A Closer Look at Older Men, Younger Women

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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Not that that's a bad thing. As Streep and Clint Eastwood demonstrated in "The Bridges of Madison County," the older audience is substantial and capable of supporting a passionate romance between two older stars.

But this is where the economics really come into play. For "Bridges of Madison County," as with all his films, Eastwood has always taken less money upfront and a sizable cut of the profits--if there are any. Actors like Douglas and Ford still command top dollar--as much as $20 million a film and gross participation as well. And who's to say they don't deserve it? Ford's "Air Force One" was a worldwide blockbuster, grossing more than $300 million.

Superstar salaries almost ensure the film will cost upward of $50 million and, therefore, their appeal must be as broad as possible. Only Beatty worked for less to get "Bulworth" made. It still performed underwhelmingly at the box office, but at least he took responsibility for it.

Except for Nicholson, who has also romanced more mature leading ladies like Shirley MacLaine in "Terms of Endearment," as these actors have gotten older their leading ladies have remained the same age. They all have casting approval and demand younger co-stars, according to one casting agent. The actors argue that the roles are written for younger women, as if they had no power to alter that. The truth is that they desperately need the attentions of a beautiful young woman because she carries enough sex appeal for both of them.

Hollywood didn't create this double standard. But it certainly institutionalized it. In 1962, when Cary Grant (58) romanced Audrey Hepburn (33) in "Charade," audiences ate it up. A year earlier, when Vivien Leigh (48) ogled Warren Beatty (25) in "The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone," it was presented as prurient and pitiful. (For more of Hollywood's historic age disparities, see adjoining chart.)

It's more than just starring opposite nubile leading ladies. Though most of these men are old enough to be grandfathers--and a few of them are--they've even been reticent to play fathers (again Nicholson is the exception). And when they have, the children have always been under the age of 10. When Jodie Foster (35) wanted to play Douglas' daughter, and not his sister, in "The Game," the actor balked. The role was recast with Sean Penn (38) playing Douglas' younger brother.

For Douglas to have a 35-year-old daughter was a stretch, though no more of an acting challenge than for him to have a 25-year-old wife. But it would have changed the audience's perception of him. The fear is once you've crossed that line, you can't go back. Viewers wanted to believe that a 55-year-old Ford rescued his young daughter by acting like a Green Beret in "Air Force One." Would anyone have thought him capable of such derring-do if he was trying to save his 7-year-old granddaughter?

It's not that these actors are no longer virile or heroic. There are probably few 60-year-old men who wouldn't trade places with Redford or even Connery. But for that matter Streep, Close, Goldie Hawn and Sarandon have also matured beautifully and they all complain how difficult it is for them to find good roles at all, much less romantic assignments.

There are exceptions. Not that long ago Sarandon heated up the screen when she seduced both Tim Robbins (12 years her junior) and Kevin Costner (who's nine years younger) in "Bull Durham." (However, her most recent love interest was 73-year-old Paul Newman.) Rene Russo, who is on the other side of 40, still generates sparks opposite slightly younger leading men like Mel Gibson in the "Lethal Weapon" movies and Costner in "Tin Cup." At age 48, Sigourney Weaver was a more than credible action hero in "Alien: Resurrection" (although she was given no romance).

But when Barbra Streisand, then 53, strutted around like a schoolgirl in "The Mirror Has Two Faces," she was mocked. It's not that the attraction between her and Jeff Bridges (only seven years her junior) was out of whack. It was her adolescent behavior toward romance. That a woman in her 50s would still moon like a schoolgirl made her appear immature and rather ridiculous. It also deprived the audience of a better story--how a middle-aged woman copes with her own self-image.

And that gets to the heart of this male Peter Pan behavior pattern. It's easy to believe that a 60-year-old man would be attracted to Halle Berry or Gwyneth Paltrow. What's not to like? They're beautiful and intelligent. The more important question is why a 60-year-old man is chasing the same obscure object of desire as he did at age 25. What does that say about him? And what does it say about the audience? The answer to those questions would make a great movie. In fact, Blake Edwards already made that film. It was called "10."

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