The Silvering Screen

Reviewed by Josephine Dolan

Given the aging population of the West and the proliferation of both aging stars and narrative films featuring old age protagonists, Sally Chivers’ book, The Silvering Screen, provides a vital, significant, and long overdue intervention into current scholarship about cinematic old age. Chivers’ perceptive analysis of Hollywood representations of old age—and stylistic derivations from elsewhere—is firmly grounded in a clearly mapped, interdisciplinary methodology derived from the well established field of cultural gerontology where aging and old age is formulated as socially constructed, rather than biologically determined. As Chivers stresses, Construction does not mean fabrication, but rather the manipulation of existing material in relation to values . . . In mapping such theoretical and methodological concerns, Chivers provides a lucid exposition of material that may well be unfamiliar to many readers.

With culturally produced old age firmly identified as the focus of the book, Chivers forges crucial parallels between old age and disability and identifies a conflation of the youthful and the able body: a conflation that serves as a normative and adjudicatory mechanism in the pathologization of visible old age and the gendered regulation of on-screen aging bodies.The Silvering Screen acutely exploits the slippages of the term caring—caring about old age issues; caring between the elderly; and caring for the elderly—with Chivers’ analysis tracing normative emotional responses to the decline and losses that are cinematically aligned with old age disability—horror, guilt, fear, dread—and various attempts to alleviate the perceived suffering of the elderly disabled through care and support. But as Chivers observes, on-screen caring is rarely more than a strategy to foreground the cares of the carer, and effectively, the cared for are displaced by their carers.

The elision of disability and old age identified by Chivers is substantiated in chapter one,Baby Jane Grew Up, which, as the title suggests, is concerned with films from the 1950s onwards that represent older female stars as pathologically horrific and old age as something to be dreaded and feared. Two subsequent chapters, Grey Matters and Sounds Like a Regular Marriage, also trace discourses of dread and horror—frequently allied to cognitive disability resulting from the onset of Alzheimer’s—through concerns with the losses of aging that mobilise a guilty awareness of caring responsibilities whilst highlighting the strains placed on hetero-normative structures by the persistence of the heterosexual union in the context of caring. The remaining two chapters, Yes We Still Can, and As Old As Jack Gets, focus on stardom and a privileged white masculinity that,despite the disabling frailties of old age, continues to be secured in its dominant position by problematic representations of women and racialized men. Or, as with Jack Nicholson’s star persona, formations of masculinity are seemingly expanded before recuperation into juvenile, reductive, and limiting norms.

The strategy of focusing on femininity in the first half of the book and masculinity in the second has a clear logic and it does lead to a cumulative line of argument as each chapter unfolds. However, this strategy does slightly undermine the book’s overall coherence. This is most evident in the transition from chapter four and its concerns with caring and old age within heterosexual coupledom and chapter five with its focus on aging masculinity in that this structure allows no reflection on masculinity within monogamous heterosexuality, or on masculinity in relation to the enforced caring role and how these representations might add weight to, or unsettle, the mapping of white, masculine privilege in the latter half of the book. But this is a minor caveat. Overall, Chivers convincingly argues that old age films shore up and privilege aging masculinity by representing an increasingly passive femininity; that old age films represent death as less fearful than a disabled old age, and that Hollywood’s focus on care and caring is a displacement of economic anxieties related to a political rather than a moral economy. The Silvering Screen is an important book that makes a well conceived and realized contribution to scholarship. It is a book that addresses some urgent concerns about the imbricated discourses of disability in gendered and raced cinematic representations of old age. More importantly, it foregrounds some of Western culture’s pressing concerns about aging, its problematic meanings, and troubling material practices. The Silvering Screendeserves to be widely read.

This review “The Silvering Screen” originally appeared in Canadian Literature 214 (Autumn 2012): 148-49.

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