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The Bolder Woman

In several new movies, the May-September relationships don't involve a man chasing after a pretty young thing. Instead, older women are seeking younger guys.

July 06, 2002|ANDRE CHAUTARD | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Here's to you Mrs. Robinson: With the number of films coming out this summer in which an older woman gets involved with a very young or even teenage guy, it's starting to look more like the "Summer of '42" than the summer of '02.

In "Tadpole," which is to open July 19, a 15-year-old boarding school student (newcomer Aaron Stanford) becomes infatuated with his stepmother, played by Sigourney Weaver.

In "Lovely & Amazing," currently in theaters, Catherine Keener plays a discontented wife and mother who fools around with a 17-year-old photo store boss (Jake Gyllenhaal).

In "The Good Girl," which is to open Aug. 7, married discount store clerk Jennifer Aniston has an affair with her 22-year-old co-worker (also Gyllenhaal).

And earlier this year, Andie MacDowell played a headmistress who falls for her 25-year-old former student (Kenny Doughty) in "Crush."

On Broadway, an adaptation of "The Graduate" with Kathleen Turner and Jason Biggs is a box-office sensation. And in recent years television shows ranging from "Dawson's Creek" to "Friends" to "Judging Amy" have dealt with the story line, as have the films "Y Tu Mama Tambien," "In the Bedroom" and the "American Pie" movies.

It's about time, some are saying.

Relationships between older women and younger men are "becoming a lot more prevalent in society ... [but] there's still a lot of stigma attached to it," says Felicia Brings, co-author of "Older Women, Younger Men: New Options for Love and Romance." These films are "an indicator that people are willing to at least address it, talk about it not in a shameful way," she says.

"What's interesting is how slow movies are to come to this kind of thing, how the older man-younger woman thing is absolutely routine" in movies, says film critic Molly Haskell, author of "Holding My Own in No Man's Land: Women and Men and Film and Feminists." And although older films like "The Graduate" looked at the subject from the young man's point of view, "Lovely & Amazing," "The Good Girl" and "Crush" are written around the female characters.

Mike White, who wrote "The Good Girl," says, "In this culture that prioritizes youth, I don't think it's a coincidence that we're seeing that women connect to this"--the idea of being with someone younger--"as much as men have throughout history of film and literature."

With boundary-pushing shows like "Sex and the City" and the recently canceled "Ally McBeal" "in the popular media now, women are allowed to express their sexual desire more straightforwardly," says Thomas Wartenburg, professor of philosophy and film studies at Mount Holyoke College and author of "Unlikely Couples: Movie Romance as Social Criticism."

"Whatever forces there are in society that tell the society that women stop having their sexuality at 35 is just insane," says Bebe Neuwirth, who in "Tadpole" plays the stepmother's friend who beds the young man.

"Women get sexier and sexier as they get older, as many men do as well. They get better at it, and they get more confident in themselves," says the actress, whose boyfriend is nine years younger than she.

"There's a fact that society doesn't want to look at, which is women come into their sexual peak in their late 30s, and men hit their sexual peak around 21," says "The Good Girl" director Miguel Arteta, whose first film, "Star Maps," also featured a relationship between a young man and an older woman.

"Definitely, when I was in one of these relationships, that's something that I thought made sense," he says. "Women can start exploring their sexuality in really profound ways, in ways that they weren't capable in their early 20s. And the perfect person to do that with is a man in his early 20s."

Gyllenhaal, who plays the younger man in "Lovely & Amazing" and "The Good Girl," says, "I will be [so] presumptuous [as] to speak for many younger men that find older women incredibly attractive."

That this attraction is being represented in film is a change from the norm. "Whereas the older man and younger woman [pairing] is almost expected as part of social custom ... a woman is not supposed to desire someone who might be the age of her son," Haskell says. "The idea of a mother having sexual feelings toward a young man is something that is an outrage; it offends us.

"It's offensive because we want the mother to be a repository of what is good and pure and nurturing."

That the current incarnation of Mrs. Robinson on Broadway "is allowed to be considerably older than the young man and treated not as a grotesque," as she is in the 1967 film, is a long way to come, Haskell says.

But in "Lovely & Amazing" and "The Good Girl," it seems to be less about sex for the women than escape or their own immaturity. "Both Jennifer's character and Catherine's character are two women who are not grown up and have not figured out what they want from their life, so they go back to the age at which they started trying to figure that out," Gyllenhaal says.

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