Hollywood's Problem With Senior-Citizen Sex

The newly reissued Harold and Maude is funny—but it didn't treat Maude's love life as a joke.

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Paramount

In the oddball film classic Harold and Maude, which The Criterion Collection released this week for the first time on Blu-Ray, a morose young man with a peculiar genius for faking his suicide falls for a free-spirited woman who is pushing 80. The wonderful actress Ruth Gordon, who was roughly the same age as her character when she starred in the film, both looked her years and gorgeous.

Could the film have been made today? Probably not.

"Actresses are now getting Botox in their 20s to stave off wrinkles," says Melanie Davis, co-president of the Sexuality and Aging Consortium at Widener University in Chester, Pennsylvania. "But consider how beautifully wrinkled Ruth Gordon was in Harold and Maude. The movie wouldn't have had nearly enough charm had she looked 20 years younger."

"When older couples are seen, they are rarely out of their 60s, and their sexuality is presented as something amusing or cute."

Indeed. While Harold and Maude's absurdist plot pivots on the extremity of the May-December romance, its magic has to do with how we aren't supposed to take Gordon's character entirely seriously as an object of sexual desire ... and yet, despite ourselves, we do. As Harold (played by Bud Cort, in the performance of a lifetime) falls for her, so do we. A post-coital scene—in which Harold sits up in bed, blowing bubbles in a state of semi-delirious satisfaction while Maude sleeps—is believable as a stand-in for the pleasures that came before it because Gordon's vitality, sensuality, and physical magnificence are so powerful. (The look of maniacal pleasure on Cort's face helps, too.) And though Harold and Maude is a black comedy that premiered more than 30 years ago, it's hard to find a subsequent film that depicts an older person, particularly an older woman, with so much dignity and tenderness—as someone comfortable with her age, who is sexually active and quite attractive. That's dismaying because seniors who age naturally can be babes, as Gordon makes clear, and they do have sexual needs and lives; to omit their reality is to omit part of the human experience.

"Senior sexuality has been ignored, viewed as simply a joke or an aberration, or at least not depicted realistically in many Hollywood films," says Tim Dirks, a senior editor and film historian for FilmSite.org, a comprehensive movie portal run by American Movie Classics. Davis agrees. "Despite some glimmers of hope, Hollywood is still enamored with youthful bodies and smooth faces," she says. "We never see close-ups of older couples kissing or caressing—it's as though laugh lines and age spots can't possibly be enjoyable to viewers." Who knows whether Hollywood is reacting to norms or creating them—creating them, probably. But there are indisputably a lot of viewers who wouldn't tolerate more realistic depictions of seniors in love, certainly if a commenter who responded to Harold and Maude through the online culture magazine Pajiba is any indicator: "I loved this movie right up until the sex scene. ... I don't know which is worse—knowing the Holocaust happened or knowing old people have sex."

"When older couples are seen," Davis says, "they are rarely out of their 60s, and their sexuality is presented as something viewers will find amusing or cute rather than arousing." Aging male actors are often relegated to "dirty old men" roles—but compared to older actresses, they have more opportunities to play people with active sex lives. It's just that they're usually having sex with younger women. The options for aging actresses are largely roles that in no way recognize their sexuality except as something that has faded, or those that depict them as deluded, wannabe sex kittens, fooling themselves about the extent of their sexual attractiveness. Think Blanche from The Golden Girls or Elizabeth Ashley's Diane in the Todd Solodnz film Happiness. Characters like those might have sexual needs, but we're supposed to laugh at them.

"Some people interpret the lack of sexy senior imagery to mean that sex necessarily stops at some point in life," says Debby Herbenick, a sexual research scientist at Indiana University and author of Sex Made Easy: Your Awkward Questions Answered for Better, Smarter, Amazing Sex. But it doesn't. A recent study looked at older women—whose mean age was 67—and found that 67 percent of them achieved orgasm almost always or always when they were having sex. What's more, the majority of older women reported enjoying more sexual satisfaction as they aged, and they talked about continuing to be interested in intercourse as a means of fostering intimacy in their relationships, even when desire began to wane.

Presented by

Maura Kelly is the author of Much Ado About Loving: What Our Favorite Novels Can Teach You About Date Expectations, Not-So-Great Gatsbys and Love in the Time of Internet Personals, a hybrid of advice column and literary criticism. Her op-eds, essays, and other writings have appeared in the New York Times, the Guardian, the Daily, Slate, and Salon.

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