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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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."

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.

To be fair, Hollywood has made some notable progress in recent years. "We've been seeing movies that involve older characters—and specifically older female characters—that seem to still have an active sexual life," Herbenick says. Never Again, from 2001, for instance, is a comedy starring Jill Clayburgh and Jeffrey Tambor as 50-something New Yorkers who find romance—and sex—after meeting in a gay bar. Two popular films from Nancy Meyers—Something's Gotta Give (2003) and It's Complicated (2009)—revolve around the amorous entanglements of people old enough to be retired. In the latter, Meryl Streep plays an older divorcee who is sleeping with her married ex-husband Jake while being courted by the architect who is redoing her kitchen. "That two men found a 60-year-old-woman sexually attractive and competed for her [was] something that was very appealing to an over-40 female audience," Dirks says. (Streep also played a sexually active older woman involved with two men in Adaptation.) And in The Five Year Engagement, which came out in April, there's a moment in which the leading man's mother's vaginal rejuvenation surgery is referenced. "I wouldn't want to suggest that more women should be getting that surgery—we do research on that topic and it's quite a complex issue," says Herbenick. But that scene provides a hint "that sex doesn't die just because we get older or our bodies change."

Nonetheless, Hollywood still has a long way to go. "Enough with the constant references to Viagra!" says Davis, who's also sick of all the jokes about adult diapers. She wishes filmmakers would show an older character massaging his partner's arthritic hands, or a senior couple making love gingerly so as not to aggravate a sore knee or hip. "I would like to see more longing—more interest and desire, even if it goes unfulfilled," she says. "I'd like to see grieving over loss of a partner—not only for the companionship, but for the sex. I'd like to see conversations about how sex isn't the only thing that changes, but that intimacy does, and that how we feel about our bodies and what we expect them to do changes. Performance may be less important for some people. Closeness may be more important."

Performance does matter, however, especially in Tinseltown—where sex of all kinds is so often portrayed unrealistically. Writing recently in The New York Review of Books about the sex lives of the 20-somethings who figure in the new television show Girls, Elaine Blair pointed out that, "Hollywood sex scenes are not typically interested in even hinting at the ways that people actually reach orgasm, and this is disheartening above all for female viewers, who develop a certain melancholy by the time that they have seen their one thousandth sex scene in which it is taken for granted that by sex we mean mutually rapturous face-to-face vaginal intercourse." Unfortunately, the problem worsens with age. "Orgasms [for older women] are joked about, but not really portrayed," Dirks says. They weren't really portrayed in Harold and Maude either; there is just that one blowing-bubbles-in-bed scene. But surely shortly before that moment Maude told Harold exactly what he could do to make her happy. Because that's just one more thing that makes older women sexy: It's not just the world and their young lovers that they're wise about. It's also their bodies, themselves.