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Friday, November 9, 2007

Swan Songs, Part 2 (originally published 8/00)

Old age, as my octogenarian father likes to point out, is not for wimps. No matter how sanguine we may be about the aging process, there are aspects of it that are unavoidably daunting. I'm not necessarily talking here about serious illness, which, after all, can strike at any age. I think that the most debilitating aspect of growing older is psychological, not physiological.

Aging, as we all know, doesn't affect everyone the same way. Some people seem frail and feeble at seventy while others remain robust and independent into their eighties and beyond. It seems to me that the difference has much to do with their attitude toward their seniority. For those who assume that their best days must be behind them, it must be surpassingly difficult to summon the energy to take on the endless challenges of growing older.

That's why it is important for our storytellers to regale us from time to time with examples of how those who seem to be past their prime can in fact still reach a new high watermark in their lives. Certainly that type of "swan song" story remains perennially popular on the big screen. Consider, for example, this year's "Space Cowboys" and "The Crew." As we saw last week, the Western genre is especially well suited to swan song stories, but not exclusively so. Here are some non-Western swan song movies to look for on home video.

"Limelight" (1952). In his next to last starring role, Charlie Chaplin plays a down and out former English music hall comedian called Calvero. Chaplin, who, as was his custom, also wrote, produced, and directed the film, presents Calvero as a man whose glory days are long gone. Unable to work in the profession he loves, he seems to be just marking time while waiting for the release of death. When he meets a dispirited young dancer named Terry, played by Claire Bloom, he seems to acquire a new purpose in life, devoting himself to restoring her confidence. Ultimately, he is persuaded to follow the same never-say-die advice he has been giving Terry when a prominent impresario engages him for a comeback benefit performance.

"The Sunshine Boys" (1975). Neil Simon's screenplay revolves around a pair of retired comics who were headliners in vaudeville. They've been asked to come out of retirement to do their signature sketch, a routine that takes place in a doctor's office, for a television special. The only problem is that they can't stand each other. The film works largely because of the wonderful performances of Walter Matthau and George Burns as the two crusty old-timers. It was this film, by the way, and not "Oh, God!" (1977), as many people think, that marked Burns's return to the big screen after nearly forty years.

"Going in Style" (1979). With the twin triumphs of "The Sunshine Boys" and "Oh, God!" under his belt, there was no stopping George Burns. One of the best roles of this latter phase of his career was in this overlooked gem by writer-director Martin Brest. Burns, Art Carney, and Lee Strasberg play three retirees who concoct a plot to rob a bank. They're doing it not so much out of economic need as out of boredom, and a need to prove to themselves that they're still up to the challenge of carrying through a difficult undertaking. Also, it's a way of striking back at a society that treats them with utter indifference. Burns, Carney, and Strasberg are a joy to watch. The three old pros, drawing on well over a century of combined acting experience, make the most of a clever script that is both funny and moving.

As the Baby Boom generation continues to age, I expect to see an increased interest in swan song stories throughout popular culture, most especially in the movies and on television. The youth market will no doubt continue to be an important demographic, but we Boomers remain a formidable market as well, by virtue of our sheer numbers. As the years go by, we're going to need ever more reassurance, and, as Steven Spielberg's beard continues to shade into grey, I have a feeling that we're going to get it.

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