Hollywood wrestles with an aging America

Tom Long
The Detroit News

America is aging. So is Hollywood.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, two very big factors — the baby boomer demographic bulge and longer life spans — are set to double the number of Americans over age 65 in the next 25 years to about 72 million. By 2030, one in five Americans will be over age 65.

Baby boomers are well aware of this, having become something of a sandwich generation that finds itself trying to care for longer-living parents while still helping the next generation grow. Families inside and outside of Tinsel Town now commonly have to consider things like assisted living, in-home medical care, crushing financial burdens and long-term ailments.

None of which is news. What’s interesting is the way the reflection of these pressures surfaced during the recent Academy Awards. Granted the vast perspective of two weeks’ time, it’s now clear that every major Oscar this year was won by a performance or work that dealt in some way with the effects and struggles of aging – physical and mental deterioration, dreams deferred, ambitions stymied and the plain blinding passage of time.


■Patricia Arquette won best supporting actress for “Boyhood,” in which she literally aged 12 years as the film was being shot. Her final big scene in the movie is a rant about being an abandoned empty nester.

■J.K. Simmons won best supporting actor for “Whiplash,” in which he plays a 60ish music professor frustrated that neither he nor his students have achieved greatness.

■Eddie Redmayne won best actor for “The Theory of Everything,” in which he played the ever more debilitated ALS-afflicted Stephen Hawking, dependent on technology and the love of others.

■Julianne Moore won best actress for “Still Alice,” in which she played a linguistics professor struggling with, and ultimately being overcome by, early-onset Alzheimers’.

■And the Oscars for best picture, best director, best original screenplay and best cinematography all went to “Birdman,” a movie about an aging former action star trying to find redemption by staging a serious Broadway drama.

This isn’t what you’d call a real shocker — the average age of an Oscar voter has been widely reported as 60 — but it is a bit eye-opening to see how thoroughly concerns about aging and infirmity permeated the proceedings.

What does it all mean? Well, older actors may have a decided advantage in Oscar races for the next few decades. And fanboys hoping to see fantasy hits like “Guardians of the Galaxy” or “The Hunger Games” included in the Oscar conversation may have to wait a decade or three.

Aside from that, it likely means the divide between which movies make money and which movies win honors will continue to grow. Yes, the film industry caters occasionally to seniors — “The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel,” a sequel to the art house hit about elderly Brits retiring in India, just arrived in theaters. But none of those Oscar-winning films made all that much money, especially when compared to blockbusters like “Guardians” or “Games.”

Hollywood will continue to play to a young audience — that’s where the money is. But when it comes time to pass judgment on quality, senior-itis is likely to play a role for years to come.