Instead of watching rom-coms that end just as the couple exchanges vows, I’m celebrating lovers that make it through the long haul.
In my twenties, I was sure that romance was the exclusive domain of young, beautiful actors. Sure, older people fell in love, in theory, but who’d want to watch that? Ew.
In my fifties—surprise, surprise—I’ve had a change of heart. I can’t wait to see 45 Years. I’m thrilled (and a bit jealous) when 70-something Blythe Danner illuminates the screen in I’ll See You in My Dreams. I’m the first in line to see rom-coms like Hope Springs and Something’s Gotta Give.
In short, I’ve outgrown movies about young people finding “soul mates” who just happen to come wrapped in smooth skin, flat abs, and high hopes. But show me a lover with a few wrinkles or a little paunch, and I’m in. When I saw Alec Baldwin in The Hunt for Red October back in 1990, I thought he was the sexiest man alive, but now that I’ve seen his flabby butt in bed with Meryl Streep in It’s Complicated, I adore him more than ever. He’s more interesting, more vulnerable.
Ever notice how love stories about young people often end with a wedding? The wedding’s not the end of the story, it’s the beginning. Films about old love tell the rest of the tale. They show how people keep trundling along together, even as they tote the baggage they inevitably accumulate throughout the years. A wedding is not “happy ever after.” Happy ever after is … well, what comes after.
One of my favorite “old love” stories takes place in the opening minutes of the animated film, Up. We learn how grumpy old Carl and his wife Ellie met as youngsters. They shared big dreams, married, and aged together. But those dreams never came true. Life was fraught with disappointment and loss—but still sweet. In my book, it’s the most moving and romantic 10 minutes in film history.
Later-in-life love is necessarily entwined with loss. Often love comes along on the heels of a divorce or a death. So in The Intern, when Robert De Niro’s first date with Rene Russo ends up at a funeral, it’s not just a joke about the old guy. It’s about what makes love even more precious for all of us as time passes.
Revisiting movies that I first saw in my twenties has shown me how my notions of love have changed. After first seeing Terms of Endearment, I would’ve told you it was about Debra Winger and her lovable louse of a husband. But re-watching it today, I only have eyes for fifty-something lovers Aurora (Shirley MacLaine) and Garrett (Jack Nicholson). I feel Aurora’s anxiety as she gazes in the mirror, assessing her body while awaiting Garrett, who’s heading to her bedroom to “look at her Renoir.” Baring a young body to a new lover can be vulnerable, yes, but bearing a middle-aged body to another human being takes real courage. I understand now, as my 23-year-old self never could, that Aurora is a badass.
My young self squirmed when Katharine Hepburn picked leeches off Humphrey Bogart’s back in The African Queen. Now, the intimacy of that scene makes me sigh. It’s not just about the harsh reality of the African backwater. For older people, love sooner or later means having each other’s backs through harsh realities: physical infirmity, career setbacks, money problems. Princesses may need to kiss a few frogs, but longtime lovers need to pick off a few leeches now and then.
So, next Valentine’s Day (yes I’m already thinking about it), I’m going to curl up with a movie about love that’s hard won, or that takes courage after your heart’s been broken—that involves bodies and souls with some mileage on them. In other words, a movie about the ever after.