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A Closer Look at Older Men, Younger Women

Commentary: May-December romances in cinema are not abating because audiences buy into the double standard. (Oh, and, of course, there's the vanity issue.)

June 19, 1998|RICHARD NATALE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The simple answer is ego. The question is why have there been so many screen pairings of much older men with beautiful women who are young enough to be their daughters?

The more complex answer, however, contains a few more wrinkles. The studios continue to reward these actors for playing heroic studs years long after their female counterparts have been put out to pasture (name one 60-year-old movie femme fatale). And audiences share part of the blame for condoning the double standard.

Current highly curious screen couplings include Michael Douglas and Gwyneth Paltrow in "A Perfect Murder," Harrison Ford and Anne Heche in "Six Days, Seven Nights," Warren Beatty and Halle Berry in "Bulworth," and Robert Redford and Kristin Scott Thomas in "The Horse Whisperer." In recent months we've seen Jack Nicholson with Helen Hunt ("As Good as It Gets"), Dustin Hoffman with Sharon Stone ("Sphere), and, of course, Woody Allen with Elisabeth Shue ("Deconstructing Harry").

Each of these actors is more than two decades older than his co-star and, except for Ford and Douglas, are all over 60. (Ford will be 56 in July and Douglas turns 54 in September.)

Vanity certainly plays a part. As Times film critic Kenneth Turan points out, "We're not witnessing one of life's great mysteries here. These men have been great romantic leads and they're finding it very difficult to give that up. Hollywood's not an area where rationality holds sway."

But one female senior studio executive contends that May-December romances are not an anomaly in Hollywood or anywhere else. So movies are just imitating life. And truly, older Texas oil millionaires, Wall Street moguls and politicians rarely have a problem securing young female companions or trophy wives. These captains of industry may be the envy of their peers, but they are also sometimes the butt of late-night talk-show jibes. In real life the age differential doesn't go by unnoticed.

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In Hollywood, though, this behavior has always been sanctioned--at least until recently. Allen's affair and subsequent marriage to Soon-Yi Previn--a woman not only young enough to be his daughter, but actually the adopted daughter of his then-partner, Mia Farrow--brought the age disparity question out of the closet. Critics started lashing back at Allen when he frolicked with Shue and Julia Roberts from "Everybody Says I Love You" on-screen. (Audiences were probably a beat ahead, because Allen hasn't starred in a bona fide hit film since "Hannah and Her Sisters" in the mid-1980s.)

At least, Turan says, Allen showed some good sense by lampooning his lechery in "Deconstructing Harry." Beatty and Ford also at least comment on the age gap with their leading ladies in "Bulworth" and "Six Days," respectively--and then go ahead with the romances anyway. But the age question is still largely ignored and falls under the category of "suspension of disbelief."

On the "Today Show," Katie Couric recently questioned Douglas' rationale for casting the 25-year-old Paltrow as his love interest in "A Perfect Murder." She is the daughter of one of his close friends, producer Bruce Paltrow. The actor argued that the marketplace demands youth. Look at all the magazine covers, he noted. The women get younger and younger.

It may have been a self-serving answer. But it's not without a kernel of truth. Is it just Douglas' vain attempt to appear vital? Or is the audience unable to let him age gracefully? Most of these actors have been romantic leading men for three decades now (yes, even Woody Allen), playing opposite the youthful female beauties of the '60s through the '90s. While their co-stars (Kathleen Turner, Jane Fonda, Diane Keaton) have been forced to either retire or play older characters, the men continue to be rewarded for stressing their sexual prowess.

When Redford offered Demi Moore $1 million for a roll in the hay in 1993's "Indecent Proposal," many female viewers joked that they would have done it for free. Nicholson and Hunt received Oscars for their romantic interplay and "As Good as It Gets" was one of last year's most financially successful films. Beatty not only wooed and won the much younger Annette Bening in "Bugsy," he married her in real life. Several rappers on the soundtrack of "Bulworth" have said they had always admired Beatty because he is "a mack daddy" (a Casanova).

But Couric also asked if audiences would have been interested if Douglas was unhappily married to, say, Susan Sarandon in "A Perfect Murder." It would certainly have made for a more interesting drama if Sarandon (or Meryl Streep or Glenn Close) was cheating on Douglas with a younger man. But according to David Weitzner, an industry marketing consultant and former studio marketing head, while the casting of Paltrow does not mean that younger viewers will attend the film, casting a more similar-age actress opposite Douglas almost ensures an exclusively older demographic.

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