’80 for Brady’ rewrites playbook for seniors on screen

LOS ANGELES — You’re never too old to learn something new. Katie Ryan, for instance, recently rolled up her sleeves and repotted some succulents.

“Gosh, darn, I haven’t killed them yet,” she updated her friends. “They’re doing really well.”

What You Need To Know

  • Wallis Annenberg GenSpace is a community center designed to redefine aging
  • By 2060, 23% of Americans will be 65 or over
  • Older characters are often depicted on screen as frail or helpless
  • Jane Fonda’s message to writers and directors: “Don’t show stereotypes, especially about people who are always stereotyped”

She and her friends Jane Kim and Dorothy Calloway met up one recent morning at Wallis Annenberg GenSpace and dug right in to soil and socializing. It’s the latter that really makes them blossom.

“You find life, OK?” Calloway said of the feeling she gets as soon as she steps off the elevator and into the space. “The joy of all of us. Doesn’t matter how old we are, we come together and that’s important to keep you going.”

GenSpace, a reimagined senior center in a sense, is all about connection. From dance classes to arts and craft to horticultural therapy, director Jennifer Wong said community and conversation are always at the core.

“Friendship is the most important,” she said of Wallis Annenberg’s original vision for the facility. “We know that friendship and close ties keep people living longer.”

Meanwhile, loneliness has the opposite effect. Studies have found longtime social isolation can shorten one’s life by as much as 15 years.

Friendship is very much on display in the new movie “80 for Brady” starring a quartet of famous faces — Jane Fonda, Sally Field, Lily Tomlin and Rita Moreno. The movie sets out to rewrite the prevailing narrative about life as a senior in a way Wong thinks is much needed and long overdue.

“One of the things that I think is the most important about age diversity is that we see nuanced storylines,” she explained. “It doesn’t have to be about a chronic condition or age or cognitive decline. It can be about joy, hope, love and friendship.”

By that criteria, “80 for Brady” is a touchdown and Wong knew her members would benefit from seeing it. 

“It was important for our members to see what older adult representation could look like on the silver screen,” Wong said. “Many of our members said that it’s so nice to have a story be about someone who looks like me.”

(Spectrum News/Tara Lynn Wagner)

GenSpace invited members to a screening, followed by a conversation with actor Billy Porter and three of the four actresses — a total surprise to Ryan who for days wasn’t able to stop talking about it in wonder.

“They came here for us,” she said, her mouth open in awe as she recalled the moment the movie stars took the stage. “How did, how did? How did that happen?”

They spoke about ageism, and about the growing but relatively ignored market of older women sports fans, Academy Award-winning actress Sally Field among them.

She told the crowd she loves football and the Lakers, but her real passion is baseball.

“I am a huge sports fan, a huge Dodgers fan,” she admitted, saying her devotion borders on insanity. “First of all, in baseball, they play about 4,000 games a year and I watched or listened to every single one of them.”

The event, held at the Koreatown facility, was called Rewriting the Playbook and Jane Fonda spoke about what she sees as Hollywood’s responsibility to tell more inclusive stories. Her advice to screenwriters and directors was that they have a captive audience for two hours. Use that time to tell them something they need to know.

“Don’t show stereotypes,” she demanded, “especially about people who are always stereotyped.”

GenSpace data shows this is often the case with mature women in media. In their Resource Guide for Content Creators, they warn about limiting their older characters to one of two categories. Seniors are either portrayed as frail or helpless or confused, or the opposite happens and the story centers on what they call the Super Senior, an anomaly who engages in age defying activities. 

“We know that age is nothing but a number,” Wong explained, adding that she’d like to see more stories “that highlight character’s life stage rather than age.”

In the end, Dorothy Calloway (no relation to Cab, she jokes) said the movie inspired her and Ryan agreed.

“Rita Moreno is 91 [years old] and she’s a dancer and I’m still dancing!” Calloway said proudly, telling Ryan and Kim they all should have auditioned for the film. “I realize that it’s not over. Like my niece always says, ‘Reinvent yourself.’ It doesn’t matter how old you get.”

“We’re stronger than we think,” Ryan added with a thoughtful nod. “You just can’t help walk away with a feeling that women as a group are very powerful.”

Laughing as they scoop soil, the trio realizes they are part of a team and they have no intention of retiring to the sidelines.