The old men and the C-cups

Hollywood's mania for depicting geezers with improbably young babes reflects the desperation of a generation that came of age in the youth-obsessed '60s.

Published April 30, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

What is it about the pairing of young women with older men that Hollywood lately finds so appealing as to be practically de rigueur? I strive not to be ageist, but I can't wrap my disbelief around the January-December romantic couplings increasingly found in today's big-vehicle movies. More and more, grizzled vets like Clint Eastwood, Warren Beatty and
Sean Connery -- heartbreakers of another era who apparently figure they have some more breaking to do before it's all over -- turn up on the big screen with dewy-faced inginues often young enough to be their granddaughters.

A glaring current example of this is the terribly hackneyed "Entrapment," in which new bombshell on the block Catherine Zeta-Jones plays the eager young acolyte to Sean Connery's worldly wise art thief. Zeta-Jones' only compelling moments come, tellingly enough, when she does an intricate, solo, silent dance to avoid a web of laser rays that lie between her and a million-dollar piece of artwork she's set on swiping. So electric in "The Mask of Zorro," in which she was allowed to sweat and cross swords with the most macho of them, Zeta-Jones fails miserably here at being the pouty young thing suited up in designer clothes. Even the usually unflappable Connery knows it.

Certainly older men have always had a certain cachet with women, and if
you hew to the Freudian belief that we're all looking for our fathers, it's a wonder that leading men aren't more overwhelmingly gray-haired than they
already are. But I chafe at the cinematic notion that women are not only in search of an
ideal lover, they're in search of a sage who can repair their prematurely screwed-up lives
merely by exposing them to a vast reservoir of life knowledge. As those of us in the
real world know, age does not necessarily confer wisdom, especially when men are concerned.

Filmmakers are doubtless taking some cues from the real-life industry, inspired by matchups like Woody Allen and Soon-Yi Previn, the recently split Michael Douglas and Zeta-Jones, and 80ish Tony Randall and his late-20s wife, with whom he's recently had a baby. Such pairings are hardly new in Hollywood, where marriages of power or social profit know no shame and therefore no boundaries of age (or anything else). But something else is at work, a venerable truism that has been sharpened to a vicious point by the last 30 years of unsparing, overmarketed American youth culture: Nobody wants to be old. Not even the most religious plastic surgery devotee believes he can stop time, but nobody wants to admit that time passing makes a difference. We must be impervious to time, or at least appear to be. That's why you don't see Sean or Clint or Warren on-screen wielding a cane, or shaking out handfuls of vitamin supplements, or dressing in anything less hip than the Gap. Or setting their sights on a woman much older than 30.

The most recent Academy Awards confirmed the new status of older (and flat-out old) as hot property. During a pre-show chatfest, Geena Davis was interviewing James Coburn about his resuscitated career in the wake of the critically acclaimed "Affliction." Davis, 40 or thereabouts, suggested that she and the 70-year-old Coburn "burn up the screen together" at some point, and leered mildly in his direction. Coburn (whose wife is significantly younger than he is) at least had the grace to look startled. He should. He hit his professional stride a bit before the emergence of an intransigent, forever-young '60s generation, whose founding members now seem to be the butt of that great cosmic joke called aging. The movie stars who built their legends during the establishment of the omnipotent youth culture and came to embody it -- Redford, Hoffman, Beatty, Eastwood et al. -- find themselves in the inevitable but highly untenable position of being cast out by that culture. (The exceptions here are Al Pacino and Robert De Niro, in my book. Don't ask. It rubs our sense of democracy the wrong way, but certain privileges are inborn.) So they rage against the dying of the light by making sure the light stays burning in the form of nubile young women.

Coburn and his chronological confreres, like Jack Lemmon, Walter Matthau and Charlton Heston, were perfectly prepared to be old -- sure enough, Coburn plays a vastly embittered old man in "Affliction." But his filmic prominence reads differently in the context of today; his familiar irascible presence telegraphs not so much disappointment and emotional wounds -- clear evidence of age -- but proof that old men will be boys. No matter that he misbehaves, he's still got the stuff. (Used to be that stuff referred to much more than sex appeal; it used to mean bearing and character. Walter Matthau was old when he was fairly young, a prickly Oscar Madison his whole life, and Lemmon was always less virile than prissily intellectual. Of course they're comedians, who tend to be exempt from he-man status, though that's increasingly less true of comedians today. It's stud or nothing.)

The converse has not been true with the depiction of mature women on-screen, even though women were as revolutionized as men by the '60s. The cruel difference is that while everyone expects women to stay looking young, nobody expects them to have much screen value (or social value) past a certain age. Men, of course, are allowed as many wrinkles and neck veins as the cameras can artfully conceal and still get over. Even though Sissy Spacek in "Affliction" was smart and modest and perfectly capable of being without a man -- she finally had to dump ace loser Nick Nolte -- Coburn taunts her across the kitchen table for merely being the age she is: "You're gettin' old, and there ain't a damn thing a woman can do about that," he fairly spits. Of course, this comes in the aftermath of her rejecting his odd, drunken advances, but its mean spirit still stings; even sensible Spacek flushes at the remark. And she's barely 40, slim -- where does that leave the rest of us? The best that a mature actress can do in a lead role (I stress mature, not bona fide old, because since the death of Jessica Tandy, old women haven't existed at all as lead actresses) is lift her chin, grow old gracefully and focus on not corrupting the dignity of the process by pursuing a younger man. When she does she's generally a harpy, a pathetic, self-deluded harridan ` la Gloria Swanson in "Sunset Boulevard."

Consider Julie Christie in "Afterglow." Though gorgeous and radiant, still unequivocally sexy at 60, she largely played a caged bird in a stultifying marriage. Her sexiness was not titillating so much as it was tragic for its containment, for its grand suggestion of such great vibrancy going to waste. Older women must be elegiac and poetic rather than actively lustful; however lovely, they express desire chiefly by staring longingly into space, pilloried by their own impure thoughts. By contrast, Clint at 60 was just getting started on the second phase of his heartthrob career. No matter that at times he was a reluctant Lothario -- it wasn't even about trying. Opportunity popped up when he was thinking about it least, when he was feeling his most uncertain, as in "In the Line of Fire," when he played a Secret Service man haunted by a failure to act when it counted. Whatever men are agonizing about in their later years, it's not sex -- whereas it's assumed that sex is all that older women are agonizing about. It consumes them, drives them mad, turns them into Ophelias, describes a life least examined. Unfortunately, that also seems to be true of movies being made for teenage girls, a fact that may ultimately be noteworthy for closing the generation gap a bit: Unfulfilled females of the world, unite. Sometimes there isn't much comfort in numbers.

Here I feel I must mention "Bulworth," the most egregious and salacious offender of the geezer-dish films in recent memory. It was bad enough that Warren Beatty was playing a wearily cynical politician who salvages his soul at the fountain of hip-hop (read: black) youth; he had to make Halle Berry sexual proof of it. Berry, who was 32 but was made in the movie to look and act like a fly girl of 20, was the consummation of Beatty/Bulworth's wet dream of the ultimate white male power -- he may have appeared hapless in her presence, but the overarching social and political realities he represented, including the popular regard of young black women as street ho's, are the same as they've ever been. Berry's diffidence also allowed him to recapture youth by playing the gawky but charmingly innocent lady-killer, the sexy stumblebum -- the Beatty of old. For all the critical praise it netted for being revolutionary, "Bulworth" rather baldly perpetuated the racial and sexual status quo of its time. Bullshit to me.

On a cheerier note -- well, it turns out there actually are a few. Take "Bridges of Madison County." Maybe the book was hokey, as critics complained, but the film was downright subversive in its focus on a middle-aged woman's sexual awakening. Not only was a Midwestern housewife the romantic lead, she actually realized the romance with none other than the eternal High Plains Drifter himself, Eastwood, who despite being considerably older than Meryl Streep and more weather-beaten, was obviously meant to be the brass ring she had missed up to then. The courtship is a real one, both sizzling and sweetly affirming: She goes into town to shop for a new dress for the first time in 10 years, he calls her in the middle of the afternoon for no particular reason, they slow dance across the scuffed kitchen linoleum to a song on the radio. The great letdown is that Streep chooses to return to the suffocating farm life she started out with, but at least the film (or the book) gave her the choice: She weeps about it, but with clear eyes. The message seems to be that first-time love is fleeting and tenuous, more so as you get older, but when it does happen it's no less powerful at 50 than at 20. Coming from Hollywood, that's radically optimistic.

And there are other renderings of three-dimensional love that provide more grace notes in the general old man/young chick cacophony. Though "The Horse Whisperer" paired Robert Redford with a far younger Kristin Scott-Thomas, they were evenly yoked in experiential ways, in weariness -- she was a harried professional with a damaged teenage daughter, he had a carefully concealed past. Both were looking to break free of sorrow. "Living Out Loud" betrayed its own defiant spirit at points, but it triumphed at the end by affirming that a woman can be happily alone. I loved the closing image of Holly Hunter strolling through New York escortless, confident and smiling and over 35. She didn't get the guy -- not even an old one -- big deal. The movie was less about coupling than about a woman's inner conversation with herself, one we're rarely privy to on-screen: a kaleidoscopic conversation not just about sex but about shoes, shirts, sealing wax, ice cream, babies, old boyfriends. This is our pacing a room with a cigar, our youthful aggression -- emotional rather than physical, but no less aggressive for it. Rather than drown in what doesn't get said, rather than suffer and soldier on, we hiss and boil over and slop water on our feet and electroshock ourselves into action. Who needs Sean Connery for that?

By Erin J. Aubry

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