Trash, Art, and Book Club: A Toast to Our Aging Icons

Book Club (2018) | art by Brianna Ashby
illustration by Brianna Ashby

“If we go back and think over the movies we’ve enjoyed—even the ones we knew were terrible movies while we enjoyed them—what we enjoyed in them, the little part that was good, had, in some rudimentary way, some freshness, some hint of style, some trace of beauty, some audacity, some craziness.”

Pauline Kael, Trash, Art, and the Movies


The Upper West Side gym I go to on weekends is occupied by a mostly senior crowd. In the locker room after I finish my workout, I dawdle, taking my time getting dressed, eavesdropping on the women socializing as they get ready for their Saturday morning Zumba and Pilates. They use words like “sweetheart” and “beautiful” in gratuitous measure—every friend who walks through the door is greeted with an emphatic “Hi, sweetheart!” or “How are you, beautiful!?”—and ask after each other’s grown children, gossip about their mutual friends and the latest ways they’ve altered their aging faces (for better or worse), vent about their husbands (or, more often, ex-husbands), make plans to meet for coffee later when their chats begin to spill into their classes’ designated start time.

Their conversations often inevitably turn to age; they are never not acutely aware of what it is like to grow old in a city—hell, a society—that so heavily favors the young. “When I was in my 20s, I refused to go above 14th Street. Now that I’m an old lady, I refuse to go below 42nd Street,” I once overheard a regular named Lynn—who is impossibly chic, bony and birdlike, her face line-free and her choppy jet-black bob never looking anything less than freshly blown out—say. My presence is rarely acknowledged, save for the time Lynn pointed out my childlike face and told me it would serve me years from now when I am her (I’ll admit, indeterminable) age — along with her fail-proof regimen of “lots of water, exercise, no taking the subway, and a good plastic surgeon.” 

I am a stranger in the lives of these women; they don’t know me at all, but I seem to know them, all those late mornings spent listening intently to their conversations. There’s something fascinating to me about them, something about the stories they share in these cramped confines that makes me silently beg to hear more, like a child asking for one more page to be read before bed. Even when simply recounting their seemingly mundane weeks, there’s a compelling urgency to their tones; it seems like, in a world that renders them more invisible with each passing day, these are the rare occasions in which they are speaking to others who actually listen.  

*

Female friendship is a never-ending well of source material for film. Our relationships are explored and celebrated in celluloid many times over, standouts there to serve as comforting points of reference for each stage of our lives, from our wild last gasps of childhood (Now and Then) into the transitory, awkward high school years (Clueless, Booksmart) through our struggle to become “real people” in our 20s (Frances Ha, Girlfriends), the trials of settling down into adulthood in our 30s (Walking and Talking, Bridesmaids), and the changes we face in our 40s and 50s (Waiting To Exhale, Otherhood). But what about after that?

The film industry’s casting off of actresses as they age is so far from a secret that it’s become a punchline, from Goldie Hawn’s First Wives Club quip about Hollywood’s categorization of women as “Babe, District Attorney, and Driving Miss Daisy” to Inside Amy Schumer’s “Last Fuckable Day.” But simply acknowledging that there is a problem is not the same as solving it. The system may be improving some, but it’s doing a fine job dragging its feet: Of the top 100 grossing movies in 2018, only 11 featured a woman aged 45 or older in a leading role. The year prior, that number hovered at a scant five.

Older women like those in my gym’s locker room, the ones whose lives seem so rich and colored with experience, are rarely shown on screen. Where are the movies about women like them, women who have lived, but still have much more living left in them, women who give fewer fucks with every passing year, women who blaze on in spite of what society says?

There are, of course, a few saving graces, media that attempts to confront ageism by either embracing it as a driving concept (Grace and Frankie, Feud: Bette and Joan) or ignoring it almost entirely, refusing to have age define character at all (seemingly every Jessica Lange American Horror Story role from the past decade, Catherine O’Hara in Schitt’s Creek). But these representations are told largely on streaming platforms and cable television, and their voices belong to a select few. If you’re not an established name like Marta Kauffman or Ryan Murphy, good luck breaking through to the mainstream. In cinema, these representations continue to lag behind, the slack of which is left to be picked up by independent and foreign films, who do so compellingly, but often without the means to support widespread, meaningful distribution. Within the past year alone, films like Diane and Frankie and Gloria Bell have sketched nuanced portraits of older women, but they were never released in the average suburban multiplex. Their relative obscurity results in an enormous demographic of moviegoers who are being entirely underserved.

Book Club tries to be a fix for this problem—tries is the key word in this sentence—a mainstream American comedy with a cast of card-carrying AARP members. The plot is straightforward: Four friends—Jane Fonda, Candice Bergen, Diane Keaton, and Mary Steenburgen—who have met regularly for their titular book club since college find their lives upended by their latest read, E.L. James’ 50 Shades trilogy. What unfurls is a film that plants itself firmly in a chaotic-good alignment chart position, full of well-meaning spirit that occasionally goes completely off the rails. 

Let’s begin with something small but important to unpack: the deranged amount of Photoshop used as a shortcut for character backstory in Book Club. Look, not every film can have the de-aging budget of The Irishman. Fine. Understandable. But, reader, until the day I am ripped from this cruel earth, I will never—and that is a PROMISE—stop thinking about it. Why? Because herein lies the first telltale sign that this movie is about to become a mess. All movies set forth an initial agreement with the audience, an understanding that for the following brief period of time, the limited narrative presented as reality is truthful in some capacity. Immediately upon entering Book Club’s cinematic universe, audiences are asked to accept as truth that these four women, whose actual ages span a gap of 15 years, are friends who met in college at the same time. Okay, sure. After all, this is Hollywood, where the combination of movie magic and expensive skincare products and the occasional filler render Fonda—the oldest of the group at 82—and the rest of the cast to be, more or less, believable peers. The premise works when left as a quick, inconsequential background detail mentioned in passing before moving on. 

Except! Why leave things to the imagination when you could reveal everything in painstaking detail? “This is how it started,” Keaton’s voiceover says as the opening credits roll across the first of many puzzlingly bad Photoshopped compositions of the actors in their younger years, taking us through an on-screen scrapbook of backstory that grows increasingly unhinged. Just how much are we to suspend our disbelief? What are we to make of a cut and paste job of these four long-famous women in vastly different eras of their careers, Barbarella hanging next to Lynda Dummar, clutching copies of Erica Jong’s 1973 book Fear of Flying? Deep in my heart, I choose to believe it’s meant as a knowing wink. This is a film about older women, starring older icons; we have to throw in an Easter egg reference to their younger, more familiar selves somewhere. Why not get it over with right away? But if that were true, it’s reduced to a sharp idea with a sloppy execution. It’s this messy foolishness—knowing that multiple people surely looked at this and gave their stamp approval—that makes it all the more breathtaking to me.  

Anyway. A movie with a hook that involves iconic actresses of a certain age and 50 Shades sounds like a guarantee that the following hour and 44 minutes are bound to be a comedic equivalent of hagsploitation pictures, one painfully unfunny gag after gag of Old People Behaving Badly. But Book Club swiftly defies expectations and settles into something far warmer and smarter. E.L. James’ erotic novel isn’t fodder for endless cringe-worthy sex jokes, rather, it’s just a jumping off point, there to set our characters on their own journeys of self-(re)discovery: Recently-widowed Diane (Keaton) becomes unexpectedly taken by a new love while she fends off the concerns of two daughters who think it would be best if she moved into one of their sad suburban basements. Carol (Steenburgen), frustrated with the sexual rut in her long, happy—but yawning—marriage, searches for a way to recapture her husband’s (Craig T. Nelson) attention. Sharon (Bergen), divorced for nearly two decades and acerbically resigned to singlehood, begrudgingly gives online dating a try when her ex gets engaged to a much-younger woman. And Vivian (Fonda), a successful luxury hotel owner who racks up affair after affair but swears off any kind of emotional attachment, finds herself reconsidering an old flame (Don Johnson) who got away.

Oh, and to get them all through it, there’s wine. A lot of wine. So. Much. Wine that a scene without a crisp glass of white in at least one character’s hand feels off. I am required by law to warn you that you might become impaired by simply watching.

*

I saw Book Club for the first time alone on my 27th birthday, in a theater not far from that Upper West Side gym where, upon a quick scan of the packed audience, I realized I was by far the youngest viewer. Old girlfriends sat clustered together in long strings, some taking up entire rows; boomer couples with large bags of popcorn resting on their shared armrests dotted the auditorium, husbands’ reaching hands already buried to their forearms as the previews began. This scenario was not new, nor unexpected. As someone who, for my entire life, adults have called “the oldest little girl they know,” I have become accustomed to being the token millennial in crowded auditoriums, the one who laughs about lowering the median age when I get the inevitable questions of “aren’t you a little young for…” and “so just how do you know…”

On this afternoon, though, I didn’t find it funny, at least, not right away. I was feeling sorry for myself; I always feel sorry for myself on my birthday. I can’t wait to be old, but I hate getting older. I don’t want to take the scenic route; I want the detour, want to speed ahead to my destination where I will emerge fully formed and knowing all the Things I’m Supposed To Know and caring less what others think of me, even though I know that the length of this trip is anybody’s guess and all those Things I’m Supposed To Know and Fucks I’ve Parted With are what I have to earn along the way.

That afternoon felt like a sentencing. The jig, I thought, was up. The dawn of my late-20s meant the real death of my youth, the end of my inexplicable desire to be viewed as a wunderkind. I could no longer get away with being the scrappy kid and was nowhere near the woman I want to be; instead, I needed to settle in for a long stretch of middle, make due with being an ordinary, sub-par adult instead of a gifted child.

Going to the movies was a way to escape that; I hoped the four women on the screen and the water bottle full of rosé in my bag could drown my sorrows, at least for a couple of hours. This is where I could get sappy, where I could say it worked, that Book Club moved me or that seeing older women defy the expiration date society put on their worth was a necessary reminder that I can do that, too — and it did both of those things, sure — but mostly, it gave me a good time, and it made me laugh. This is a mid-budget major studio comedy we’re talking about here; it doesn’t get that deep. In repeat home viewings, I’ve come to realize that the first viewing was how the film is meant to be best enjoyed: a little bit wine drunk, completely abandoned from any sort of pretension, and surrounded by seniors audibly reacting to events unfolding on screen, their boisterous knowing laughs and occasional commentary (I don’t think I can ever unhear the amused, but slightly panicked voice of an old man yelling “Oh my god! Not two!” when Steenburgen slips Viagra into Nelson’s beer) adding to the entertainment value. Sometimes a good time is all we can ask of a film. Sometimes that’s enough. 

*

A consideration: Book Club is—stay with me here — an ambitious film. Maybe not technically, but conceptually: A studio film about four older women that argues they’re still fuckable, and still want to fuck. Even with the all-star cast, that wasn’t an easy sell. In an editorial for Glamour, co-writer Erin Simms described the long and complicated road to getting the film made: The script, which had been written for spec, was bought and promptly shelved for two years. When new financiers were found, they wanted to recast younger actresses because they believed “audiences wouldn’t show up for a film about a mature group over 60, a group that happened to be made up of four women.” 

Except they did — in droves. The film, shot for a tight $14 million, ended up the sleeper hit of the summer when finally released by Paramount, grossing more than $104 million worldwide.

It’s the kind of success you can only wish for any sort of underdog film, especially one that attempts to be one of the first stitches to suture mainstream Hollywood’s gaping representation wound. You want so badly for the film to be great, and it tries—it really does. Its topmost strength is undoubtedly its heavy-hitting cast, rounded out with supporting roles from Nelson, Johnson, Richard Dreyfuss, and Alicia Silverstone. They are all game to play, and do so well together, though it’s the quartet that truly shines. Their chemistry is palpable; you so can’t help but want to crawl inside their world, sit down at a table and have a glass of wine (or three) with these women that it’s hard to believe they weren’t actually friends before filming began.

Individually, each is a delight. Fonda deftly ping pongs between biting one liners and crackling, unapologetic sexuality and the unexpected vulnerability that lies under her fierce veneer. Bergen brings nuance to what could be an otherwise flatly resolute part, and the way she pairs slapstick visual gags involving face masks and Spanx with dry, deadpan wit is an absolute joy. Steenburgen displays the kind of warm, understated charisma she’s brought to so many recent appearances (she always reminds me of my high school math teacher, which is to say I find her to consistently be a kind and welcome presence), ever the gentle straight man constantly underrated as simply “good.” And Keaton is as close to Classic Keaton as she’s been in a long time, delivering her signature endearingly anxious charm with ease, a reminder of how wasted her gifted comedic abilities have been playing thinly-veiled caricatures of herself in subpar roles over the last decade. Do any of their performances hold a candle to their more treasured films of the past? No, not even close, but on screen, they are not only each other’s old friends, but ours, too. Their presence in mainstream multiplexes has been so missed in recent years that I would watch these women read the phone book. (No, really; I sat through Poms.) That Book Club is an upgrade on that is the real gift its audiences receive.

For all its ambition and all its success, though, Book Club has its fair share of hiccups—this is a mess, after all. The film banks on a formulaic model similar to rom-com relics of the past, and clearing such a high bar—especially on the first try, with a cast that automatically sets high audience expectations, and with little money—is tough. Stale, sitcom-worthy plotlines abound; all actors involved inevitably dip briefly into self-parody; every stunning Southern California sunset is CGI; Fonda sports an inexplicable red wig; a climactic scene involves a tap dance sequence to Meat Loaf’s “I’d Do Anything for Love (But I Won’t Do That).” That last one, I regret to inform you, I did not make up. For every poignant monologue about first kisses or overbearing adult children and relatable outbursts of dating fears, there are chunks of clichéed dialogue that come off as some of Carrie Bradshaw’s cringiest puns fast forwarded 30 years. (Sex and the City 2’s infamous “Lawrence of my Labia” would not be out of place in a script that includes double entendres like “Sounds like we have a lethargic pussy on our hands.”) But, at least it tried.

*

At its very best, Book Club is the poor man’s Nancy Meyers, the film equivalent of shopping for Restoration Hardware on a HomeGoods budget. Its obvious longing to match the aspirational-but-relatable tone of Meyers’ films was one of its most common criticisms, but I’m not so sure that’s a bad thing. Why, in a world where audiences are served an endless stream of male-leaning comic book franchises or existing IP reboots or World War II movies, does it matter if more than one filmmaker speaks to the trials and tribulations of upper middle class post-menopausal women? And why is Nancy Meyers the go-to when it comes to films about them, particularly when she hasn’t catered to that demographic since 2009’s It’s Complicated? She may define the genre, but she can’t be the only person expected to feed it. More than one voice can—and should—be telling these stories, saying that getting older is not just okay, but that it can also be fun and romantic.

Actors like Robert De Niro and Al Pacino have spent the past 20 years lining their resumés with just as many crap movies as the cast of Book Club, from Jack and Jill to Dirty Grandpa. Stars make bad films—they have bills to pay, too—but zooming out shows a different picture. Old men in Hollywood can make flop after flop and still somehow balance them out with acclaim in films like Silver Linings Playbook and The Irishman and Danny Collins and You Don’t Know Jack. The same cannot be said for Keaton and co.—actresses with just as much talent and skill who are excruciatingly underused the older they get. They are forever relegated to the sidelines, there to play someone’s overbearing mother or lonely widow, women with little agency and even less depth. Book Club, it seems, is the best they can can get. 

Someday, if the world doesn’t burn to a crisp in the next decade, I’m going to get old. We all will; this is an inevitable part of life. I hope along the way, there are more crowd-pleasing, big box office movies like Book Club, light comfort food fare that I want to return to again and again, to show that old age isn’t something to despair. But I want to see older actresses in other films, better ones, ones that showcase women as gloriously messy creatures without turning into a mess themselves. To get to that point, I’ll take the growing pains of movies like Book Club. I will cheer for them, and raise a too-full glass of wine to their box office success in hopes that they will open doors for more to come. Sooner or later, they’ll hit.