Stuck in the Middle: 30 Great Films about Middle Age, PART TWO

Stuck in the Middle: 30 Great Films about Middle Age, PART TWO

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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