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Posted at 8:09 PM ET, 02/28/2011

Kirk Douglas, the Oscars and the power of age

By Alexandra Petri

Maybe our youth-obsessed culture is like Samson -- lost its power when Justin Bieber cut his hair.

I enjoyed the Oscars. Disclosure: My college roommate and bosom companion wrote jokes for the telecast, so I'd been programmed to enjoy them because of something she spent the past five years putting in my water.

But I have to admit, the most dynamic part of the broadcast was when Kirk Douglas staggered onto the stage. You wouldn't have expected it from a man whose ears had slowly expanded to the approximate size of North Korea, but he knew how to work a crowd. He wouldn't tell us who Best Supporting Actress was. He held the envelope in his mouth and fought over his cane with one of the stage wranglers. He made fun of the Australians. He made fun of Colin Firth for laughing. The initial fear that by the end of the night he would wind up in the Tribute To Fallen Comrades gradually dissipated. By the time he quipped, "I'm old," it was one of the funniest bits of the evening.

And there's a reason for this. He was old.

Overall, this show had a lot of things to say about our fetishization of youth. Blink 182 sang that nobody likes you when you're 23. To that we could add, "Except the people who sell ad space on television, make movies, and cast movies." A more accurate adage might be, "Nobody likes you when you're 63." But as the Oscars showed, maybe we're wrong. Sure, old people are wrinkly, and one of the side-effects of old age is this creeping notion that Jay Leno is funny. But they are undeniably more interesting than the average twenty-three year-old.

And as I watched James Franco, who had the general mien of a taxidermied frog with very symmetrical facial structure, and Anne Hathaway, frantically careening around the stage, singing, dancing, and generally showing us a good time, I began to crave something more sedate.

Much as I appreciate the reanimated corpse of Dick Clark hosting of the Ball Drop every year (and what a sad sentence that is!), he isn't ably representing the moribund crowd. He falls into the category of Entertainers Who Wouldn't Be Entertaining Were It Not For The Persistent Fear That They Will Die, like most Nascar drivers or Charlie Sheen. Kirk Douglas and the Oscars painted a far richer picture of all the things we're missing out on by ignoring our elders.

And after losing our country's last World War I veteran, Frank W. Buckles, today, I wonder: Are we taking the old for granted?

Old age was once the sign of wisdom. You and the rest of your cave-dwelling crew would go and ask She Who Remembers The Last Great Snowfall whether it was going to rain or not, and her knees would tell you. The elderly would serve as the voice of the tribe, the repository of popular memory.

Now, as a culture, we have the collective memory of about six gnats. Sometimes we wander around for days asking ourselves who Miley Cyrus was.

The point of memory - and of old people - is that the older you get and the more you have seen that others missed or forgot, the more convincingly you are able to pass off the work of others as your own. Once Oscar Wilde was asked by a woman about a passage in one of his plays. The woman pointed out that it reminded her of another play she had once read. "Taken bodily from it," Oscar admitted. "Why not? No one reads anymore."

And age also makes you individually more interesting - you've simply done more than people who are younger. When you're 110, you remember things that no one else even believes occurred: Trench foot and the Spanish Influenza and bears roaming the countryside to do things other than shame you into buying electric cars. You are able to tell historians stories that they will erroneously repeat to tour groups at Colonial Williamsburg for decades to come.

But now, our culture is engaged in a vast conspiracy in which we pretend that, somehow, twenty-two year-olds are more valuable than their eighty-something counterparts. In areas like kidney donation, this makes sense, unless the recipient is Charlie Sheen. And, yes, the Internet seems to remain largely opaque to the vast majority of the old. But the idea that you need to be young to be hip is false, and falsely conflates "being hip" with "having actual functional hips."

After all, old age is something we'll all experience at some point, except Billy Crystal, whose face appears to be turning slowly into a commedia dell'arte mask of Billy Crystal's face sixteen years ago. All this focus on youth, beauty, and glossy surfaces strikes me as a bit odd. But perhaps it's justified -- if the Mayans are right, nobody is going to make it to 110!

And you should listen to me! I'm twenty-two.

By Alexandra Petri  | February 28, 2011; 8:09 PM ET
Categories:  Bad Advice, Epic Failures, Petri  | Tags:  America, Oscars, age, kids these days  
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It's always puzzled me (even when I was in my teens 40 years ago) that it's PC to make fun of older people...think it must be a form of denial. Thanks for your sensitive column on this topic.

Posted by: FairfaxStation2489 | March 1, 2011 6:55 AM | Report abuse

Respect has to be earned, no matter what age one has. I've met plenty of older people whose mean spirited actions and tirades, and the "low on the totem pole" view of younger generations make me sick. In fact, nowadays, older people are among the most fearful, seemingly dumbest, most conservative and detrimental citizens to this society.

Posted by: ampruteanu | March 1, 2011 9:58 AM | Report abuse

To the Justin Biebers of the world. "What goes around--Comes around."

Posted by: fregameeate | March 1, 2011 10:31 AM | Report abuse

Ms. Petri and @ampruteanu both have it right. The old are not useless for being old. And they are not wise for being old, either. Most of the people who think "this is the worst time America has ever faced, and we're destroying our country!!!" listened to FDR on the radio, and are spending my inheritance buying gold while thinking "the coasts" are the rotten moldy crust of the great Norman Rockwell picture they remember -- the one without "coloreds" in it.

THAT SAID, many, many, many of our mistakes come from failing to learn from the mistakes of our elders. How many times might they have been trying to educate us about them, when we thought they were just mumbling?

Posted by: Section406 | March 1, 2011 2:23 PM | Report abuse

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