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  • Lisa Jevens

Today's seniors enjoying a new Golden Age of Hollywood

Many of today's seniors had the good fortune of growing up in the Golden Age of Hollywood, when anyone could pay a nickel or a dime to see their matinee idols shoot 'em up in a Western, dance on air in a musical, solve a mystery or fall in love. After arriving at the neighborhood movie palace, the entertainment began with a cartoon or newsreel before the main event.

"I liked movies ever since I was a little girl," says Joan Fox, 77, a resident of Smith Crossing who grew up on Chicago's South Side. "I used to go every Saturday with my brother and my cousin. We would see early matinees. The stories continued from week to week, with Roy Rogers and Gene Autry."

Now it seems Hollywood has found and engaged movie lovers like Fox once again.

Age at the Oscars

If you watched the Oscars the last couple of years, you've probably noticed that Hollywood is getting grayer, in a good way. Mature actors, films, and issues are taking the spotlight.

A-list actors in their 60s, 70s and 80s are not retiring. Instead they're turning out the hits. Consider Meryl Streep, 63, Dustin Hoffman, 75, Helen Mirren, 67, Dame Maggie Smith, 78, Judy Dench, 78, Jack Nicholson, 75, Billy Crystal, 65, Bette Midler, 67. Their performances are regularly nominated for those coveted golden statues. Movies such as "The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel," "Amour," "Quartet," "The Queen," and "The Iron Lady" have been nominated for and/or earned Academy Awards. These films are popular because they are good, but also because they bring the ups and downs of aging into the spotlight in a realistic way, seniors like Fox say. Older people are no longer stereotypical minor characters, but the main attraction.

Pass the popcorn

Many senior communities are equipped with movie theater rooms with projection or large-screen TVs and sound systems that mimic a theater experience. There, residents can enjoy movies without going out, and enjoy discussing them afterwards.

Smith Crossing, a continuing care retirement community in Orland Park, has just started using its new movie theater. One of the first movies shown was "The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel," which features a group of British seniors who travel to India. Resident Services Director Katie Liston says it was standing-room-only for that film. Now they have a regular Wednesday movie night. "I liked it very much," Fox says of "Marigold." "It reminded me of this place, but on a whole different level. Those seniors were really brave to try it so far from home."

Fox also liked "The Bucket List" and "Click," an Adam Sandler movie. "He is able to take his remote control and make his life go faster and it gets out of control, and all of a sudden he is really old," she says. "It's really interesting to see all the things he regretted along the way." Her takeaway: "Life seems to go by really fast."

The Mather, a CCRC in Evanston, also has a beautiful theater. The Mather shows three films per day both there and in another location in the building.

Movie committee co-chair and resident Dorothy Harza, 83, uses The Mather's Netflix account to order whatever fellow residents request. Their tastes vary from 1940s and 1950s G-rated classics to foreign films to art films. "We do not choose movies simply because they are about older people, and we tend not to do action hero or science fiction stuff," she says.

One movie she is looking forward to showing is "Amour," which recently won the Oscar for Best Foreign Film. It chronicles the demise of a woman who has a stroke and eventually dies, while being cared for by her husband in their Paris apartment, all portrayed with stark realism.

"I felt it dealt with issues of life with an old person such as autonomy, which are not frequently portrayed," Harza says.

Harza also liked the way the movie showed "the strength of affection in relationships where you have been married for 50-plus years," as Harza herself has.

Age of Champions

The "silver" screen trend has not escaped the younger generation of filmmakers.

Twenty-eight-year-old filmmaking partners Keith Ochwat (producer) and Christopher Rufo (director) have released a documentary on the Senior Olympics, called "Age of Champions," which they made for PBS.

"When we started making this movie in 2009, the trend of seniors and senior issues in leading roles had not taken off," Ochwat says.

One of the appeals of making "Age of Champions" was filling that void, he says. "There were not that many films about older people in a positive light. They were in a stereotypical role: the wise person, or they're dying. "Now he says the older person being the star is becoming more common. "It reflects the changing demographics in America, and the movie industry is a reflection of the culture of the country," he says.

After his film came out last year, Ochwat has been traversing the cou

ntry showing it at film festivals and senior communities, with more than 1,000 screenings already. The response? "Phenomenal."

"The senior living world really embraced our film. Before that I had never set foot in a senior living community. I had ideas of what it would be like, and it turns out most of them were wrong." he says. "It has been wonderful. "Ochwat was scheduled for a stop at The Mather April 5 for a screening and discussion. The film also will air on PBS in August coinciding with the Senior Olympics (National Senior Games) July 19-Aug. 1.

Originally published in the Chicago Tribune Prime Time Senior Living section on April 8, 2013.

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