Senior movie characters that defy ageist stereotypes

Think about recent movies you’ve seen. How were the main characters portrayed? Did it occur to you those portrayals might influence opinions about segments of the population?

It did occur to Amica Senior Lifestyles, an Ontario-based retirement residence company that recently conducted a study of senior actors and the movie characters they play. The study reviewed the top 50 box-office-earning movies of 2021, along with the top 50 movies from 2010 and 2000. Researchers also counted the number of actors aged 60 and older, analyzing main and supporting roles.  

“We conducted this study to find out if ageism in the movies had changed over time, and also how seniors are being represented to the public today,” said Bruce Canales, digital strategist for Amica.

The study results are both good and bad: The frequency of seniors in the main cast of Hollywood movies has increased 30% since 2000, yet only 2% of top 2021 movies featured senior lead actors.

Senior roles on the big screen

Amica’s study found the most common roles for seniors in top 2021 movies were parental figures, with authority figures like politicians and monarchs coming in second. Finally, seniors were often portrayed in military roles—typically high-ranking officials.

Amica Senior Lifestyles

Showing seniors in this light is positive, noted Canales.

“While some senior characters are stereotyped as ‘frail’ or ‘grumpy,’ our data also shows that they’re more likely to be high-ranking military or political figures—which challenges this idea of fragility already.”

While positions of authority portray strength, it’s interesting to note that 60.8% of senior characters were villains in top 2021 movies, compared to only 39.2% heroes.

infographic showing 60.8% of seniors played villains and 39.2% played heroes in 2021 movies
Amica Senior Lifestyles

“We spoke to expert counselors on the impact of seniors in movies on children, and this showed that the roles seniors land in the industry can potentially lead children to form misguided views of seniors,” said Canales. “With 60% of senior roles being ‘the bad guys,’ this can impact children’s perceptions of seniors who have limited life experience.”

 The roles seniors land in the industry can potentially lead children to form misguided views of seniors.

The study also showed some gender and race bias, with senior women playing in only 28.57% of the highest-grossing movies in 2021 and 74.49% of senior stars in these movies being white. Those numbers seem to be gradually changing as well, however. Top movies in 2000 included only 18.75% senior women actresses, and 2010 showed 21.85%. White senior cast members decreased in 2021 from 97.39% in 2010, and Black senior cast members increased from 1.74% to 8.97% in the same time period.

Film portrayal versus reality

Earlier studies may further illustrate a shift in how senior actors are portrayed in Hollywood. Studies of 2015 films and seniors’ viewpoints on their media representation showed not only that movies underrepresented, mischaracterized and demeaned seniors, but that most seniors did not fit the stereotypes portrayed on the big screen.

A study conducted by the University of Southern California Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism examined characters over 60 in the 100 most popular domestic movies of 2015. A Humana Inc. study, conducted in tandem, surveyed U.S. adults 60 or older, asking them to indicate the importance of certain traits and perceptions as people age, to rate themselves against the same attributes, and to provide information about their health and activity levels.

Key findings include:

  • Just 11% of characters were 60 or older, compared to the 18.5% in that age group living in the United States.
  • More than half of the films with leading senior characters featured ageist comments like “frail old woman” and “senile old man.”
  • Only 29.1% of leading and supporting characters engaged with technology.

 In answer to these film portrayals, the Humana survey revealed that:

  • Most survey respondents – 84.4% – said they used technology on a weekly basis.
  • Respondents rated self-reliance, awareness, honesty, resilience and safety as the top traits most important to aging successfully. These traits were rarely portrayed in films.       

In comparison to the 2015 studies, the 2021 Amica study seems to indicate a shift toward seniors playing more independent, powerful characters versus frail or feeble-minded ones.

“The data shows the industry is changing over time; they likely recognize there is a problem and are actively trying to fix it,” said Canales. “People want to see unique stories in the movies they watch, and hopefully this trend continues to allow us to see more seniors on the big screen.”

Canales noted that only 2% of 2021’s top movies had a senior lead actor. Compare that to seniors making up around 16% of the population in America and Canada, and there’s a disconnect between film portrayal and reality.

“It would be great to see more movies with diverse senior characters,” he said. “Our study shows the industry relies on military officials or politicians; ideas away from that would challenge the audience’s expectations. Movies with strong senior characters would also be great for younger viewers. You only have to look at Pixar’s ‘Up’ from 2009 to see how well that can work.”

Movies with positive senior characters

Many senior actors and actresses in Hollywood have portrayed diverse, strong characters. 24/7 Wall St.’s 50 most famous actors over 70 shows the likes of Susan Sarandon, 75, and James Caan, 82, scoring more than 100 acting credits. IMDB top actors and actresses in their 60s includes acting legends like Tom Hanks, 65, and Frances McDormand, 64, whom Amica noted has the highest IMBD audience ratings across her acting career compared to other senior actors.

If you’re looking for movie recommendations with positive senior stories and characters, try one of these titles for your next movie night:

  • “Up” (2009), starring Edward Asner as a senior who travels to Paradise Falls in a house equipped with balloons, inadvertently taking a young Boy Scout with him.
  • “The Intern” (2015), featuring Robert De Niro, as a widower who goes to work as a senior intern at an online fashion site.
  • “The Bucket List” (2007), starring Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman, who escape from a cancer ward and go on a road trip to fulfill their wish lists.
  • “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” (2011), with Judi Dench, Bill Nighy and Maggie Smith as retirees who take an exotic adventure to India.
  • “Get Low” (2009), with Robert Duvall, Bill Murray and Sissy Spacek telling the tale of a 1930s hermit who threw his own funeral party while he was still alive.
  • “Letters to Juliet” (2010), with Amanda Seyfried starring alongside Vanessa Redgrave in a story of a woman who finds unanswered “letters to Juliet” in Italy and endeavors to find the lovers referenced in the letters.
  • “The Irishman” (2019), starring Robert De Niro, Al Pacino and Joe Pesci, about a hitman looking back on the secrets he kept as a loyal crime family member.
  • “Gran Torino” (2008), starring Clint Eastwood as a Korean War veteran who sets out to reform his young neighbor when he attempts to steal his Gran Torino.
  • “Million Dollar Baby” (2004), starring Clint Eastwood as a hardened boxing trainer for Hilary Swank. Also co-starring Morgan Freeman.
  • “Young at Heart” (2007), a documentary on a chorus of seniors who cover songs by the likes of Jimi Hendrix and Coldplay.
  • “Waking Ned Devine” (1998), starring Ian Bannen, David Kelly and Fionnula Flanagan, telling the story of an Irish lottery winner who dies of shock and the townspeople who try to collect the money.
  • “Book Club” (2018), starring Jane Fonda, Diane Keaton and Candice Bergen, longtime friends whose book club keeps them together through life’s challenges.
  • “The Last Word” (2017), starring Shirley MacLaine as a dying businesswoman who decides to write her own obituary and, in the process, strikes up an unlikely friendship with a young journalist.
  • “Swan Song” (2021), a futuristic tale starring Mahershala Ali as a man who decides to duplicate himself, with co-star Glen Close playing a doctor.
  • “Still Alice” (2014), with Julianne Moore, a linguistics professor who unexpectedly develops early-onset Alzheimer’s disease.