The early success of The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel in the UK proves that audiences are happy to see entertaining films about older people.
I went to see The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel at the weekend with not a little trepidation. This ensemble piece featuring some of the UK’s finest old actors playing old folk who travel to Rajasthan in India to live out their final days had a whiff of sentimentality and calculation to it that made me nervous.
I couldn’t have been more surprised and, yes, delighted by the film. Madden, writer Ol Parker and the glorious cast – Judi Dench (77), Maggie Smith (77), Tom Wilkinson (63), Bill Nighy (62), Penelope Wilton (65), Ronald Pickup (71), Celia Imrie (59) and youthful interloper Dev Patel – hit just the right note of comedy and melancholy that I was unable to resist its charms. Yes, the film is positively swimming in clichés, implausibilities and stock situations, but you forgive it its shortcomings because it has heart and wit.
The packed house in which I sat was composed of, how can I put it, the target demographic. Several audience members had to be helped to their seats and a wheelchair or two were in evidence. The response to the film was euphoric, and I left the theatre thinking that Fox had a hit on its hands.
Sure enough, the weekend numbers in the UK were stunning - $3.5m in its first three days. I can only imagine that the film has a long life ahead, bearing in mind that many old people don’t rush out to see films on opening weekend but will be infected by strong word of mouth in the weeks ahead. And it’s not just mature moviegoers that are liking it. A friend told me that he had seen it with a younger audience.
I can only imagine that when it opens on May 4 in the US, it will be a similarly sized hit. The older demographic – the blue rinse brigade, as it’s often referred to – is underserved, and the summer counter-programming strategy could allow the film to run for months and months.
Of course, there aren’t many films made about life in the twilight years, and none as much fun as this one. Hollywood generally avoids senior stories – with the blockbusting exceptions of Cocoon and Driving Miss Daisy – because older actors, as we are regularly and insistently told, are unable to attract audiences. Actresses have surgery to look young for fear that they will lose their market value, while leading men who used to command $20m paydays are awkwardly relegated into secondary and then tertiary roles.
What Dames like Dench and Smith continue to show, however, is that these assumptions about star power are not strictly true. As Mrs Brown and Mrs Henderson, in Cranford or Notes On A Scandal, Dench is a commanding leading lady with a huge audience following. Smith, meanwhile, is perhaps one of the chief factors in Downton Abbey’s global success and has consistently proved in recent years that she can carry a project whether it be My House In Umbria or Ladies In Lavender (with Dench).
The same of course goes for younger actors like Helen Mirren (66), Meryl Streep (62), Liam Neeson (59), Denzel Washington (57), and Bruce Willis (56).
And they are popular not just with older audiences. RED, the senior citizen action movie with Willis, Mirren and Morgan Freeman (74), grossed over $180m worldwide and a sequel is in the works. On TV, actors like Sally Field (65), Glenn Close (64), Kathy Bates (63) and Jessica Lange (62) have had hit shows built around them.
General audiences aren’t as ageist as we take them for, and perhaps The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel and Dustin Hoffman’s upcoming comedy Quartet starring Dame Maggie and Michael Gambon will together kickstart a new genre of movies about older people. If anything, it’s a trend which could unleash the spending power of the grey dollar.