‘Olly Olly Oxen Free!’: The Generational Politics of 1980s “Fountain of Youth” Films

Michael Grasso / June 20, 2018

The lure of eternal youth is itself seemingly eternal. Myths like the Philosopher’s Stone, the Fountain of Youth, the elixir vitae, and many others have lived with humanity for as long as there’s been an awareness of our own mortality. In the 1980s, several films in a row took on this idea of the elderly discovering a supernatural wellspring of youth. In the process, these films hinted at American society at the time’s desire for a youthful vigor to match the promise of a renewed nation—as well as the very specific desires of the Baby Boomer writers and directors of these films to cling to their own youths in the face of advancing middle age.

Twilight Zone: The Movie (1983) was the result of a nostalgic impulse to resurrect one of America’s most beloved science fiction institutions. Producers Stephen Spielberg and John Landis shared a love of the original program from their youth, and each contributed a segment to the four-part anthology. The film is probably best known today for the on-set helicopter accident that killed two child actors (working at night in defiance of child labor laws) and Combat! star Vic Morrow. Unbelievably, Landis’s segment was still used, and even kicked off the movie. Spielberg was originally going to do an adaptation of “The Monsters Are Due On Maple Street,” but the fact that he would be required to film at night with child actors while using special effects scuttled that plan. Instead, Spielberg adapted a lighter tale from the series. Titled “Kick The Can,” it’s based on a 1962 episode of the original series in which a resident of a home for the elderly believes that he can will himself into youth again by acting and thinking young. He leads a group of his fellow residents into the street for a game of Kick the Can, during which they physically change into a group of rowdy kids. The doubtful friend remains behind, missing his chance at a second childhood. In the 1983 film version, however, the mechanism for this second childhood is completely different. Here it’s an outsider, played by Scatman Crothers, who puts the idea into the heads of the residents and seems to be the one who bestows upon them a night of youthful Kick the Can. This shift of agency is significant. In the 1960s version, the elderly devise their youthful redemption through positive thinking, completely of their own accord. In the 1980s version, eternal youth is granted by the beneficence of an outsider, a stranger, one who markedly remains elderly as the residents turn young again.

Could this crucial difference in narrative approach be a metaphor for (or even an outgrowth of) the differences between an older generation that believed it necessary to pull yourself up by your bootstraps and a younger generation, the Baby Boomers, that came of age in a world reshaped by the activist welfare state created by the New Deal? Spielberg is obviously no stranger to the narrative trope of an outside supernatural force that can bestow eternal youth or restore the sick and dying. In a way, the grand magical spaceships in Close Encounters of the Third Kind and E.T. symbolize the welfare state, created by the Greatest Generation, that allowed Boomer children a sense of ease about their own retirement years and old age. One of the only returned abductees that we meet in the final sequence in Close Encounters is a member of the World War II-era Navy flyers taken by the aliens in the famous Flight 19 disappearance. The entire squad receives a salute as they give their names, ranks, and serial numbers, returning to 1977 America. “They haven’t even aged,” says one of the government technicians, with wide-eyed wonder.

1985 saw the release of the most famous of the “fountain of youth” films: Cocoon. Directed by Ron Howard, another of 1980s Hollywood’s biggest Baby Boomer fantasistsCocoon tells the story of a group of Florida retirees who find a literal Fountain of Youth in a rundown old bathhouse. The life energy that allows them to go on a 1980s “old people acting young” montage is produced by the slumbering cocoons of a group of aliens, the Antareans. In their rush to share the secret of youth with their friends at the retirement home, however, the elderly drain the cocoons of their energy. The cocoons must remain behind, but the Antareans invite the humans to join them on their planet, where they will live forever.

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Don Ameche, Hume Cronyn, and Wilford Brimley in Cocoon (1985)

The Antareans are literally lighter than air, luminous; their resemblance to angels must be remarked upon. The young grandson of the Wilford Brimley character (played by Barret Oliver of The Neverending Story and D.A.R.Y.L. fame) has to say goodbye to his grandfather, who is being taken away to a new life on a higher plane. Thus, one could easily view Cocoon‘s narrative as a metaphor for having to say goodbye to the Greatest Generation, which in the 1980s was beginning to pass away in greater and greater numbers. Events like Reagan’s 1984 speech at Normandy for the 40th anniversary of D-Day, and more or less constant homages and tributes to the World War II generation during the decade, seem to bear out this theory. But the film’s symbolism and narrative deserve a deeper interpretation, one that demonstrates how much Cocoon embodies the Boomers’ own fears of growing old.

The rest home setting is the common matrix between “Kick The Can” and Cocoon. In the latter, we see the institutions in all its ambivalence; several residents try their hardest to make it a place of recreation and fun (including the aerobicizing dance instructor Bess, romanced by Hume Cronyn’s character and played by Broadway and Hollywood hoofer Gwen Verdon), but the cruel spectre of death can’t be overlooked. In the opening montage we see why Cronyn, Ameche, and Brimley seek so desperately to escape to the nearby pool; they take in all the signs of senescence that surround them in the home: a resident going into cardiac arrest, their friend Bernie’s wife Rose showing more and more signs of dementia, and many other signs of their own mortality. As the residents try to escape to space with the Antareans in the final act, it is the middle generation, the Baby Boomers, in the form of the elders’ grown-up Boomer offspring and authority figures like the police and Coast Guard, who seek to corral the escapees back to the rest home. This reflection of the psychological impact on Boomers, who were beginning to have to deal with their aging parents, is apparent here. While 1965’s establishment of Medicare ensured medical coverage, in practice, end-of-life living for the elderly was still far too often marked by abuses and neglect. In the 1970s, the nursing home industry faced a series of devastating scandals, which eventually led to Congressional hearings. 1987’s Nursing Home Reform Act was the result. It sought to change the culture of nursing homes by requiring basic rights and dignity to residents throughout the final chapter of their lives. Cocoon could also be looked at as an expression of Boomer guilt over putting parents and older relatives in retirement homes; the Antareans also deliver the Boomer generation from the responsibility of elder care.

In 1987’s *batteries not included (directed by Matthew Robbins, a long-time Spielberg screenwriting collaborator, and written in part by Robbins and future Simpsons writer and Pixar giant Brad Bird), greed and elder abuse are more explicitly laid bare as the enemy of a comfortable and dignified retirement. Greedy developers seek to demolish an antique city block on the Lower East Side of New York City for re-development; on this block is an apartment building and diner owned by Cocoon actors (and go-to 1980s movie elderly couple) Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy. As the developers physically intimidate the residents into selling, a pair of tiny spaceships (again, a motif reminiscent of an old Twilight Zone episode, where it was used to much more sinister intent) come in and, like the brownies of faerie lore, repair the damage. While the tiny aliens in the film do not literally make Cronyn and Tandy young again, the alien “Fix-Its” infuse their lives with new hope, dignity, and purpose, and help them survive in a world that does not seem to want them anymore. As the violence of the developers’ thugs escalates into full-blown arson, the alien machines manage to both reproduce and marshal their “children” to rebuild the building in a single night, essentially protecting the structure forever and providing the film with its happy ending.

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Jessica Tandy and one of the “Fix-Its” in *batteries not included (1987)

The generational guilt laid bare here is obvious: Boomers and their yuppie greed seek to destroy affordable housing and a legacy piece of architecture. In this story, though, it’s much more than the vulnerability of the elderly that’s seen: the placement of the story in the Lower East Side calls to mind the immigrant experience, as that area of New York was the first destination for many immigrants from Europe in the first part of the 20th century. Accordingly, many of the younger residents in the apartment building are Latinx, the most prominent immigrant population in 1980s New York City. What the little alien spaceships of *batteries not included represent is the power of intergenerational and cross-racial solidarity to protect traditionally at-risk populations, such as the elderly and immigrants. As Carlos, the thug hired by the developers, says, “Man, they’re getting organized! Somebody’s helping them, somebody’s bringing them together!” The kind of supernatural aid in “Kick The Can” and Cocoon came with no political expectations, but here, the aliens aren’t gods or magical strangers: they are quite literally the expression of the human potential to organize under a banner of class solidarity.

Later in the 1980s, a spate of various kinds of “body-switch” movies—Like Father Like Son (1987), Big (1988), Vice Versa (1988), 18 Again (1988), and Dream a Little Dream (1989), among others—would explore the “second youth” trope even further. But these films never seemed to crackle with the almost-political energy of the films discussed above. Most of them were about individual journeys of identity; in the body-swap movie, the elderly are able to superficially “understand” the young and vice versa (no pun intended). But in the end, the young and old return to their original bodies and all the transgressive, liminal energy of the body-switch is defused. To go even further, one could see these films as an explicit attempt to defuse all the generational tension between Boomers and their own children, especially in films like BigLike Father Like Son, and Vice Versa, where the Generation X teenager learns what it’s like to be a “responsible” adult.

Are the films we’ve looked at actually about Boomers coming to terms with their own middle age? It’s a worthwhile question. The three films above were written, produced, and directed by Baby Boomers, yet featured Boomers’ parents generation as protagonists. In each of them, the elderly act out in ways that are encoded as either childlike (in “Kick The Can”) or adolescent (notably, in Cocoon, the swimming pool of youth supercharges the men’s libidos; there’s also a scene where Don Ameche decides to get down with the young people and… breakdance). When the Boomer creators of these narratives project a second youth onto the elderly, are Spielberg, Howard, and the other creators examined above doing it purely for the comic appeal? Or is there a deeper anxiety, one that Spielberg (37 at the release of Twilight Zone: The Movie) and Howard (who played Richie Cunningham in Happy Days, the avatar of a nostalgic American pastiche of Boomer adolescence) are expressing the only way they can?

One of the biggest complaints about popular entertainment in the 1980s is that many “serious” works of popular media—films like The Big Chill (1983) and television series like thirtysomething (debut, 1987)—seemed to lionize and indulge the Boomer cultural experience in terms of the superficial markers of their life experiences: for example, The Big Chill‘s soundtrack packed with mid-’60s Motown hits, or thirtysomething‘s celebration of the affluent comfort (and neuroses) of young urban professionals in the late ’80s. The ’60s nostalgia industry kicked into high gear in the ’80s and ’90s, with the Beatles selling sneakers and Janis Joplin literally selling Mercedes Benzes. It’s interesting how the real thanatophobia inherent in Boomers’ midlife crises only really seemed to emerge in these cloaked narratives where their anxiety over aging could be projected onto their parents’ generation. These parents confronted institutional poverty with the New Deal, fought a war against fascism, and raised the Baby Boomers in incredibly luxurious comfort. The Greatest Generation had thus somehow earned this mystical second childhood in the eyes of the Baby Boomers. One will note that there are vanishingly few “second youth” films today. Whether that’s due to Generation X-ers and Millennials not having enough respect for their Boomer forebears to enshrine them in a film like Cocoon, or the fact that a midlife crisis is a luxury the young can no longer afford, who can say?

Grasso AvatarMichael Grasso is a Senior Editor at We Are the Mutants. He is a Bostonian, a museum professional, and a podcaster. Follow him on Twitter at @MutantsMichael.

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