Friday, May 4, 2012

Old Folks’ Holmes: Sherlock Holmes and Other Old-Timers At the Movies

On a recent flight, I watched the 2011 film, Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows, on one of those tiny overhead screens. Robert Downey, Jr. certainly makes a most unusual Sherlock Holmes: the great detective as action hero. Anyone weaned on the old movies starring Basil Rathbone will immediately see the difference. Rathbone was tall, lean, and dapper, forever associated with an Inverness cape and deerstalker cap. Downey, some five inches shorter, is rumpled, burly, and sometimes bumbling. His disguises can be inept – as when he shows up in grotesque drag regalia – and he’s as prone to solve problems with a well-placed punch as with the cerebral cogitation for which the literary Holmes is so famous.

It was fascinating to see Downey’s take on Holmes (with its obvious appeal to the youth market) because I’d just finished reading a 2004 novella by Michael Chabon. The Final Solution, billed as “a story of detection,” moves Holmes into the twentieth century. The year is 1944, and the 89-year-old Holmes is living in retirement in the Sussex countryside, tending his bees as well as the demands of his aging body. He seems to be long past his years as a crime-solver, but the curious sight of a solemn young boy with a parrot walking on the railroad tracks near his home starts the old juices flowing. A murder and a kidnapping draw Holmes in, and soon he’s cautiously making his way to London to solve a case that’s unexpectedly tied to Nazi Germany and the Holocaust.

The Final Solution is a modest book, with not enough meat on its bones to be an obvious candidate for movie adaptation. (Chabon, much enamored of movies, has struggled to write a screenplay for his Pulitzer Prize-winning The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay.) What struck me about The Final Solution was its vivid depiction of old age. Chabon’s Holmes is not the cute codger of so much popular media. He’s the Conan Doyle original, but now bedeviled with physical frailty and an occasionally shaky grasp of the world. In the recent past, I’ve spent long hours with people of advanced years, and I appreciate Chabon’s respect for what the elderly can and can’t do.

Hollywood, of course, loves old coots, so long as they conform to certain stereotypes. Male actors like to sink their teeth into roles that let them be crusty and cantankerous but good-hearted: see Clint Eastwood in Gran Torino and Richard Farnsworth, the oldest ever Best Actor Oscar nominee for his role in The Straight Story. The classic old man of recent times is the one voiced by Edward Asner in Up. He’s grumpy but lovable, and ultimately rises above his condition (in quite a literal way) to take on the world. True, Meryl Streep won her latest Oscar for a portrayal of Margaret Thatcher that made old age look realistically daunting. But the British are especially fond of casting aging performers like Judi Dench and Maggie Smith in films (see The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel ) where they can ride motorcycles and perform youthful stunts for comic effect.

There’s an extreme example of adorable oldsters in Betty White’s newest TV venture, Off Their Rockers. The point of this Candid Camera-style reality show involves apparently feeble folk who succeed in punking our nation’s youth with their raunchy sensibilities and unexpected physical prowess (on skateboards and such). White, who acts as host, seems to find this naughty good fun. Personally, I like the idea of treating the elderly and their challenges with respect, rather than reducing then to Gen-Y'ers with wrinkles.


  1. I have been a fan of Holmes since discovering the Rathbone/Bruce movies on public domain VHS - then moving on to the Doyle stories. I have enjoyed both of the recent incarnations - Downey's Holmes-as-rock-star, and Benendict Cumberbatch's modern Holmes on the British Sherlock series with Martin Freeman as Watson. I have not read Chabon's pastiche - but I will seek it out - thanks Ms. Gray!

    I liked the way the old guys were shown in 1979's Going in Style, with George Burns, Art Carney, and Lee Strasberg as three elderly gentlemen who decide to liven up their last chapter with a bank robbery - the movie gets a little silly now and again - but there are some surprisingly poignant moments in it as well.

  2. I haven't seen "Going in Style," but as a biographer of Ron Howard I have great affection for "Cocoon," which contains star turns by some of our best older actors, including Hume Cronyn, Jessica Tandy, Maureen Stapleton, et al. Don Ameche won an Oscar on the strength of his breakdancing scene, but my favorite in the film is Jack Gilford, whose farewell to the others is heart-breaking. I'm told all those veteran actors just loved the physical challenges of their roles, as well as the love and respect they got from Howard

  3. Interesting points Beverly. I did see Downey version of Sherlock Holmes and enjoyed it, but the crumpled version did seem a bit out of place, more Lt. Columbo like, now that I think of it.

  4. Good to hear from you, Marijke. Yes, I suspect Conan Doyle would have been shocked to see his Sherlock running around London with stubble on his face.

  5. My pleasure! Come back and visit me again sometime!