Earlier this year, at the Oscars, there was a bit of a to-do over seeing Hollywood Golden Ager Kim Novak, on account of her looks: it certainly seemed as if she had had some work done on her face. The general reaction on social media was negative, to say the least, though some came to her defense afterwards, and it set off a conversation about how celebrities, especially women, respond to aging.
This blogathon was not created as a response to that, although the timing has made me think about how modern audiences perceive older celebrities. As film bloggers, we tend to be sensitive to stars who struggle in vain against Father Time, even though (or perhaps because) they live in our memories as being forever young and beautiful, as a result of watching their movies over and over. For those who are less familiar with them and don't remember them from their salad days, it's harder to sympathize - not that this excuses those who ridiculed Novak. I suspect that this was one more case, among many throughout history, of celebrities being fair game for public criticism, right or wrong.
The increasing number of gray hairs on my head doesn't exactly fill me with confidence. My mother noticed them for the first time recently and I think I just shrugged and said something like, "Eh, I've gotten used to it," but no one likes being reminded that their youth is fading. Still, thanks to medical improvements, being old is no longer considered as much of a curse as it used to be... and for those of us who love those stars of the silver screen, the longer we can see them work their magic, the better. So I like the fact that we're celebrating movie stars in their twilight years... because as we've seen, it's easy to take them for granted.
With that in mind, perhaps it's appropriate that I chose the film Cocoon, a film in which old people regain a measure of their youth through unusual circumstances. My pals John and Sue were kind enough to rent this out for me on their Netflix account since I don't have one (I KNOW, I KNOW, I KNOW) and I watched it at their place, complete with their patented brand of snark.
I had seen it before, but I had forgotten how derivative it is of Steven Spielberg, particularly Close Encounters and ET, back when movie aliens were warm and cuddly and not trying to blow us the hell up like they seem to do in EVERY SINGLE ALIEN MOVIE NOW. Between this, Splash and Willow, Ron Howard loved playing around in the genre pool during the 80s. Still, it's pleasant enough for what it is - a description that tends to describe many movies directed by Howard!
Cocoon has an all-star lineup of senior actors, and they all get their moments, but the ones who get the lion's share of the spotlight are the trio of Don Ameche, Wilford Brimley and Hume Cronyn. The only old movie of Ameche's I've seen is Heaven Can Wait, though of course I've also seen him in Trading Places and Coming to America. Brimley is great in The Thing, but I imagine those of us from my generation remember him best as the guy from the Quaker Oats and Grape Nuts commercials. I always confuse Hume Cronyn with Ray Walston (they did kinda look similar) but I saw him in Shadow of a Doubt and The Postman Always Rings Twice. He was a three-time Emmy winner and an Oscar nominee.
Ameche and Brimley in particular play to their on-screen personas in Cocoon: Ameche as the charmer and Brimley as the curmudgeon. Along with Cronyn, the three of them have a nice rapport with each other and get to do some fun things, like splash around in a pool and dance, even if the use of body doubles is obvious in some places.
Ameche would go on to win the Supporting Actor Oscar for his role here, and while he's certainly very good, I'd argue that Brimley and Jessica Tandy were equally good, too. It may have been tricky to pick out one actor from among the ensemble for awards recognition, but I imagine sentiment played a factor in Ameche's favor. (Cocoon also won an Oscar for Visual Effects.)
The ladies don't get as much to do, unfortunately. Tandy and Maureen Stapleton are the wives of Cronyn and Brimley, respectively. I imagine many people remember Tandy from Driving Miss Daisy and Fried Green Tomatoes, made at the tail end of her career, but she was also in The Birds, among many other things. She was a four-time Tony winner. Stapleton won the Oscar for her role in Reds and was Oscar-nominated three other times in her career.
Tandy and Cronyn, who were husband and wife in real life, get a nice story arc here. Did you know that in addition to the 13 movies they made together (including Cocoon: The Return), that they both starred in a TV series once? It was called The Marriage, a sitcom (in color!) from 1954 that only lasted one season. Stapleton really is wasted in this film, I thought. Maybe it was a case of having too big of an ensemble, I dunno, but she doesn't do much more than be a wife.
And then there's Gwen Verdon. I'm pretty sure I've seen Damn Yankees, but I don't remember much about it. Regardless, that was her big hit film from a long career on screen and stage. She was also a four-time Tony winner, and was married to director Bob Fosse. In Cocoon, she's credited as "special music and dance coordinator," and indeed, there are several notable dance sequences in the movie, including one in a disco with Ameche in which
In addition, Emmy winner and Oscar nominee Jack Gilford gets a great story arc as the one guy who resists the effects of the alien cocoons (with veteran TV actress Herta Ware as his wife). I liked his character quite a bit. And two children of Golden Age Hollywood stars, Tahnee Welch (daughter of Raquel) and Tyrone Power Jr., have notable roles.
Cocoon, like a good sci-fi movie should, plays like a metaphor, one that John hit on indirectly towards the climax. When the aliens offer to take the seniors with them when they leave Earth, he made a joking reference to the late doomsday predictor Harold Camping in a scene where Ameche cleans out his bank account and gives his money away to strangers. The aliens could certainly be seen as secular angels: they arrive at the end of these seniors' lives, take away all their pain, and whisk them up into the skies to a better place where they'll live forever. Yet, as I noticed while watching, not everyone in the seniors' retirement community gets to go - only the lucky ones who discovered the cocoons. Hence the Camping reference.
The film periodically veers within the touchy-feely realm until a harsh lesson in human nature late in the second act. Like I said, the Spielberg aesthetic is strong here, and as a result, looking at it now, it feels of its time - not the kind of thing one might see today. But it's entertaining, and it's a nice showcase for a bunch of older stars from the big screen, the little screen, and the stage.