A comic cinematic take on Alzheimer's and its impact

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The cast of the new movie "Silver Skies" includes George Hamilton and Barbara Bain as seniors and retirees whose apartment building is sold out from other them.

A filmmaker has brought her father's diagnosis with Alzheimer's disease to the silver screen - in a comedy.

Her new movie, Silver Skies, forgoes the usual clichés and hackneyed jokes about senility and bathroom breaks, director Rosemary Rodriguez said.

It took her 10 years to get the film - inspired by her parents - made in Hollywood. Pieces of their characters show up in each star, including George Hamilton (Love at First Bite), Valerie Perrine (Superman), Barbara Bain (Mission: Impossible), Alex Rocco (The Godfather), Mariette Hartley (Peyton Place), Jack McGee (Rescue Me), and Dick Van Patten (Eight Is Enough).

"Seniors are no longer invisible in cinema," she said. "Even though the movie business is a business of denial."

However, Rodriguez said she believes her film defies Hollywood stereotypes about aging.

"Older people love going to the movies. They show up to see the stars they grew up with, and they're curious to see themselves in the characters but without being stereotypes," she said. "These aren't angry old people, and this movie gets inside their lives as working-class people."

Silver Skies chronicles a group of eccentric seniors whose lives are turned upside down by the sale of their beloved apartment complex. It's a story about getting older and trying to hold tight to the American dream.

Longtime pals Phil and Nick (Hamilton and McGee) face Phil's descent into Alzheimer's - including episodes in which Phil has delusions that he is Dean Martin. Ethel (Perrine) and Frank (Rocco) find that friendship trumps love.

"Silver Skies was an homage to my parents, who were still alive. Ironically, over the many years it took to get it made, my parents would die," Rodriguez said.

The character played by Hamilton is based partly on her father.

"Alzheimer's took his life and our hearts," she said. "Watching that disease slowly wipe away my father's lovable personality impacted Silver Skies greatly. It is a much more honest film than it may have been without that experience of watching my father's decline.

"George Hamilton plays a guy who worked as a gofer for Dean Martin. He's a ladies' man. I always felt like Dean Martin represented my father - soft-talking, dry Italian, and handsome."

In real life, Rodriguez's father worked as a bookie and sold programs at Hollywood Park racetrack, where some scenes in the movie were shot.

"There were two years when my dad was diagnosed when he was really sick. There's a window of time that's confusing for the person who has it and the family. They say inappropriate things; they flirt. It's like having a little kid who's uncensored."

As portrayed by McGee, "Nick's still working as a senior, working at the racetrack. He's just like my dad working at the racetrack, selling programs."

The film will be screened Monday through Thursday at venues in California and Florida through the New York Film Critics series. The producers are seeking a wider U.S. release, including cities such as New York and Philadelphia.

The director's longtime devotion to the film has won her many fans among seniors, Rodriguez said. After one screening, she said, a woman told her: "Thank you for showing that older people still have sexual lives."

Senior avoidance in Hollywood does exist. This month, the University of Southern California's Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism released a study analyzing the 100 top-grossing films from 2015 to assess the portrayal of characters ages 60 and over.

In film, seniors are underrepresented, mischaracterized, and demeaned by ageist language, the study found. Just 11 percent of characters were 60 and over, while U.S. Census data show that 18.5 percent of the population is.

Out of 57 films that featured a leading or supporting senior character, 30 featured ageist comments - quotes included characters being referred to as "a relic," "a frail old woman," and "a senile old man," the study said.

Silver Skies joins a growing number of films attempting to portray aging and second acts in a sophisticated way, including Away From Her, Quartet, and The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, which follows a group of British retirees who outsource their retirement to less expensive and seemingly exotic India.

In Youth, which debuted in 2015, an aging composer played by Michael Caine takes a vacation from his dementia-stricken wife with a longtime friend, played by Harvey Keitel.

And in St. Vincent (2014), a hedonistic retired war veteran finds a second career as a babysitter; in Birdman (2014) a washed-up actor who once played a superhero tries to reinvent himself and reclaim past glory by producing a Broadway play.

earvedlund@phillynews.com

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