Last week, 67-year-old Anjelica Huston gave an instantly legendary interview to Vulture in which she candidly discussed her filmmaker father, her ex Jack Nicholson, and the limited roles offered to older actors in Hollywood. Reflecting on why she’s been scarce on the big screen for the past decade or so, she said, “I’m looking for movies that impress me in some way, that aren’t apologetically humble or humiliating like, ‘Band of cheerleaders gets back together for one last hurrah,’ you know. An old-lady cheerleader movie. I don’t like that kind of thing. If I’m going to be an old lady—and I’m sort of touching old lady these days—at least I want to be a special old lady. I don’t want to be relegated to some has-been making a comeback.”
Incidentally, “band of cheerleaders gets back together for one last hurrah” was not a hypothetical plotline. It is the story of Poms, a real, feel-good comedy about a retirement-community cheer squad starring Diane Keaton and Jacki Weaver that opens this weekend, just in time for Mother’s Day. The day after Huston’s interview was published, Vanity Fair asked Weaver what she thought of Huston’s remarks. Although Weaver had several colorful retorts (my favorite being “Didn’t she grow up in a castle in Ireland?”), the one that got the most attention was the most direct: “Well, she can go fuck herself.” And so the unlikeliest celebrity feud of 2019 was born.
Perhaps unfortunately for the studio, this bit of free advertising was totally counter to the spirit of Poms, a perky tale of senior citizen sisterhood and solidarity. Or at least it was counter to the version of Poms that’s being advertised in quippy, upbeat 30-second TV spots (“Life’s short, you should be dancing your ass off”)—upon seeing the movie, I was surprised by the morbid darkness at its heart. We learn in the opening moments that Martha, Diane Keaton’s character, is a single, childless woman dying of ovarian cancer; she moves to the retirement community after she has secretly decided to stop her treatment and succumb to her illness. (This is not a spoiler so much as a warning, if you were thinking of taking your mom to see Poms for some lighthearted Mother’s Day entertainment.)
Poms is predictable and formulaic by design; I suspect one of the main reasons it was green-lit in the first place is that last year’s (far superior) Book Club made $90 million on a $10 million budget. But the most interesting parts of this movie are those that cannot be summed up by a feel-good trailer, the sharp edges that stick outside the box. Keaton’s performance—as a woman pushing her failing body to the brink, too self-sufficient to tell her new friends that she’s dying—hints at what she could have done in a more daring movie, one that didn’t ask actors as talented as Keaton, Weaver, and Pam Grier to mock their ages with awkward dance moves, one that didn’t feel the need to follow up musings on mortality with visual gags about retirees breaking hips while twerking.
At the risk of straying even further from the spirit of Poms, I’ll say it anyway: The feud between Huston and the cast of the movie has been even more interesting than the movie itself. Just two days ago, Poms co-star Rhea Perlman said that she was forced to reschedule an appearance on Bravo’s Watch What Happens Live With Andy Cohen so that she wouldn’t be on the same day as Huston, who was promoting the upcoming John Wick 3, in which she has a small part. (Though the orders apparently came down from the studio, Perlman said of the reasoning behind her to rescheduled appearance, “Great—I wouldn’t really want to do that.”) There’s no such thing as bad press, and perhaps Huston’s comments will backfire and draw even more attention to the movie; it’s hard to imagine a movie about women over 60 becoming a multiweek source of Page Six headline fodder otherwise.
But for all the surface appeal of a catfight clickbait narrative, let’s not lose sight of what Huston was actually saying—women in Hollywood deserve better, juicier, and more daring parts, no matter what their age. (And it’s not even just a gender issue, even if the media has made it out to be one; Huston also suggested in her interview that actors like Jack Nicholson and Robert DeNiro deserve better movies than The Bucket List and Dirty Grandpa.) And although it would be hard to discern from the way Poms is being promoted, parts of this movie’s message are, in a way, compatible with what Huston was saying. Between Keaton’s performance as a nervy woman choosing to die on her own terms and the movie’s caustic, tonally inconsistent black humor (there’s a rather shockingly funny recurring gag that involves a company selling a firework into which you can pour a loved one’s ashes), Poms’ failure to cohere into a simple feel-good narrative just suggests the emotional complexity of older people’s lives. In an industry oversaturated with remakes and tent-pole franchises, maybe movies that take people over 60 seriously and treat them as complicated human beings is one of Hollywood’s last true zones of uncharted terrain. We might not have the stories yet but, as Huston and the women of Poms alike remind us, we certainly have the actors to tell them.