Flamboyant seniors help redefine beauty in Walter Matteson’s documentary ‘Pretty Old’
Walter Matteson was in Copenhagen, Denmark to visit his then-girlfriend (and now wife) when he first saw the photograph that sparked it all. The photo, hanging at the 2007 World Press Photo Exhibit, displayed three senior women in a backstage setting. “I had just seen sports photography and war photography, and I was like, ‘What in the world is that?’” remembers Matteson. “It almost looked something like a David Lynch painting to me; it was a large print—it was giant—that I saw from across the room and it didn’t look real.” The caption was simple: “Ms. Senior Sweetheart Beauty Pageant, Fall River, Massachusetts.”
Upon returning home, Matteson researched senior pageants and discovered that an entire subculture of them exists in America. He then reached out to Magnus Wennman—the photographer of the aforementioned shot—who sent Matteson an article that accompanied his pageant photos. “He took about 10 photos that were featured in this article,” says Matteson. “He had an interesting take on it because he’s Swedish and so he had sort of an outsider’s point of view.”
Matteson remembers the first time he telephoned the pageant’s founder. Fondly imitating the scratchy New England accent he heard at the other end of the line, he says, “This is Len Kaplan from the Senior Sweetheart Beauty Pageant of America-slash-International, how can I help you?”
The story that followed that call is chronicled Pretty Old, the closing night documentary of the Santa Cruz Film Festival, and a labor of love that was directed, written and produced by Matteson. The film covers the 30th anniversary of the Ms. Senior Sweetheart Pageant and its 30 female competitors, ages 67 to 84, from around the world.
In addition to profiling pageant founder Lenny “Low Price” Kaplan, the film focuses on four participants through preparation and competition: a woman who has survived two heart attacks in the year preceding the pageant; another who is battling cancer; another who is losing her husband to dementia; and a so-called “pageant junkie,” who is a Betty Boop impersonator.
Getting the subjects to open up on camera was a process, but eventually they proved willing to do so. “One technique was just being around a lot, and another one was letting them into my process a little bit; instead of just asking them the questions, sharing a little bit of my story as well,” says Matteson. “I think that the women really let their guards down because they were so used to me, Trish [Govoni, director of photography] and Leah [Sapin, co-producer], that eventually the camera disappeared.”
“Walter has a quality where these women took him in almost like a grandson, and they really opened their lives to him,” says writer-producer Josh Alexander. “They really wanted to share with him, and I think that’s a unique type of access. I’m not sure that every director would’ve been able to have that type of access.”
Part of making a documentary is about being in the right place at the right time, and the ability to anticipate said time and place. “It’s very much about paying attention,” says Matteson. “Because if you’re not in the right place at the right time it doesn’t even happen—you can’t really capture the emotion or the event that actually happened. Someone can tell you about it, but when you’re really there it’s a better document.”
After sifting through 250 hours of footage, Matteson, Alexander and editor Matthew Prinzing produced an 85-minute final cut, scored by Kris Kaczor. More than just trimming, the three were crafting a narrative arc that carried a message they hadn’t necessarily expected.
“I think all of us went through that process; we had ideas about what a senior beauty pageant would be. And I think that’s a question that any audience member is going to bring to the film,” says Alexander. “But I think once you start to spend time with these characters and get to know them, you see that you’re dealing with some pretty remarkable people, and that this idea of beauty is really multifaceted.”
After the Santa Cruz Film Festival, Pretty Old—which won Best Documentary at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival—will continue its festival run. “One of the things that I hope people take away from the film is that many of these women whether they’re 60 or 70 or 84, they’re all struggling with the things that all of us are struggling with,” says Alexander. “How to find meaning in our lives, how to find meaning in our relationships, how do we feel about death, and how to find happiness and joy.”
‘Pretty Old’ plays at 7:30 p.m., Saturday, May 19 at Del Mar Theatre, 1124 Pacific Ave., Santa Cruz. Tickets are $12-15. Visit santacruzfilmfestival.org.
Photo: Magnus Wennman