What's the Great American Baby Boomer Movie?
There seems to be an unwritten rule that every American generation gets its own anthemic movie. The Lost Generation who survived World War I belatedly got The Sun Also Rises, the 1957 adaptation of Ernest Hemingway's novel. The Greatest Generation had The Best Years of Our Lives, director William Wyler's 1946 saga of three servicemen trying to put their lives back together after returning from World War II; the film won seven Oscars, including Best Picture. The tweeners who were born during the tail end of the Great Depression-World War II period and grew up in the 1950s had Rebel Without a Cause (and later, American Graffiti).
So what is the great boomer movie? I'm disqualifying great 1960s movies such as Blowup, Easy Rider and Five Easy Pieces. Those all starred actors who were tweeners, and weren't really about our generation, even though they influenced us. This has to be a film by and for boomers.
I'm sure a lot of you would nominate The Big Chill. Lawrence Kasdan's 1983 comedy-drama, which featured an ensemble of then-young, soon-to-be movie stars -- William Hurt, Glenn Close, Kevin Kline, Tom Berenger, Meg Tilly and Jeff Goldblum -- and a soundtrack laden with classic Motown hits such as Marvin Gaye's "I Heard It Through the Grapevine" and Aretha Franklin's "(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman." Stylish, funny and touching in spots, The Big Chill got great reviews and grossed $56 million at the box office, which was pretty impressive for the early 1980s. It even served as the template for a short-lived TV series, Hometown, which, like The Big Chill, took place in South Carolina and featured similar characters. The title even embedded itself in American lingo, becoming an edgy euphemism for both mortality and the abandonment of youthful idealism and illusions -- and the synergy in which fear of one drives the other.
I'm going to nominate another movie that you may have forgotten about, or maybe never saw in the first place: Return of the Secaucus 7, which is a tad more than 30 years old this year (it technically was released in late 1979). Secaucus 7 was the first film from John Sayles, the boomer auteur (born in 1950, a year after Lawrence Kasdan) who helped launch the shoestring-budget, indie art-film movement that gave us so many great movies in the '80s and '90s. Sayles made Secaucus 7 for $60,000 with a cast of unknowns (the only faces you'll recognize are David Strathairn and Gordon Clapp, who later starred in TV's NYPD Blue).
The boomer reunion premise of Sayles' film at least superficially resembles Kasdan's The Big Chill, though Kasdan has said that he hadn't seen Secaucus 7 and wasn't influenced by it. I believe him because the two directors' visions of their generation are quite different. Kasdan shows boomers the way most would like to remember themselves as thirtysomethings -- a little less idealistic, but still hip, well-dressed and sexy, and successful in their careers. Sayles' portrait of boomers who are dipping their toes in the Rubicon of midlife compromise in the early 1980s is a bit more rough-hewn, awkward and probably more accurate.
Unlike The Big Chill, Sayles' characters weren't actually once big-time antiwar activists -- they self-deprecatingly call themselves "The Secaucus 7" because their one attempt to participate in a protest rally was preempted by a traffic ticket on the New Jersey Turnpike. At 30, most of them still are trying to find themselves, even as they feel increasing bewilderment about what they've become so far. Two are high school teachers, another is a drug counselor, another is in med school, and others still cling to fading ambitions of becoming a musician and an actress. One, to the others' embarrassment, still works at the local gas station. The boyfriend of one of the original friends is a nerdy minor aide to a U.S. senator. They dress in authentic "What was I thinking?" early 1980s fashion, down to the women's elaborately feathered hairstyles and the cringe-worthy short-shorts that the guys wear in a pickup basketball game. One character pretentiously expresses enthusiasm for "progressive rock" dinosaurs Yes and King Crimson. They're still painfully awkward about sex and romance, and their couplings lead to bruised feelings and arguments, as well as bliss.
What the Secaucus 7 all share, besides fading memories of good times and flamed-out romances, is a vague but persistent feeling of panic. Unlike the people in The Big Chill, they don't have fabulous lives to go back to, if only they could appreciate them. Instead, they only know that they're on the verge of some big change, and it unnerves them. Nevertheless, at the film's end, we know that they're going to hold their breath and close their eyes and leap into the future, because it's what we all have to do.
Here's a Secaucus 7 bonus:
There's another movie that I'd also nominate -- Richard Linklater's 1993 flick Dazed and Confused, which is set in the mid-70s era when Generation Jonesers like me came of age. But I'll save that for a future blog post.
In the meantime, what do you think is the ultimate boomer movie? Post your choices in the comments section below and I'll talk about them, too.
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