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Wrestling Ernest Hemingway

By Elaine Cassel

According to current estimates, between now and the year 2030, the over-65 population will increase at twice the rate of the under-65 population. That's a lot of people who are, by today's standards, considered "elderly." Advances in gerontology and health care will contribute to better physical health for this population. But what about the social and emotional challenges of longevity?

Wrestling Ernest Hemingway, starring Robert Duvall and Richard Harris, is a tragicomic glimpse into the life of two elderly men. Bereft of friends and family, they each find themselves living alone in a Southern Florida community. They find each other out of their mutual loneliness and need for companionship. They form an odd couple, indeed. Duvall plays a retiring and shy Cuban ex-barber, resigned to a routine, mundane existence. Harris's character is a craggy, Irish ex-sea captain. Determined to eke out every ounce of life allotted to him, his days of drinking and womanizing are far from over.

The two become good friends, and meld their separate daily routines. These include having breakfast, strolling the streets, playing cards, recalling past exploits, and looking at women. They both have brief romantic encounters—Harris with his landlady, played by Shirley MacLaine, and Duvall with a much younger Piper Laurie. Though the affairs are short-lived, they energize the men's life for a time. One of the most touching scenes in the movie depicts Duvall reviving his glory days as a proud barber, as he gives Harris the works—shave and haircut, in preparation for his first date with MacLaine.

Harris dies first. Duvall takes over trying to locate the family and prepare him for burial. Harris, the dreamer, the schemer, was a good influence on Duvall, but will that influence survive death? Though Duvall is more adept at a solitary existence than Harris was, the sadness of that prospect is now brought home to him. Having experienced friendship, the lack of it will be sorely missed.

Wrestling Ernest Hemingway (the title comes from a "tall tale" oft repeated by Harris) conveys the downside of longevity. Greater life expectancy for women ultimately means that more women than men grow old without mates. But perhaps women's connections with family and friends, and their maintenance of their homes, however humble they may be, save them from the more public loneliness of elderly men. Not content to be at home, we often see them wandering the streets and sitting in parks, wasting away the hours.

How are we going to address the social and emotional challenges of longevity? This may be the next frontier of gerontology. Because as the experts tell us, living a long life may be a curse, if it is lived without family and friends, without belonging and connection.

Wrestling Ernest Hemingway, directed by Randa Haines, was released by Warner Brothers in 1993 and is readily available in video stores.

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