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Fade to Gray

Fade to Gray
Aging in American Cinema

Analyzing hundreds of films, including classics such as You Can’t Take It With You, Rosemary’s Baby, Grumpy Old Men, and Nebraska, this book critiques Hollywood’s representations of aging and the elderly from the silent era to the present.

September 2016
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287 pages | 6 x 9 | Hardcover has a printed case, no dust jacket | 39 b&w photos, 1 b&w illus. |

Americans are living longer and reinventing both work and retirement, but Hollywood movies barely hint at this reality of contemporary society. In many popular films, older characters fade into irrelevance, inactivity, or absurdity, or else they stay in the background as wise elders while younger characters provide the action. Most American films do not attempt to portray the rich variety of experiences or the sensitive aging issues that people confront in the years beyond fifty.

Fade to Gray offers one of the first extended studies of the portrayal of older people in American cinema from the silent era to the present. Writing in an accessible style for both general audiences and scholars, Timothy Shary and Nancy McVittie examine social attitudes toward aging through an analysis of hundreds of individual films, including such classics as You Can’t Take It With You (1938), Rosemary’s Baby (1968), Grumpy Old Men (1993), and Nebraska (2013). They show how representations of the aging process and depictions of older people embracing or enduring the various experiences of longer lives have evolved over the past century, as well as how film industry practices have both reflected and influenced perceptions of aging in American society. Exposing the social and political motivations for negative cinematic portrayals of the elderly, Fade to Gray also gives visibility to films that provide opportunities for better understanding and appreciation of the aged and the aging process.


2017 Choice Outstanding Academic Title, American Library Association

  • Acknowledgments
  • Preface
  • Introduction
  • The Study of Aging in Cinema
  • Filmography and Terminology
  • Chapter 1: Generational Conflict in Prewar Hollywood Film
    • Elder Depictions in Early Cinema and the Silent Era
    • The Neediest among Us
    • Solid Pillars in Unstable Times
    • Elders in the Nuclear Era
  • Chapter 2: The Sensational Specter of Aging
    • An Audience Lost
    • The Formation of "Adult Films"
    • Competing for the Adult Market
    • Gender and Generation in Melodrama
  • Chapter 3: The Horrific and the Hilarious
    • The Horror of Aging
    • Youth Films Exploit Elders
    • Elder Kitsch at Its Limits
  • Chapter 4: The Emergence of the Elder Odyssey
    • The Road to a Subgenre of Penultimate Quests
    • The Elder Odyssey in Expansion
    • Investigating and Evading
    • The Road from Here
  • Chapter 5: The Repression and Release of Old Romance
    • The May-December Romance as a Genre Device
    • Calmly Increasing Honesty
    • Elder Romance Matures
    • The Life Left in Love
  • Chapter 6: Deceptions and Delusions of Elder Death
    • Early Elder Death
    • Death Gets Darker
    • Elder Legacies
  • Conclusion
  • Appendix A: Filmography of Significant Elder Roles in American Cinema
  • Appendix B: Subject Lists of Elder Films
  • Notes
  • Bibliography
  • Index

TIMOTHY SHARYMillsboro, DelawareShary is the author or editor of several books on the representational politics of age and gender, including Generation Multiplex: The Image of Youth in American Cinema Since 1980 and Youth Culture in Global Cinema.NANCY MCVITTIEChicago, IllinoisMcVittie is an instructor in the Department of Communication, Media, and Theatre at Northeastern Illinois University.


Fade to Gray proves a worthwhile and often insightful study that makes a compelling case for the vital importance of cinematic representation.”

“A valuable and long-overdue addition to the body of scholarship within film studies that critically examines representations of socially marginalized individuals and identity groups. Cumulatively, the films under consideration and their highly revealing interconnections with d/evolving cultural conceptions and social policies related to aging prove the necessity and urgency of this study.”
Maria San Filippo, author of The B Word: Bisexuality in Contemporary Film and Television


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