Swinging Seniors: In Which Several Classic Era Movie Stars “Get With It” in the Age of Aquarius

We are at an interesting historical moment. Baby Boomers, a generation which once pegged its identity to youth, are now Senior Citizens. But it’s become difficult to know what age means any more, in terms of cultural markers. Dignity was once a bellwether that was supposed to attach to age. The old acted one way (mature, serious, sedate, grounded), the young acted another way (unmoored, experimental, free). For a time, the difference was so pronounced they had a name for it: the Generation Gap. In the sixties you could actually generate comedy by having older people engage in the styles and practices of young people. The results were usually mortifying for all concerned. Here, for the mordbidly curious, are several moments from movies of the rock era where stars from Hollywood’s Classic Period found themselves mimicking the Now Generation.

Fred Astaire, Silk Stockings (1957)

An early entry. In the “Ritz Roll and Rock” number from Silk Stockings Fred Astaire does indeed sing a rock and roll song. It’s meant to be satirical but that doesn’t make it any less unfortunate. At the end of the song he symbolically crushes his top hat, but he would never truly leave his old identity behind.

Bette Davis, Whatever Happened to Baby Jane song (1962)

To promote the film Whatever Happened to Baby Jane, Bette Davis recorded this rock and roll song, and sang and danced to it on television. It’s all an intentional goof of course, not terribly different from “I’m Writing a Letter to Daddy” from the film itself.

Cary GrantCharade (1963)

This is the subtlest such moment on the list, one we’re apt to miss because Cary Grant is, well Cary Grant. But the star was nearing 60 at the time of the film’s release; the script has him self-reflexively making age jokes at his own expense throughout. In one scene, he goes to a nightclub with Audrey Hepburn, and they are drawn into an ice-breaking party game where everyone is meant to pass an orange to one another using any part of the body except the hands. It’s meant to show how awkward, square and prudish Cary is in comparison with the much younger Hepburn.

Shelley Winters, Wild in the Streets (1968)

Winters plays the mother of hippie demagogue Max Frost (Christopher Jones) in this classic sixties exploitation film. At first she is the typical nagging suburban number. But when Frost changes the culture, she changes with it, becoming a pot smoking hippie woman with predictably delightful results.

Ingrid Bergman, Cactus Flower (1969)

Bergman plays the middle age receptionist of married dentist Walter Matthau who has been seeing Goldie Hawn. Bergman wants him for herself of course. In one of the film’s more memorable moments Bergman joins Hawn on the dance floor and does the frug and other sixties dances. She is as stiff and awkward at it as you might imagine, lovely though she is. I couldn’t find a good clip of just the dance, but it’s worth watching the entire movie. It’s quite a time capsule and Hawn won an Oscar for her performance.

Bob Hope, How to Commit Marriage (1969)

In this all-star, complicated and slow moving farce, Bob Hope and Jane Wyman play a couple who are in the process of getting divorced, even as their daughter is in the process of getting married. In an attempt to infiltrate the culture of his new in-law, record producer Jackie Gleason, Hope dons hippie garb, including a Nehru jacket and jewelry. It’s a sight one wishes one could unsee.

Lana Turner, The Big Cube (1969)

In The Big Cube, a scheming lover slips some LSD to wealthy actress Lana Turner, making her an unwilling participant in the counterculture. As the photo above demonstrates, we all go along with her on her Bad Trip.

Ernest Borgnine, Bette Davis in “Bunny O’Hare” (1971″

Ernest Borgnine and Bette Davis in Bunny O’Hare (1971)

In this low budget AIP feature,  old folks Ernest Borgnine and Bette Davis become a couple of robbers disguised as motorcycle riding hippies. If I’d been writing film reviews at the time I might have headlined it Wheezy Rider.

After the ’70s something astonishing happened. The line between old and young (mature and immature) became blurred, or at any rate, most older people persisted in wearing the styles (and adopting the mores) of the young, and there were no longer any clear-cut markers. The political fruits of that revolution have been, in a word, disastrous. We’ll save that can of worms for another time and place.

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