.

Regrettably, the rest of the film—with its predictable recriminations and rapprochement among the three female leads—pales in comparison. Still, Grandma is in its own way a groundbreaker.


Take a Train…

Let’s move on to the ho-hum Learning to Drive, starring the always wonderful Patricia Clarkson as 50-something Wendy Shields, a high-powered New York book reviewer whose 20-plus-year marriage falls apart when her husband (Jake Weber) dumps her for a much younger writer.

Wendy is wrecked as she tries to grapple with her loss and wounded pride; her new circumstances (not least being forced to sell her beloved Upper West Side brownstone and find a new apartment); and her effort to redefine herself as a single woman.

She’s also trying to maintain her relationship with her college-age daughter (Grace Gummer, another Streep offspring), who invites Mom to visit her in the rural New England community where she lives. Driving is the best way to get there, but like many lifetime New Yorkers, Wendy has never acquired—or for that matter, required—the skill.

But this film is firmly rooted in the world of “new beginnings,” and so Wendy decides to tackle the challenge. Her driving instructor is East Indian immigrant Darwan (played by Ben Kingsley with dignity and empathy), who wears a turban, speaks with a marked accent, and is frequently taunted because local bigots believe he is a Muslim when in fact he is a Sikh. Darwan nervously awaits his bride to arrive from India, a woman he has never met. Wendy and Darwan form an odd couple who despite their wild differences—culturally, economically and temperamentally—find common ground and enjoy an unlikely attachment as he teaches her to drive.

The movie is based loosely—and loosely is the operative word—on the autobiographical 2002 New Yorker essay by feminist writer Katha Pollitt recounting the breakup of her long-term romance with a live-in boyfriend, thanks to his philandering. When the relationship went belly-up, she learned to drive with a patient and kindhearted Filipino instructor, who taught her to see, not simply observe. In short, what she learned as a driver was a life lesson as well.

Admittedly, the essay—readable and engaging as it is—would not make a gripping film. But neither does screenwriter Sarah Kernochan’s generic reworking, turning Wendy into a two-dimensional stick figure given to crying and screaming fits as she begs her husband not to leave her.

For starters, Wendy would not be all that demonstrative, whatever she might feel. But, perhaps more serious, those snippets are clichéd and unpleasant, a lethal combination. Clarkson gives these scenes her best shot, but they’re still problematic and do nothing to enhance the image of older women.

Darwan is a far more nuanced protagonist as he struggles with his culture’s tenets (specifically, marrying a stranger with whom he has nothing in common) and his burgeoning feelings for Wendy. But his relationship with his driving student cannot move on to the next level. Darwan would never stray from his marriage vows.

Wendy is fascinated by his traditional values. She admires his faithfulness, tolerance and forbearance, all the qualities her ex lacked. In her own way, Wendy has fallen in love with him. But the chasm between them is too great and their feelings for each other will remain unvoiced.

This film could have worked well (touchingly in fact) as an exploration of an unconsummated affair, which has added resonance for older people who understand that time is finite.

But Kernochan and director Isabel Coixet try to give the story an affirmative, youthful spin as the two leads go their separate ways, believing they are better off than they were before. There is no evidence for that conclusion.

The season of the mature woman is not over yet. Coming up next, the much-anticipated Hello, My Name is Doris, starring Sally Field as a sixty-something ur-spinster who falls in love with a substantially younger co-worker. This one sounds iffy. We’ll try to reserve judgment.