Rocky and Growing Old in the Movies

Posted in Side Topics at 5:01 am by Stephen

In our discussion about Rocky Balboa in the Episode 12 thread, Dave mentioned that part of the reason he’s excited for the movie despite its silly plot is because he associates Rocky with his childhood. If Rocky’s too old to fight, then Dave must also be old, and that’s not something Dave wants to be the case, so he’s happy to see Rocky out there fighting one last bout. That discussion got me thinking about how Rocky Balboa really has a lot to say about the way movies deal with the whole concept of getting old.

While I understand the impulse to see Rocky make one last stab at greatness in the ring, it strikes me as being the wrong way to think about aging. We shouldn’t spend our later years trying to recapture the glory of our youth; we should be growing, finding glory in new endeavors. I would much rather see something like where Rocky V was trying to go, with Rocky finding joy in training a new generation of people. To see a plastic surgery addled Stallone trying to pretend he’s still 30 is sort of sad. What’s so hard about admitting that when we get older we can’t do everything we once did?

But it’s not just Rocky. Hollywood is always happy to slap a middle aged man into action roles, pairing him up with a woman in her early 20s. Part of this is just wish fulfillment on the part of the audience, but I think part of it is that the movies want to sell us the idea that we never have to change with age.

When characters are allowed to be older in the movies, they’re generally portrayed as cranky or senile old farts. You sometimes get the wise elder, but you almost rarely see somebody 50 or older living like people that age actually do. For women the distinction tends to be even worse: they’re sex symbols up to their mid-30s, and then almost instantly they’re nothing but motherly matrons.

Can anyone recommend any movies that deal with growing old in a more interesting way than just being about characters trying to relive their youth?


  1. Grishny (156) said,

    December 29, 2006 at 10:16 am

    Mr. Holland’s Opus might fill your request, in that it actually follows the main character as he grows old. Another movie that I thought had some interesting things to say about growing up, though not old, was Hearts in Atlantis. And, though it is sort of a strange pick, Bicentennial Man deals with the subject from two different angles; as Andrew not only watches several generations of the family he cares for grow old and die, but also goes through his own unique progression from his initial innocence to his own “aging” and “death.”

  2. Sam (405) said,

    December 29, 2006 at 11:22 am

    I hear Jackie Brown is a good movie about getting older.

  3. siochembio (82) said,

    December 29, 2006 at 12:27 pm

    I 100% recommend the movie “Dodsworth” from 1936. It’s about a middle-aged couple (he’s 55ish, she’s 42ish) who go through mid-life crises at the same time in very different ways. Faced with becoming grandparents and him retiring from his job, they question what is left in their life, and wonder what they should do now. It’s a very adult movie, in the non-porn sense of the word (and one of my all time favorites).

  4. Dave (130) said,

    December 30, 2006 at 12:55 am

    Personally I’m not sure I buy into the myth of “growing old gracefully”. I think it’s pretty well documented that the more you reject such ideas and continue to remain active and competitive, the better your health tends to be in your “declining” years and the longer you tend to live, with a higher quality of life. I think if an 80 year old man wants to train to run a marathon, he should totally do it. Now, Stallone getting beat in the head at 60 years old is a huge stretch, but Rocky himself is only supposed to be in his 50s, and there is a real life precedent for an aging boxer coming back for “one last shot at glory”–George Foreman recaptured the heavyweight title at the age of 45, and continued to box professionally into his 50s I believe.

    I pretty much have the trailer memorized at this point after having seen it so many times, and I have to say one of my favorite shots in it has to be right after they show Rocky winning the computer fight over Dixon, and they cut to a quick shot of Rocky’s face. Of course this being the trailer there’s no guarantee the shot is in context, but every time I see it I get this feeling of Rocky suddenly realizing all that he’s “lost”. He owns a restaurant, presumably still has money from his fighting days (I hear this movie ignores the entire plot of Rocky V, so no more destitute Rocky), and probably has been busy “aging gracefully” for the past decade or two. But he sees that fight of a computer-simulated him in his prime beating the current champ, and suddenly his thoughts turn to “Why not? Why can’t I still do it? What would be so bad about taking a shot at it and finding out?” He’s presumably happy with his current life, maybe hasn’t thought about fighting in years. But what I see in his face in that shot is a man suddenly thinking of how much time has passed, how much things have changed, and how maybe, deep down inside, he’d like to find out if he still has anything left in the tank.

    Now, I haven’t seen the movie yet, so I have no idea where the movie takes this idea. If *I* were writing the screenplay, it’d end with Rocky losing to the young champ (not getting destroyed, but still losing–maybe “going the distance” like he did with Creed in their first fight, to bring it full circle) and being ok with that in a way he wouldn’t and couldn’t have been twenty years ago. He gave it one more shot and he came up a little short–but this time, that’s ok. The older, wiser Rocky can walk off into the sunset and be happy with what he’s accomplished finally, instead of immediately jumping back into a training montage to prepare for a rematch. That’s a kind of growth of character and a bit of “aging gracefully” I can get behind.

    What’s so hard about admitting that when we get older we can’t do everything we once did?

    Trust me, when it starts happening to you, you’ll understand what’s so hard about it.

    Three years ago, I joined a recreational baseball league. I hadn’t played organized baseball since I was 17 and a senior in high school, but I figured hey, at 29 I wasn’t old, even in athletic terms, and I wasn’t in too bad of shape, and most importantly, I didn’t *feel* any different than I did back then–so it ought to be just about as easy as it was for me then, right?

    Not remotely. I went to tryouts and couldn’t hit the ball. Out of ten pitches I think I hit three, and none of them solidly. At 17 I would have smashed every single one. I swung and missed at batting practice pitches, and it completely stunned me. I couldn’t hit anymore. I never could run well anyway, but that was harder too. I could barely field the ball. I could still throw accurately, but with nowhere near the velocity I could achieve back then.

    I know, you’re sitting there saying “You were 12 years older, and you hadn’t even tried to do any of those things in those 12 years–what the heck did you expect?” Well, I’ll tell you what I expected. I expected to perform pretty much exactly as well as I had when I was 17, because I didn’t feel a lick older or a bit different than I had back then! As far as I could tell, right up until I swung and missed at the first BP pitch at the tryouts, I was still that SAME GUY. Finding out I wasn’t came as a complete shock.

    Three years later, I still play in the league in the summers. It’s fun, I love it. But it still bugs me that I can’t do the things I could do when I was 17. I’m only 32, why is this so much more difficult now? Yeah, I’m not in the same kind of shape I was back then–but I was *never* really that physically fit, I was always the “fat guy” in school. So while I know intellectually that my reflexes are just a little worse, and my hand-eye coordination is just a little worse, I’m not as strong and I’m fatter and just generally older, deep down inside I’m still a little shocked at how much work it is to be just half to three-quarters as good as I used to be at the game. So, yeah, I can empathize with an aging Rocky pretty well, even if my experiences are on a much smaller scale than his.

    Finally, I think a lot of the criticism directed at this movie isn’t about the movie at all. It’s about Stallone, and some strange sort of anger that he has the unmitigated gall to even make this movie. I’m not really sure where this is coming from. Even if this movie *is* just a cry for attention from Stallone, I don’t really see the problem. I can’t fault him for wanting to revisit the character that made him famous. He’s gotta be just as nostalgic for Rocky as the rest of us–moreso probably. If he wants to lace up the gloves one last time and see if people will pay money to see him possibly make a fool of himself, then I say go for it.

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