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

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

And so we arrive at the top ten films about middle age, at which point I must
finally ask myself: did I become a perpetual adolescent because I make lists,
or do I make lists because I’m a perpetual adolescent?  At any rate, while I had intended to exorcise
my inner fanboy by accepting my age, I find that I have simply repeated
patterns already set.  Perhaps this is
what it really means to be stuck in the middle…

10.       Georgia (1985)


Nothing is worse than being compared unfavorably with a more
successful sibling, and the virtue of this film is that it doesn’t take that
predictable and judgmental route. 
Although the downward spiral taken by drug-abusing singer Sadie
(Jennifer Jason Leigh) is a sad one, the staid, predictable life of her sister
Georgia (Mare Winningham) is hardly exemplary. 
The choice to name the film after the less compelling sister is an apt
one, reflecting as it does her commercial success as compared to her needy and
depressive sister’s lack thereof.  Although the
encounters between the sisters are ostensibly the film’s center, the real drama
occurs onstage.  Director Ulu Grosbard
lets the camera roll allowing Leigh to give some of the most emotionally
exhausting performances of her life, screeching her way through alt-country
numbers as she bares every nerve.  Like
her life, these scenes verge on the unbearable, but are infinitely more
fascinating than her sister’s accomplished but ultimately dull renditions of
folk classics.  While films about
musicians usually suggest that it’s better to burn out than to fade away, this
one actually suggests there might be a dark virtue in doing both at the same

 9.        Jackie


The opening credit sequence of this film alone makes it
worthy of inclusion on this list, as we watch a middle-aged flight attendant
ride a moving walkway through LAX to the accompaniment of Bobby Womack’s
“Across 110th Street.”  Pam
Grier conveys a mood of resignation as the automatic machinery of her life
pulls her forward, the blue mosaic tiles rolling by behind her, marking the
passage of time.  By casting a middle-aged
black woman as the central character in a crime drama, Quentin Tarantino not
only revives the politics of liberation that fueled the blacksploitation genre
in the seventies, but also explores the role nostalgia plays in our lives.  The film’s touching portrayal of awakening
mid-life passion, in the relationship between Jackie and her bond agent Max
Cherry (in a mesmerizing late performance by seventies character actor Robert
Forster), is conveyed by the couple’s mutual fascination with Philly soul group
The Delfonics.  Although Jackie’s
criminal life prevents her and Max from finally getting together, they are
still able to share the past.

8.         Hannah and Her Sisters (1986)


A film with a happy ending for a change, although the
anguished moments the characters go through to arrive continue to linger even
while they celebrate that rare thing: a happy Thanksgiving.  Structured around three main narratives, providing
intimate perspectives on the many ways of being stuck in the middle, the story
gradually weaves these different experiences together so seamlessly that we
conclude feeling like we’ve lived an entire life in the two years of the
story’s tight arc.  From Elliott’s
(Michael Caine) reawakening of passion for his wife’s sister, to Holly’s
(Dianne Wiest) stumbling attempts to find her life’s direction, to
hypochondriac Mickey’s (Woody Allen) belatedly discovering joy as the meaning
of life, all reflect on distinct aspects of the middle age experience.  The settings, too, resonate with a nostalgia
only those of us past our thirties can know: wandering through New York’s old
bookshops, seeing a Marx Brothers movie at the Metro, and bumping into an old
acquaintance while shopping at Tower Records: these lost places are almost as
romantic as the love affairs.

7.         All That Heaven Allows (1955)


Lavish Hollywood melodrama at its finest, this also remains
a daring account of a Spring-Autumn romance, largely because of its reversal of
the expected gender roles.  Middle-age
and well-to-do Cary Scott (Jane Wyman) falls for her hunky gardener Ron (Rock
Hudson) and Cary’s propriety-obsessed set is scandalized.  Particularly incensed are her daughters, who
so forcefully scorn her that she gives up her paramour.  In one of the most painful scenes of 1950s
American cinema, the children give their mother a television set to keep her
company, now that they are all moving away from home.  But in time-honored melodramatic convention,
they are reunited via an improbable deus
ex machina
, and the film ends with a lapidary Technicolor image of a deer in
the snow blessing their reunion, so kitsch it actually works.  It’s all so marvelously complete that when
Todd Haynes reprised it in Far From
he could only write in the margins.

6.         Groundhog Day (1993)


Bill Murray was forty-three when he made this
film. The premise of being trapped in a repetitive life is a quintessentially
middle-aged dilemma; and thankfully, so is the promise of self-reinvention that
the story offers.  The brilliance of the
film’s conceit is in the fact that only by embracing every nuance of what we
see every day can we make it new, a potent metaphor for the possibilities that
lie in what seems to confine us.  As a
revision of Frank Capra’s It’s a
Wonderful Life
, Harold Ramis’ masterpiece brings a greater sense of
relevance and urgency to the premise of appreciating what you’ve got by
shifting the emphasis away from small-town communities and into the experience
of rutted repetition in general.  The
result is at once more universal and more precise, and I continue to go back to
this film for perspective on whatever frustrates me.

5.         Savages (2007)


Tamara Jenkins’ subtle, understated account of two alienated
siblings dealing with their father’s dementia is a darkly comic relief from the
sentimental twaddle with which such life-experiences are too often met.  Philip Seymour Hoffman gives one of his
subtlest performances as Jon Savage, who teaches drama in a Buffalo college while
writing a book about Bertolt Brecht.  His
sister Wendy, played by Laura Linney with a curious mixture of childishness and
world-weariness, is a struggling playwright so anxious about her lack of
success that she lies to her brother about receiving a Guggenheim Grant.  These mid-life dramas are played out against
a background of encroaching mortality, which the characters confront with a
gracelessness so extreme it verges on grace. 
In one particularly brilliant scene, during an argument in the parking
lot of a high-class nursing home from which their father has just been
rejected, Jon shouts: “People are DYING, Wendy! Right inside that beautiful
building — right now! It’s a fucking HORROR show! And all this wellness
propaganda and landscaping is just trying to obscure the miserable fact that
people die and death is gaseous and gruesome and filled with piss and shit and
rot and stink!” The camera then pulls back to reveal a nurse pushing an elderly
patient past in a wheelchair, and Jon and Wendy hang their heads in shame.  Mixing dry wit with stark sadness, the film
is something like what Charles M. Schulz might have produced in later life if
he hadn’t been stuck writing comic strips about children.

4.         Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (1974)


Focusing on a female character for a change, Martin
Scorsese’s portrait of Alice (Ellen Burstyn), a middle-age woman struggling to
make it after the death of her husband, flirts with the conventions of
melodrama, though tempered by astonishing candor and naturalism.  If Burstyn never made another film, this
should have been enough to make her a legend, and her interactions with her
mouthy son Tommy (Alfred Lutter) are as funny and endearing as those in Paper Moon.  Like that film, this is also an unconventional
road movie, but instead of selling bibles, Alice is trying to sell herself, as
a singer that is, and Scorcese films her sweet but rather awkward performance
scenes with a touching intimacy that doesn’t cover up or mock the signs of age
that lie just beneath her make-up and tawdry dress.  The tensions that beset her developing love
affair with rancher David (Kris Kristofferson) are real, as when he disciplines
Tommy to harshly for her mother’s liking, so that when the film concludes with
a rather formulaic happy ending, you believe it because you want to.  Burstyn’s Alice may be film’s most enduring
and endearing middle-age everywoman.

3.         Close Encounters of the Third Kind


“Like Halloween for grown-ups,” Roy (Richard Dreyfuss) says to Jillian (Melinda Dillon) as they
anxiously wait for the aliens to arrive, and indeed the entire film is a
magical evocation of the resurrection of childhood dreams in middle age.  What keeps this from straying into the trite
sentimentality of Spielberg’s later fantasy films is its attention to the emotional
costs of following the sense of wonder, as Roy increasingly alienates and is
ultimately abandoned by his family.  “I
guess you’ve noticed something a little strange with old Dad,” Roy says with rueful self-mockery, and he might be talking about any number of mid-life
crises.  But the magic of this film is in
the realization of Roy’s dream of escape, one that is anything but nihilistic
but almost an evolutionary step beyond the human self, as the realization of a
fantasy becomes a kind of heroism.

2.         Amarcord (1973)


With a few minor exceptions, none of the characters in this
film are middle-aged, only the director, as he brings his childhood past to
lavish life with unembarrassed affection and hyperbole.  Was the snow once so deep that the townspeople
had to dig paths like high ceilinged corridors through the streets?  Did the cruise ship come that close when the
bewitched boaters rowed out to see its dazzling lights at night?  Was the late-winter bonfire really that
high?  Were the tobacconist’s breasts
really that big?  Of course not, and
that’s the whole point.  Fellini
simultaneously mocks and relishes nostalgia’s penchant for fabrication,
creating a magical realist portrait of a world that hasn’t so much faded away
as never really existed, except in the middle-aged film-maker’s mind.

1. Adaptation


Mid-life self-doubt as post-modernism: this is Charlie
Kaufman’s raison d’etre and this may well be his finest, most ambitious
rendering of that wholly original conception. 
In this layered self-portrait we watch Kaufman struggle to adapt Susan
Orleans’ seemingly unadaptable The Orchid
, as the struggle becomes a metaphor for, or perhaps just the most
acute manifestation of, a mid-life crisis. 
Just as Kaufman is unable to settle on one plot line he is incapable of
opening himself up to others, particularly to his female friend Amelia Kavan
(Cara Seymour), on whom he has a blindingly obvious crush.  Kaufman’s divided self is hilariously
embodied by his twin brother Donald, both played by Nicholas Cage in what is
surely his greatest performance. 
Kaufman’s anxieties are matched by Susan Orleans’ herself, whose loss of
passion forms a subtext to her book: “I want to know how it feels like to care
about something passionately,” she writes, and this desire to desire draws her
to orchid hustler John Laroche (Chris Cooper). 
She discovers that to care passionately about something “whittles the
world down to a more manageable size,” and this becomes the principle
discovered by Kaufman as he puts his script and his life into a (barely)
manageable order.

[Click here to read Part One of this journey into the films of middle age…]

[Click here to read Part Two 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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