A few weeks ago, about the same time I began doing unrelated research of my own, actor Seth Rogen appeared before Congress to plea for the expansion of research and funding for Alzheimer's disease. He spoke eloquently and made a valid argument. However, (something the cameras didn't show) the majority of the chairmen apparently had more pressing matters and left in the middle of his speech. A man much stronger than I, Mr. Rogen took the high road and rather than make a scene, he finished his speech. I'm not sure of the proceeding's actual time, but if it was anywhere within the 3:30 pm to 4:15 pm range, he definitely would've had things to do...and by things I mean pot.
Being a famous actor, Rogen's appearance made me think of something during my visit to the Alzheimer's Association's Greater Indiana Chapter. As I glanced across their selection of literature, I couldn’t help but notice that there was a glaring lack of fiction in the collection. The bookshelves were overflowing with educational material but only a smattering of any kind of creative writing. Fiction, storytelling, and cinema in particular, are the most expressive and influential mediums in our culture. So why don't more films deal with this subject?
Perhaps it's our society's obsession with beauty that dissuades production companies from backing films starring older actors whose films don’t typically score big at the box office. That is unless there are also explosions, bad jokes, and guns so big I can't be certain they're real - for example "The Expendables" and "Red".
It appears that films dealing with uncomfortable subjects like Alzheimer’s disease and dementia are forever doomed to trudge amongst the squalor of Lifetime Television. However, given the amount of still popular elders in Hollywood, I could see plenty of big stars - with huge fan bases capable of filling the seats - who also have the ability to take on such demanding roles:
Nicholson, Streep, Freeman, Nolte, Hoffman, Pacino, Mirren, De Niro, Oldman - and the list goes on and on.
It would be an automatic shot straight to award season. The typical thought in Hollywood is "if there’s talent on the page, you’ll get talent on the stage,". Also, though few are aware of it, there's also a condition known as Early-Onset Alzheimer's in which people begin showing symptoms as early as their 40's or 50's. So you can add a few other names to that list we started:
Hanks, Giamatti, Fiennes, Washington, Day-Lewis, Moore, Cranston, Spacey, Firth, Wilkinson, etc.
With no absence of very talented actors with strong followings, I don't see why screenwriters aren't working day and night to mine this untapped resource. With a good script and solid actors attached, it would be an all-out "Oscar bait" bidding war amongst the major production companies. So if there's no shortage of acting talent, then there must be a shortage of scripts; which is just another result of our general ignorance regarding the prevelance of Alzheimer's disease.
In a recent study done by the American Academy of Neurology (AAN), it is suggested that the "official" number Alzheimer's related deaths may be wildly inaccurate. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention currently estimates that 84,000 deaths per year are attributed to Alzheimer’s disease. The recent AAN study argues that the actual number is much closer to 503,400 deaths per year, putting it squarely into third place behind Heart Disease and Cancer as the most fatal diseases in our country.
If you weren't aware of this, don’t beat yourself up; after all, Congress only shells out 1/8th the amount of money on Alzheimer’s as it does on Cancer. I recently came across a cool website called moviecus.com, which is basically a database of 30,956 films that are categorized using 3,869 keywords.
If you type in 'cancer', it brings up 232 results (50/50, The Bucket List, Terms of Endearment, etc.).
'Aids' brings up 93 results (Philadelphia, Kids, Dallas Buyer’s Club, etc.).
Lastly, 'Alzheimer’s' brings up a whopping 33 results (Away from Her, Iris, and uh…The Notebook?).
If you’ve seen, or even heard of “Away from Her” or “Iris”, then congratulations; you’re one of us. But if “The Notebook” was your first reference then my point should be even more clear. "The Notebook" isn’t even about Alzheimer’s. It’s a love story that uses Alzheimer’s as a sympathetic crutch to make you forget that you just watched a couple of horrible people yell at each other for two hours. And this is typical with most films based on forms of dementia; very rarely is the disease the focus, the conflict, the antagonist. If we only include films that focus directly on Alzheimer's, we're left with 11(and I'm sneaking in “The Savages”, which technically deals with dementia, but it’s a great movie...and it's my list.)
The fact is that the topic of Alzheimer’s disease is massively underrepresented not just in our popular culture, but in our everyday culture. Perhaps if word got out that Alzheimer’s isn’t just a silly inevitability that causes grandma to walk outside in her robe and shower cap, but an incurable disease with a 100% Case Fatality Rate, it might begin to receive the attention that it deserves.
Luckily there are non-profit organizations like the Alzheimer’s Association, which has separate chapters in many major cities who are working their tails off trying to spread Alzheimer’s awareness and raise funding for research.
If you live in the Indianapolis area and would like to learn more about what you can do to contribute, contact the Information and Referral Coordinator at the Alzheimer’s Association’s Greater Indiana Chapter, Amanda Janz,. They accept donations, volunteers, and you can click the link to find out when your local “Walk to End Alzheimer’s” fundraiser takes place.