By Frank Pittman, published on January 1, 1999 - last reviewed on June 13, 2012
How old should lovers be? In the movies, male stars in their 50s, like Harrison Ford and Michael Douglas, are pairing with women in their 20s like Anne Heche ,and Gwyneth Paltrow. Men in their 60s, like Jack Nicholson and Robert Redford, are romancing women in their 30s like Helen Hunt and Kristin Scott Thomas. And 73-year-old Paul Newman is romping with that goddess of sensuality, 52-year-old Susan Sarandon.
It's a long-standing film tradition. At 45, Humphrey Bogart was clinching with 19-year-old Lauren Bacall in To Have and Have Not; at 55, he was partnering Audrey Hepburn, 25, in Sabrina. Clark Gable was 33 years older than Sophia Loren when they romped together in It Started in Naples.
Such May-December liaisons seem to have two functions, both unsettling. The first is to send a message to viewers that it is a dangerous world out there in which young damsels in distress need a man, even sometimes a very old man, to keep them safely rescued. Second, when men in the audience see men on the screen winning victories over other men and rescuing women, it gives them an ego boost and even raises their testosterone levels. Men feel more heroic in the company of women who are smaller, weaker, poorer, dumber, more troubled, and, above all, younger than they are.
Romance between old men and young women has been so commonplace on-screen that the age difference often passes without comment. Recently, however, more women in the audience are looking with repulsion on these geriatric child-molesters. They long instead for celebratory and inspiring tales of sexy older women.
Unfortunately, such films have been few and far between. The most recent, now available on video, is How Stella Got Her Groove Back, the sumptuous romance of a 40-year-old woman and 20-year-old man. No American film since 1973's Forty Carats has made a December-May pairing look so easy, so joyous and so optimistic. The amazingly fit Angela Bassett plays Stella, Taye Diggs her young lover Winston. Both actors boast faces sculpted by the gods and minted in gyms, and the couplings of these two perfect bodies in a Jamaican paradise are stupefyingly beautiful. Unhappily, from time to time the lovers must come up for conversation, and they can't seem to talk about much except their age difference.
Film romances always revolve around a couples efforts to overcome obstacles to their coupling. In Stella, there aren't many. Bassett is a hotshot stockbroker with a drop-dead house and wardrobe, an impeccably adjusted 11-year-old son, a supportive ex-husband and a nurturing family and cadre of friends. Diggs is an island prince whose main problem is deciding whether to go to medical school or to wash dishes for a living.
We learn that studly young lovers make great nannies. On the downside, they eat dry Froot Loops in bed, prefer Disney flicks to weepies and shy away from noisy emotional processing of the sorts of worries that keep middle-aged single mothers awake at night.
Stella's biggest problem is that her friends and family worry about the risk an older woman takes when she hooks her life to a man who could so easily find a younger woman. They psychologize over what could be wrong with a man who would mate with a woman his mother's age rather than one his daughter's or granddaughter's.
In the real world, and in my office, there are a lot of such relationships. Of course, it is easier to create a lasting, equal relationship with a partner of your own generation, but overall, the old gals and young guys I see are doing OK. They're doing it without much support from the movies, though, and movies are very important in shaping our mythology about relationships.
While films accept and thus normalize matings between old men and young women, they find the older woman-younger man relationship alarming. Movies involving such pairs are often cautionary tales for young men, warning them that taking up with an older woman is dangerous to their emotional and even physical, health.
Movie myths about sexy older women take four forms, corresponding to the four archetypes of femininity: the Warrior, the Queen, the Wise Woman or Witch, and the Lover. Real women obviously embody all four. But in the movies, one myth always predominates.
The older woman may be an Amazon who uses her fierceness to slay her own dragons and prove that she doesn't need a man. Stella is such a warrior, as is Margo Channing (Bette Davis) in All About: Eve and Susan Sarandon's sassy waitress in White Palace. Tine Warrior has been fire-hardened by men past and has learned to handle life on her own. Sine is terrified of putting her life in the hands of someone who might betray her or try to control her. A young man may be seeking an equal partner, while the Warrior, at a different stage of life, may not be ready to take the risk.
When the older woman is a Warrior, the young man is warned: You may love her and she may enjoy you, but she is so distrustful of men and so insecure about the age difference between you that she may have to prove to herself constantly that she can get along without you. Expect to be tested and distrusted from here on out. Your love may never be enough.
In some subtle and psychologically astute films, the older woman is the Queen who gives a young man access to her power and resources. In the Oedipal horror story Sunset Boulevard, struggling writer William Holden wanders into the bizarrely cloistered world of aged movie star Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson), who offers him luxury, comfort and introductions to the right people in exchange for a little love and attention. But there's a price to be paid: she'll kill him if he tries to leave.
The Lion in Winter is another such cautionary saga, based on the real history of Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine (played here by Katharine Hepburn), the richest, most famous and powerful woman of the 12th century. She marries the 11-years-younger Henry Plantagenet (Peter O'Toole), uses her power to make him King Henry II of England and bears him several children. It is not a peaceable union: the pair fight incessantly over his infidelities and the royal succession. When she poisons his mistress and rouses their sons into revolution against him, he has her locked up. But she triumphs in the end by outliving him.
Men who want to take advantage of the Queenly powers of older women may find it is not so easy to leave. The Queen is not your momma who gives you her warm milk for free. If you enter her sphere, you get all she's got, but she gets all you've got, too.
Sometimes, older women turn out to be the Witch, fed up with pampering men, and looking for revenge. The Witch may exploit a young man's innocence and relative weakness for her own purposes. In Bullets Over Broadway, Dianne Wiest's aging actress romances young writer John Cusack for a bigger part in his play. In To Die For, Nicole Kidman's TV weatherwoman wants Joaquin Phoenix's dull and homely high-schooler to knock off her husband.
In Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Martha (Elizabeth Taylor) seduces Nick (George Segal) merely to make her husband jealous, and then proceeds to make Nick feel like a flop in bed. With a single sex act, she wins victories over two men, turning both into houseboys.
Most famously, Mrs. Robinson (Anne Bancroft) picks Dustin Hoffman's virginal recent Graduate to be her private stud rather than her prospective son-in-law. The message: Witches have higher priorities than a young man's comfort or self esteem.
Films about sexy Witches tell young men: Some women play games that can make you impotent metaphorically, or even literally What does she want? You're not cute enough for her to want you that much. She must be up to something.
Older women who mate with younger men in the movies are most likely to fall into the Lover category. Obviously, older women are the best, most experienced and least selfish Lovers. This is the only movie myth with a benign outlook, relatively speaking. Older women have their own reasons for providing sexual initiation, but they are not likely to expect lifetime support and protection in exchange.
In Never on Sunday, introducing virginal boys to the joys of sex was always a holiday for the Piraeus prostitute of Melina Mercouri. In lea and Sympathy, Deborah Kerr's faculty wife is just trying to save an adolescent virgin (John Kerr, no relation to Deborah) from homosexuality. In Summer of '42, Jennifer O'Neill's 22-year-old wife learns she's been widowed by the war and gets through the night with a 16-year-old boy (Gary Grimes), who remains forever grateful. The Last Picture Show offers a similar motive: the neglected middle-aged coach's wife (Cloris Leachman) and an orphaned high-school student (Timothy Bottoms) go through their loveless sexual mechanics to find mutual comfort in a dying town. These relationships only work in the short run.
Matings between women who have been around and boys who have not are generally portrayed as acts of generosity and mercy, rather than as child molesting. As long as the older women don't expect the liaison to be permanent, they won't frighten boys who want to be sexual but aren't ready yet to be grown-up.
But such relationships still come with a mythic warning for younger men attracted to older Lovers: It can never last. French films do this myth especially well. Near the end, the about-to-part lovers go around in raincoats (it's always raining at this point), smoking cigarettes and looking ineffably sad.
Older Lovers like Jennifer O'Neill may not abound in real life; they may just be adolescent male fantasies. One of the sexiest fantasy women to ever sizzle the screen is 79-year-old Maude of the cult film Harold and Maude. The septuagenarian (Ruth Gordon) seduces 22-year-old Harold (Bud Cort), and, with her love and zest for life, raises all manner of hormone levels and saves him from suicide.
Harold's mother is unloving and anti-sexual; Maude is the perfect antidote. Harold wants to marry her, but she seems to know that this love story is a young man's Oedipal fantasy of the ideal Older Lover, who must disappear once the young man is sexually initiated and brought into full manhood. On her 80th birthday, Maude checks out by swallowing a fatal dose of pills. Perhaps, in this myth, Maude's death is necessary for Harold's liberation, but the old gal looked to me as if she had a lot of life left in her. In this case, the myth of the Good Fairy Lover proves dangerous to women's health.
Despite the warnings from the big screen, young men in real life do look to older women for mature and experienced love. But what do the older women get from the younger men? Simple, in archetypal language: young men can play the Lover to the hilt, without the distracting and irritating need to be the King, the Magician or the Warrior. Today, more and more women find the men of their generation stuck in outdated patriarchal mode and the men of the next generation more eager for gender equality.
Out here in the three-dimensional world, September-May relationships stand a good chance of working, if the aging woman can stop taking too seriously the messages from the movies that tell her that men naturally want younger women. Real men want women of any age who like them, who want to make them feel good and who raise their testosterone level.
The advantages of a September-May pairing for the young man are obvious: she is a mate who is broken in but not broken-down, who has sexual experience, wisdom, power, competence and perhaps even gratitude. The woman who chooses a younger man may have to work hard to keep him from feeling like her son, and this effort will keep her young. But--and here's the great advantage for her--at least she won't have to keep him from feeling like he's her father.
As for the movies, they're still lagging behind the progress we've made in real life. If we are to achieve the gender equality we've been working toward for these last 40 years, we need the movies to provide a better set of myths about gender, age and relationships. With Mrs. Robinson, Margo Channing and Norma Desmond firmly in our psyches, it will take more than one Stella to create a widespread sense that older women can be sexy, desirable and, above all, safe for younger men. Men well know that older women can be these things, but the movies have not helped post-pubescent women themselves to feel that way. It is high time we had some sexy, loving, passionate older women in our movie mythology.
PHOTO (COLOR): WARRIOR WOMAN: Stella (Angela Bassett) got her groove back--with the help of a younger man(Taye Diggs).
PHOTO (BLACK & WHITE): QUEENING IT: Gloria Swanson gets ahold of William Holden.
PHOTO (COLOR): WITCHY WOMEN: Nicole Kidman seduces Joaquin Phoenix in To Die For (above)
PHOTO (COLOR): Anne Bancroft tempts the newly-minted Graduate, Dustin Hoffman (below)
Adapted by M.D.