“There are only three ages for women in Hollywood: babe, district attorney, and Driving Miss Daisy .” Thus speaks Elise Elliot (Goldie Hawn), aging actress, in The First Wives Club -but the industry isn’t much more accommodating of men. True, they can play “district attorneys” longer than their distaff colleagues, but then their options tend to narrow, too: They can be maladjusted cranks (like Robert Duvall in Get Low ), unlovable jerks (Michael Douglas in Solitary Man ), or wise/sexless gurus (Richard Jenkins in Eat Pray Love ).
Any filmmaker who sets out to challenge these sorts of limitations on middle-aged characters, of either sex, has a built-in obstacle: that the industry targets the young. The smartest play, financially, is to embrace the natural niche-iness of your aging protagonists’ story: If it’s about women, don’t even try to attract male audiences, and vice versa. Wisely, Sylvester Stallone’s The Expendables -he is its writer, director, and star-and Diane English’s 2008 remake of The Women both address the anxieties of aging, both cover similar ground, and yet they are about as sex-segregated as possible.
The Expendables follows a crew of six mercenaries, led by Stallone’s Barney, who’re getting too old for this shit: drug-addled Gunner (Dolph Lundgren) has to be physically restrained from hanging a Somali pirate’s corpse over the side of a ship; Ying Yang (Jet Li) constantly complains about how much harder he has to work due to his diminutive size; and Christmas (Jason Statham) tries to weasel out of their latest assignment. He fails, and departs with the equally tired, listless, cranky Barney on a scouting mission to Vilena, a fictional island ruled by a corrupt general (David Zayas) they’re supposed to assassinate. One afternoon in Vilena is enough to convince the old dudes that they can’t hack it, and they try to convince their (much younger) contact, Sandra (Giselle Itié), to flee with them. Her valiant refusal-coming, as it does, not just from an operative nearly 40 years Barney’s junior but A WOMAN – shames Barney into committing to the mission after all.
The Women -in which Mary (Meg Ryan) rebuilds her life after learning of her husband’s affair-famously follows the 1939 original by featuring (virtually) no male characters, even as the aging characters’ concerns all revolve around the men in their lives. Mary is utterly undone from the instant she first sees Crystal (Eva Mendes), her husband’s sexy (and much younger) mistress. Magazine editor Sylvie (Annette Bening) strains to prove her professional worth to her boss, while deflecting assaults to her position from ambitious (and much younger) reports. Serially pregnant Edie (Debra Messing) cheerfully announces, “I wanna keep going until I get a boy!” When (spoiler) she finally does birth a manchild, he not only has the honor of being the only male figure in the film; he is cradled in the exact center of the shot while the four female leads surround him, fawning. All that’s missing is a halo. Maybe some Magi.
Both sets of aging characters share a common worry: their weight. Mary’s mother refuses to don a swimsuit at the beach; Sylvie cracks that the two most feared words in the English language are “pool party”; Mary and her friends snark at Edie about eating too much. And the men of The Expendables aren’t immune to such concerns. Barney’s ex-partner Trench (Arnold Schwarzenegger) twits Barney about having lost muscle and looking too skinny. Barney’s retort: Whatever weight he’s lost has found its way onto Trench. They may get shot at all the time, but these mercenaries can’t afford to eat lead: It’ll go straight to their hips!
Once they’ve established how much the graying characters have to prove, the climaxes of both The Expendables and The Women feature the characters successfully executing complex ops. The mercenaries end The Expendables by (spoiler) assassinating Vilena’s entire standing army, destroying what is probably a historically significant presidential palace, and rescuing Sandra from the general’s evil henchmen-proving that just because a freedom fighter is fit, capable, and young, that doesn’t mean she may not still need help from a seasoned veteran. Similarly, when Sylvie and Mary need to spread a rumor, they don’t use the technologies of a younger generation, like a Facebook post or a devious text message: They deftly deploy the old-school broadcast medium of a nosy, big-mouthed Saks manicurist.
Their characters suffer painful and realistic insecurities due to their advancing ages. And yet, both The Expendables and The Women affirm the value of the experience and expertise that can come only with age, whether it involves guerrilla warfare in the jungle, or manipulating an aesthetician wielding Jungle Red nail polish.
But even as both films aimed to maximize their box-office reach by targeting a single-sex audience, only in the case of The Expendables , this past weekend’s winner, did the gambit pay off: Many women paid to see it -and, in at least one case (hi) even did so without a male chaperone. The Women -a passion project for English that gestated for years and went through countless cast permutations before finally making it to the screen-not only failed to attract a male audience, but barely even brought in the ladies, grossing $26 million for its entire domestic run (some $9 million less than The Expendables just made in three days). Perhaps female moviegoers in the fall of 2008 were still so sated by the film adaptations of Sex and the City and Mamma Mia ! they didn’t feel like paying for two hours of facelift jokes. And two hours of facelifts.
Still of Sylvester Stallone in The Expendables © Millennium Films.