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Film characters often match age-old stereotypes without revealing the complex, diverse nature of human personality. Attempts to remedy that oversight may miss their mark—especially if the screenwriters are writing about a group to which neither belongs.
How is it, for example, that we expect older people to be laughable beyond differences in culture? Recently, my husband and I viewed the film Hello, My Name is Doris with Sally Field in the starring role. The story depicts an older woman (perhaps in her sixties?) who spent her life caring for her mother instead of living, so that she’s a relic of another time. She falls in love with a much, much younger co-worker who treats her with kindness but not passion.
Even the immense talent of Sally Field couldn’t save this film for me. First, Doris dresses in a style that would’ve been eccentric in the 1970’s. She wears an immense bow in the top front of her hair, disguising a fall that happens to match her brown hair perfectly. (That’s a trick for an aging woman.) Perhaps the designers were cueing off fashions of the 1940’s, but then Doris should be much older. And, since she has never stopped working in a city office, shouldn’t she have some idea of passing styles? Her wildly oddball appearance would make sense only if she had spent her lonely years utterly isolated or under a bridge in a partial stupor. Even her mother, shown in funeral photos, appears more appropriate.
Next, Doris investigates the preferences of the man she adores, enthusiastically joining him at an electronic concert. But when the lead singer asks her what she thought of the performance, she tells him the music was too loud and the words sometimes profane. If she wanted desperately to fit in, would she criticize—especially when she had already spent time listening to a CD by the group? Suddenly, she’s channeling her mother—something she would never knowingly do. She may be a character, but she isn’t stupid. And why, if she’s essentially such an engagingly unique personality, doesn’t she have any friends in her office after all these years? How can we accept that the young man would ever have a chance of seeing her as anything but a sweet old lady?
I was most upset by the ending. I realize “time to move forward” is a popular theme for middle-agers who need to identify what isn’t working in life. I agree. And Doris certainly needs to re-evaluate her situation. But when she allows her brother and his selfish wife to talk her into emptying her house (the family home on Staten Island) for a quick sale before she quits her job, I felt betrayed. Decluttering her home was certainly in order, but where would she go? Her only friends are neighbors. Are we supposed to believe she could find a job elsewhere at her age? Even her share of the profits from her home would never be enough to sustain her for the remainder of her life. She would end up under that bridge.
The story of a lonely woman yearning for the life she denied herself could’ve been immensely touching, but we needed to feel the woman beneath the wrinkles. Sally Field needed permission to give a more nuanced performance. After all, inside we always feel the same. We laugh; we hurt; we love. Aiming for broad humor, the authors shortchanged all of us who survive beyond middle age. This was the kind of film the Europeans often create with more success. Do Americans want to deny the realities of aging?