An Age-Old Problem

Not long ago Kyle Buchanan published on The Vulture website an insightful look at the age discrepancies between various movie leading men (Tom Cruise, Harrison Ford, Denzel Washington, and others) and actresses who get cast opposite them to play their love interests. He noted, rightfully, that no matter how old these matinee idols seem to get (their 50s, 60s, 70s!), the ages of their leading ladies, in film after film, always remains at least 10 to even 20-plus years younger. In Oblivion, 50 year-old Tom Cruise is paired with the 33-year-old Olga Kurylenko. In Up in the Air, the 48-year-old George Clooney hooks up with the 36-year-old Vera Farmiga. And in the forthcoming World War Z, the 49-year-old Brat Pitt plays opposite the 37-year-old Mireille Emos. And, etc., etc.

Though various statisticians have taken issue with the methodology of Buchananan’s less than scientific study, it doesn’t take a series of graphs and tables to see how, at the Cineplexes, a lot of old geezers sure do get to co-star with and kiss a lot of much younger women.

But it also doesn’t take too much knowledge of Hollywood history to know that this phenomenon is nothing new. In fact, it’s so old it hardly counts as a phenomenon at all.

In 1980, Burt Lancaster, age 67, co-starred with Susan Sarandon, age 34, in the film Atlantic City. That same year, the 33-year-old Farrah Fawcett was featured opposite the 64-year-old Kirk Douglas in Saturn 3. In 1976, the 60-year-old Gregory Peck was married to the 41-year-old Lee Remick in The Omen. (And the age game isn’t limited to romantic leads either. In 1972, Ida Lupino played Steve McQueen’s mother in the movie Junior Bonner; Lupino was only 12 years McQueen’s senior.)

Back more in Hollywood’s “Golden Age,” Grace Kelly and Audrey Hepburn both built the majority of their careers either exorcising their daddy issues or fulfilling a lot of old men’s fantasies. At the beginning of her career, Kelly (born 1928) co-starred opposite Gary Cooper (born 1901), Clark Gable (born 1901), Ray Milland (born 1905) and Jimmy Stewart (born 1908).

Audrey Hepburn also had her share of playing opposite the elder set. At the beginning of her career, she got paired off with Gregory Peck, Fred Astaire, Cary Grant and Humphrey Bogart. The age discrepancies between Hepburn, born 1929, and this quartette of her leading men: 13 years, 30 years, 25 years, and 30 years, respectively

(We would probably be more alarmed by these huge age gaps if real-life did not give us so many high profile examples of extreme May-December relationships. Before their divorce, there was a 16-year age difference between Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes. Michael Douglas is 25 years older than his wife Catherine Zeta-Jones.)

Still, if this older man-younger woman coupling began in earnest in the movies in the 1950s, with the likes of Kelly and Hepburn (though Lauren Bacall and others might argue that it started before that), then it should also be noted that, during that same time in cinema, it wasn’t just the men who began acting opposite younger romantic interests. So too did some of their age contemporary female colleagues.

For example, in 1952, movie star grand dame Joan Crawford (born 1906) starred in the film Sudden Fear. Her leading man was Jack Palance; he was 13 years younger than her. In 1953, she appeared in the film Torch Song opposite Michael Wilding, her junior by six years. In 1955, she appeared in Female on the Beach with Jeff Chandler; Chandler was eight years younger. In 1956, she did Autumn Leaves where her male lead was Cliff Robertson. Robertson was 19 years Crawford’s junior.

Bette Davis followed a similar tract in the latter half of her long big screen career. In 1952’s The Star, Sterling Hayden played Davis’s ex-husband. Davis was born in 1908; Hayden was born in 1916. Earlier, in 1946’s A Stolen Life, Davis played opposite Glenn Ford; Ford was eight years Davis’s junior.

Barbara Stanwyck jumped on this bandwagon as well. In the film The Lady Gambles, the 42-year-old actress starred opposite the 31-year-old Robert Preston. And Jane Wyman had a mini-career with this type of role. Twice the actress, born in 1914, co-starred with Rock Hudson who was born in 1925.

These examples of older actresses playing opposite younger male actors does more than just supply proof of the existence of bone fide cougars in North America in the ’40s and ’50s, it also tell us something about the business of moviemaking at the time… and it’s a lesson that is still applicable today.

By the time Crawford, Davis, and Stanwyck made the films mentioned above, they were already very much established stars; all had been acting and headlining movies since the 1930’s. Similarly, when Bogart, Gable, Astaire, Cooper and Grant made their films opposite Grace Kelly, Audrey Hepburn or other ingénues (like Leslie Caron), they, too, were firmly entrenched in their name-above-the-title status. What pairing them opposite these younger players did was to (hopefully) provide a leg-up in the publicity and star-making machinery needed to launch the next superstar and potential box office draw. It was an attempt to elevate that newcomer (or relative newcomer) from random contract player and second lead to full leading man or full leading lady status. Sometimes it worked (i.e. Hepburn and Kelly); sometimes it was a bit of a miss. Though the likes of Michael Wilding and Jeff Chandler would each have long, accomplished careers, neither truly reached the true icon status that the just-mentioned Audrey and Grace certainly did.

Furthermore, it was also quite possible that by this stage in their careers, the likes of Crawford, Davis, (and Cary Grant,, for that matter) didn’t want to take second billing or even shared billing with anyone. Hence the greater propensity for these stars to find themselves working opposite co-stars who were not only younger than them but also far less famous.

And, as always matters in film making, the bottom line no doubt also played a part in these older/younger duos. Though salaries of even the biggest stars of the golden age era are completely dwarfed by the multi-million paydays of today’s celebs, they were still costly talents. If Stanwyck or Crawford or Bogart were enough of a name to open a picture, why add to the upfront production costs by teaming them with another high-priced star when, for a fraction of the price, you can get a Sterling Hayden or a Gloria Graham (as Bogie was in In a Lonely Place in 1950)?

The same thought processes that existed over half a century ago seems to be very much alive and well in films today. And it helps to explain the ongoing age gap between leading men and their female co-stars. (And sometimes leading ladies and their male co-stars too: consider Sharon Stone, born 1958, playing opposite David Morrissey, born 1964, and certainly far less well known than Stone for Basic Instinct 2 as well as Sandra Bullock, born 1964, co-starring with Ryan Reynolds, born 1976, in The Proposal.)

While much of the age-old age discrepancy issue of today may, granted, be about various aging actors trying to hang onto their youth, it’s also still about minting new stars and keeping the box office flush with young and hopefully up-and-coming talent. The success of the aforementioned Sharon Stone, age 34 and something of a movie neophyte, when she was cast opposite the 48-year-old Michael Douglas in 1992’s Basic Instinct only to see her fame eclipse his—at least for a time–proves the point.

Furthermore, one has to wonder how willing even the most congenial of male talents today would be if they had to share the screen with not only an actress equal to them in age but equal to them in terms of talent, fame and charisma. Therefore, anyone holding out for a Tom Cruise-Julia Roberts co-starer, might not want to hold their breath or line up at theater anytime soon.

Finally, even in the age of blockbuster movie budgets regularly flirting with the $100 million dollar mark, it makes sense to cut your costs where you can. Tom Cruise supposedly made $75 million for starring in the most recent Mission: Impossible sequel and the movie Oblivion. Considering that $37.5 million already spent, is it any wonder that the far more cost-efficient Olga Kurylenko was tapped as his co-star?

While there might be something deeply culturally significant about this enduring movie age gap gulf, it might not be (totally) misogyny at play or ageism again (still?) rearing its decrepit head.

For better or worse, it’s just business, as usual.

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