AUS DEM SPIEGEL
Ausgabe 39/2006

Sex for Sexagenarians: Movies Target Frisky Seniors

By Malte Herwig

With the younger generation seemingly content with the Internet and video games, seniors have become the new target audience for the movie industry. New productions are even challenging taboos. Senior sex has hit the silver screen.

"Sex and the City" is out. Nowadays, the silver screen is targeting an older audience. A number of new movies are competing to be "Sex in the City" for seniors.
REUTERS / HBO

"Sex and the City" is out. Nowadays, the silver screen is targeting an older audience. A number of new movies are competing to be "Sex in the City" for seniors.

Getting old is a tragedy. Even Homer, the master of the Greek tragedy, recognized that misfortune speeds up aging. After 40 years of marriage, Marilyn's husband Marty dies in an accident, throwing her entire, well-ordered life off-kilter. With whom should she share her table and bed, and all the other important details that have pulled the soft cloak of habit over her decades of married life?

The silver screen story of the widow Marilyn (Brenda Vaccaro) is set in Boynton Beach -- a town in sunny Florida that looks as though a Gray Panthers battalion just marched in. The place is a retirees' paradise where everything seems to revolve around tea dances, coffee klatches and senior aerobics. And where the Boynton Beach Bereavement Club is constantly welcoming new members.

There they sit, the old and the lonely, on plastic chairs in a sparsely furnished room with floral wall-to-wall carpeting, eating cake from paper plates. Most are over 60, and there are eight women to every man in the room. Those who don't have beach houses yet aren't about to start building now. This is life in Boynton Beach, a place where desire has had its day and where passing the time is about all these people have left to do.

Or is it?

Certainly not in the movies. "Who wants to start?" an ample woman asks the group. A saucy old woman in a turquoise T-shirt that reads "Old Age Isn't For Sissies" pipes up and asks: "What do you say to a fellow who can't raise the flag?" "Forget it, honey," a chorus of women behind her responds. "Get yourself a younger guy."

The American film "Boynton Beach Club," a story about the love lives of American retirees, is not a tragedy about aging by any stretch of the imagination. Rarely has an American film dealt so skillfully and uninhibitedly with two topics that have long bordered on taboo in the prim United States, both alone and especially in combination: sex and old age.

"Boynton Beach Club" has developed into something of a cult film, especially among older moviegoers, ever since director Susan Seidelman, 53, released the film in Florida without the backing of any Hollywood distributors. The industry experts were unconvinced that the film's supposed niche subject would attract a wider audience. The New York Times praised the director for being courageous enough to venture into the world of the elderly, and the Washington Post celebrated its "brilliant cast of discarded '70s-era Hollywood stars." Dyan Cannon and Sally Kellerman are prime examples. They are both 69 years young.

Yet despite the doubts prior to the release of "Boynton Beach Club," it is clear that the ailing movie industry could use the extra ticket revenues from older moviegoers. Especially now that younger viewers are increasingly being lured away by the world of the Internet and video games. Indeed, according to a current study by Germany's Film Promotion Institute (FFA), demographic change could even represent an opportunity for the German film industry with the over-50 generation having the potential to become German moviemakers' key target audience. More than half of German moviegoers are already 30 and older and, as the FFA study concludes, now play "an increasingly important role for producers and marketing departments. In fact, this is the group to which recent German hits like "Das Leben der Anderen" ("Life on the Other Side") and "Sophie Scholl -- Die letzten Tage" ("Sophie Scholl -- The Final Days") owe much of their success at the box office.

Old people and the movies are rediscovering one another. "We thought, wait a minute, why hasn't anybody discovered this audience?" says Seidelman, who wrote and produced the film with her mother Florence, herself a resident of a retirement community. The mother-and-daughter team was also responsible for marketing the film, and in doing so they honed in on the over-50 set, a group the major movie distributors have all but ignored. While Susan took over the task of placing ads and issuing press releases in the local media, Florence and more than two dozen fellow retirees embarked on a campaign to hang posters and hand out flyers in community rooms, retirement homes and restaurants.

Then something astonishing happened. Seniors went to see Seidelman's movie in droves. Within a week it had made more than $100,000 in ticket sales in only 10 theaters -- an impressive achievement for a low-budget production, especially in Florida where senior citizens pay discounted ticket prices. The trade publication Variety ran a story about the film's success, and suddenly Hollywood was interested in Seidelman. "The film shows that 60-year-olds are the new 40-year-olds," says Eric D'Arbeloff of Roadside Attractions, the distributor that has now released "Boynton Beach Club" in theaters throughout the US. "It's an event film for the older generation of moviegoers, because it's about dating and sex."

Take the story of Jack and Sandy. Because divorced women are considered less attractive, Sandy (Sally Kellerman) poses as a widow and ensnares the good-natured Jack (Len Cariou), whose wife has recently passed away. But the two quickly discover that a first date, after decades of marriage, is everything but easy, and not just for those who arrive on Rollerblades, like the eternally young Lois (Cannon) and her dapper beau Donald (Michael Nouri).

Even practiced ladies' man Harry (Joseph Bologna) learns that all his youthful insecurities return to haunt him when he runs into his high school sweetheart at a New Year's Eve party. Sex with one's own wife is a different story, Harry warns his friend Jack, because you've grown old with her. "But with a new woman, when you look at her breasts and her butt, you suddenly realize: You're about to sleep with an old lady."

Seidelman shows that, even in old age, the notorious first time hasn't lost any of its simultaneously terrifying and titillating magic. In one sensitive scene, Kellerman drops her clothes in front of Jack for a moment. But the two are suddenly so discomfited by her nudity that they end up doing nothing but cuddling.

The director, who made a name for herself as a chronicler of her generation in movies like "Desperately Seeking Susan" (1985), Madonna's first film, and in the pilot for the HBO series "Sex and the City," has apparently tapped into a new trend with "Boynton Beach Club."

Of course, Seidelman's work has been preceded by other films that revolve around the elderly, such as "Driving Miss Daisy" (1989), the tale of a difficult friendship between an eccentric widow (Jessica Tandy) and her chauffeur (Morgan Freeman), or "Space Cowboys" (2000), in which graying Hollywood heroes join Clint Eastwood on a space mission to repair an old Russian communications satellite. More recently, Maggie Smith and Judi Dench starred in "The Scent of Lavender" (2004), the story of two elderly sisters who become consumed by their jealous attraction to a stranded young violinist.

But these were all comedies or historical films, in which the age of the stars was in a sense costumed by the age of the historic material, so that age itself became a secondary element. Seidelman, however, wasn't interested in portraying English ladies sipping tea, but instead what she calls "Sex and the City for 60-year-olds."

Her film hits a nerve among baby boomers who influenced postwar culture for decades. Now, they are making the difficult transition into retirement age. But this generation -- perhaps the most sexually liberal ever -- is unwilling to compromise its quality of life. The baby boomers got the Pill when they were 20 and Viagra at 60. In Seidelman's film, Harry says to Jack: "People think that there's no more sex after a certain age -- they're wrong." And now these youthful sexagenarians are embarking on another sexual revolution. Under the discreet slogan "It's never too late to learn something new," ads are appearing in newspapers, even in the illustrious New York Times, for "teaching films" in which "real couples" demonstrate the joys of sex in ripe old age. Indeed, one of society's mottos at the dawn of the 21st century could well be "Sex in the Sixties."

A new movement in cinema, in which the elderly are the new youth, has already taken hold in Germany, supposedly Europe's ground zero for demographic apocalypse. In "Mathilde liebt" ("Mathilde in Love"), a made-for-TV movie released last year, 66-year-old Christiane Hörbiger plays a lovesick widow who, after a long marriage, experiences her first orgasm with a new lover. The film was an overnight hit among 7 million viewers, partly because of lines like: "Have you ever had an organism?" When Mathilde's daughter in the film stares in disbelief, Mathilde assures her that it's "incredible."

"In the South," a French film now playing in German theaters, demonstrates just how fatal the suppression of such desires can be. The 55-year-old Ellen (Charlotte Rampling) is a French professor at an American college on the East Coast. Ellen has spent the last six summers vacationing with her friend Brenda (Karen Young) at a luxurious resort in Haiti -- sex tourism, but with reversed roles. In this film, the mature American women while away their days with local boys. As Ellen says, "there's nothing in Boston for women over 40." When Brenda falls in love with Ellen's protégé Legba (Ménothy Cesar), their idyllic setup threatens to collapse. Director Laurent Cantet has created a dark, claustrophobic film about unfulfilled desire and dangerous self-deception. The supposed (sex) paradise Haiti proves to be a hell in which political unrest penetrates into secluded life at the resort.

Those who pursue their Freudian and Hollywood-esque desires seem to have a decidedly better time of it. The character Burt Munro in the road movie "The World's Fastest Indian" is one of them. Anthony Hopkins plays Munro, a cheerful New Zealand senior who travels to America with his souped-up 1920s motorcycle in a quest to break the speed record in the Utah salt desert.

Director Roger Donaldson tells the tale of the speedy senior as the typical American success story of a man who struggles against countless obstacles -- and ultimately triumphs. But Munro's greatest obstacle turns out not to be his age, but the prejudices the elderly encounter. "Everyone wants us old guys to crawl into some corner and die," the sprightly motorcyclist tells a group of younger cynics, "but I'm not ready by a long shot." It just so happens, the old man cheerfully reflects, that one can play a lot of songs on an old banjo.

Director Seidelman, who as a young woman in the 1970s was influenced by New York's punk scene, could just as well have become a sociologist or anthropologist, and it is through this lens that she observes American pop culture. "I think we should completely reinvent our ideas about age and sexuality," she says.

Ursula Staudinger, a professor of psychology at the International University Bremen, believes that the time has come for a change in attitudes. "First we have to change something in our heads. We have to internalize new images of aging." And this, says Klaus Keil, is a task that's practically made for the cinema. In a large-scale study involving psychologists, gerontologists, sociologists and market researchers Keil, the director of the Erich Pommer Institute in Potsdam outside Berlin, has examined the cinematic preferences of the 50 and older generation, a group he calls the "Best Agers." The study concludes that, although their share of the movie-going public has almost doubled in the last five years to 14 percent, Germany's more than 30 million Best Agers have hardly been taken seriously as an audience.

"The German film industry is sleeping," says Keil. While US chains like Muvico and boutique cinemas like Paris's MK2 are courting older moviegoers with high-quality fare and refined interiors, Germany has seen little movement in this direction. The problem is made glaringly obvious by a visit to any ordinary German movie theater, where the roar of THX sound is too loud for many older viewers, the advertising too long and the seats too uncomfortable. And instead of super-sized soft drinks and popcorn, the fare offered at the theaters' concession stands would be more attractive to older viewers if it included items like wine and olives.

Klaus Keil can only shake his head at theater operators' collective frenzied pursuit of the youth market. After all, the Best Agers are not just low-cost babysitters who occasionally go to the movies with their grandchildren. On the contrary, they are professional consumers who know exactly what they want: service, hospitality, polite treatment, a diverse program and movies they find relevant and with which they can identify. Keil says he could even imagine the audience staying behind to discuss a movie after it ends, which is exactly what Seidelman experienced with her audiences. "They said to me: Finally someone is telling our story. This wasn't just any old movie for these older people, but practically a political manifesto." The revolution has already begun.

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