“We’ve gone through a whole cycle of: ‘And the president in this episode is a woman.’ I think now we are going to see, ‘The president in this episode is a grandpa,'” one expert says
As the oldest president in American history, could Joe Biden, nicknamed “Uncle Joe” on social media, also have a game-changing effect on the entertainment industry, on and off screen?
At 78, Biden enters office as the oldest president in our history — Ronald Reagan was previously the oldest president upon leaving office at 77.
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And “old” has rarely been in Hollywood’s comfort zone, either in casting or hiring behind the scenes.
Writer-producer Catherine Clinch, chair of the Writers Guild of America West’s Career Longevity Committee, believes Biden has the potential to inspire more positive media attention for people of a certain age.
“We’ve gone through a whole cycle of: ‘And the president in this episode is a woman.’ I think now we are going to see, ‘The president in this episode is a grandpa,'” she told TheWrap.
“There is nothing wrong with him. Universally it’s agreed he’s a good man, and the only thing they can make fun of is his age,” she continued. “And then he spryly jogs across the stage to the microphone… What the media does has a massive effect on people’s choices, and when you see a lot of older people doing good things, gradually I think it builds a trust.”
Gene Del Vecchio, an adjunct professor of marketing at USC’s Marshall School of Business focusing on the entertainment industry, believes Biden’s political presence has the power to change Hollywood attitudes about aging.
“Presidents often inspire a range of entertainment and fashion-related creations,” Del Vecchio said. “Teddy Roosevelt’s interaction with a grizzly bear inspired the Teddy Bear… jellybean sales rocketed due to Ronald Reagan’s appetite. More recently, memes of Bernie Sanders at the inauguration have flooded the Internet. So it would not be surprising if films, television shows and plays feature an older cast due to President Biden’s advanced age.”
Writers Guild of America West’s 2020 Inclusion Report stated that despite making up 29% of the U.S. population and roughly 29% of the U.S. labor force, people over 55 accounted for only 18% of screenwriters employed in 2019 and only 12% of TV writers employed in the 2019-2020 TV season.
A 2020 diversity report from USC’s Annenberg School of Communications and Journalism focused on the hiring of underrepresented racial and ethnic groups, girls and women, the LGBTQ community and people with disabilities. It did not break out a category for older people as a group but noted that only three feature films had a leading or co-leading role filled by a woman aged 45 or older in 2020.
Despite those disappointing numbers, some in Hollywood say that representation of older characters has been improving, and that the shift began well before the Biden administration.
Marta Kauffman, co-creator of Netflix’ popular “Grace & Frankie,” suggested that Biden’s election may be more the reflection of the changing role of older people in American society rather than the potential cause of increased inclusion for senior citizens. “Grace & Frankie” stars Jane Fonda, 83, and Lily Tomlin, 81, as two women who bond after their husbands confess they are gay and move in with each other.
“The greatest thing that our 78-year-old president is doing is reminding the country that wisdom comes with age,” Kauffman told TheWrap. “In terms of Hollywood, it’s a trickier question because I did a show about two older people that found an audience, a good sized audience, and it wasn’t just older people watching.”
Kaufman said that the writers room for “Grace and Frankie” includes writers from 20s to mid-60s, and the show has crew members in their 70s.
Last month, it was announced that the feature film comedy “Senior Moment,” starring William Shatner, Jean Smart, and Christopher Lloyd, will be released in March. On TV, along with “Grace & Frankie,” Kauffman also cited Netflix’ “The Kominsky Method,” starring Michael Douglas, 76, as acting coach Sandy Kominsky and Alan Arkin, 86, as his widowed best friend and longtime agent. Like “Grace & Frankie,” the show hits the issues of aging head-on. She said realistic stories and characters draw audiences, regardless of the age of the characters in the story.
“I’m not convinced that Joe Biden in the White House will have a huge impact on whether we tell stories about people who are older,” she said.
However, Kauffman concedes that American society markets to a younger generation: “My hope is that in concert with Joe Biden being in office, we can have a new appreciation for an older generation.”
Kauffman said the high visibility of senior citizens on the national political stage — including Biden, 79-year-old mitten meme maven Bernie Sanders and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, 80, rocking her trademark stiletto heels — is simply an indication of the increasing health and longevity being enjoyed by older people.
Actor Richard Roundtree, 78, who landed the title role in 1971’s landmark film “Shaft” at age 28, has consistently found work, including his current role in the Netflix series “Family Reunion” opposite Loretta Devine. He told TheWrap he was delighted to discover that he and Biden are the same age but said: “I was just so thrilled that there was as a drastic change in our most revered house in this country, I didn’t even reflect on his age…I don’t relate to the age factor unless it is thrown in my face.”
Some entertainment industry watchers say it’s too soon to tell whether Biden’s age will have an impact on Hollywood storytelling. However, “a presidential administration can impact the political and cultural environment, and most often that effect shows up in documentaries,” said Joe Pichirallo, a producer, ex-studio executive and faculty member at NYU Tisch School of the Arts.
To Pichirallo, the idea that mainstream entertainment movies will be immediately influenced by Biden is far-fetched. But one thing is certain: “I’m sure conservative and right wing groups will produce documentaries critical of him and his policies,” Pichirallo said.
Kathryn Cramer Brownell, an associate professor of history at Purdue University and author of the book “Showbiz Politics: Hollywood in American Political Life,” said Biden’s future Hollywood influence is more likely to be geared toward using the Hollywood product to advance policy on key issues, such as the environment and racial justice, rather than the effect of improving the image of older people on screen.
Brownell compared Biden’s Hollywood potential to that of Franklin Roosevelt in the 1930s, when the then-president partnered with Warner Bros. Jack and Harry Warner to use movies and movie stars to advance his New Deal. “(Jack) was so excited about FDR’s candidacy, and then during the inauguration he actually linked the promotion of ’42nd Street’ to the inauguration and called it ‘New Deal Entertainment,’ ” she said.
“To me, the link between Biden and Hollywood is really clear,” Brownell said. “Biden will likely have to look into and think about how he can integrate entertainment into his administration in a way that can stimulate civic activism, stimulate discussion, the way Obama did very successfully — going on entertainment shows, going on ‘Bear Grylls’ to talk about climate change. And, of course, Joe Biden had a front seat to that strategy as the vice president.”
Writer-producer Kauffman, however, said with a laugh that Joe Biden is unlikely to become a role model for fictional presidents for a reason other than his age.
“He’s very nice, having a president who knows what he’s doing in office is very nice,” she said. “But ‘nice’ doesn’t make a great show.”