Oedipus mess

Why does Hollywood ask women to play the mothers of their male peers?

Published March 26, 2009 5:20PM (EDT)

Finding reasons to compare women to canines is a classic trope in the annals of misogyny, but few comparisons seem as earned as the one made by Hadley Freeman, who pointed out this week in the Guardian that "the common belief that one year is equal to seven human years could just as easily be applied to female actors as Alsatians."

That explains one of the great mysteries of spring 2008: Why fans considered then-37-year-old "Rock of Love" contestant Ambre Lake "too old" for Bret Michaels, then 45 (though few suggested the 24-year-old Bret chose the previous year might find him a little withered). But Jack Nicholson-Michael Douglas-Hugh Hefner Syndrome is so common that it's hard to even choose a good namesake, much less find the energy to get steamed about each particular instance.

Still, I managed to find plenty reserves of outrage when I read that Hope Davis was "peeved" when she was recently offered the role of Johnny Depp's mother -- "a concept that would have tested the skills of the most talented special effects department," writes Freeman, "seeing as Davis was actually born the year after Depp."

No wonder "Rock of Love" viewers were grossed out -- by some sort of magic Hollywood fairy dust, a woman a year younger than a man is old enough to be his mother!

Whoever is running social services in this fictional universe must be dealing with issues far more grave than mere teenage pregnancy. Glenn Close's Gertrude in "Hamlet" would have had to give birth to her son, played by Mel Gibson, at age nine. Elizabeth Taylor was four years older than Dennis Hopper when she played his mother in "Giant." Angelina Jolie was a mere 28 when she became the on-screen mother of Colin Farrell, then 27. And busting that whole incest-taboo must be pretty hot, because some actresses have found themselves playing the mother of actors with whom, in previous roles, they had carnal knowledge of an entirely different sort  -- like Sally Field, who played Tom Hank's love interest in "Punchline," then six years later his mother in "Forrest Gump."

The logical continuity, however twisted, seems to go like this: "Film audiences have long become inured to elderly actors being paired off with barely post-pubescent females. So those who are roughly the same age as their male counterparts are seen as, by extension, fair game for being cast a generation older."

Off-screen, Freeman points out, many men may take those age gaps "even further than casting agents would dare." Jack Nicholson's average on-screen age gap, as calculated by Freeman, is 16.7 years -- which seems respectable, staid even when compared to the 33-year age gap between him and one-time girlfriend Lara Flynn Boyle. And no catalogue of mother-daughter weirdness would be complete without a mention of Woody Allen, who became the king of ick when he dumped Mia Farrow for her daughter, Soon- Yi Previn.

But whatever one might think of the sex lives of the rich and famous, the issue is much more troubling when it translates into the careers of actual women. While things just start getting good for actors around 35 or 40, many actresses are done for. Sure, there are magnificent exceptions --Julie Christie, Judy, Meryl Streep, the entire cast of "Sex and the City" --  but they are certainly far fewer than their male peers. Writes Freeman: "the sense of disgust of older women is so deeply entrenched in Hollywood that even when the role is specifically for an older woman, no one wants to see an actual older woman on screen. Far better to haul in Angelina and sod the obvious discrepancies." So the woman who plays the mother of a peer in her 30s may have long since run out of work by the time she's old enough to actually be the mother of an adult child.

Or she can always look for a revival of "The Graduate." But there's a reason Anne Bancroft looked so fresh as Mrs. Robinson: She was 36, only five years older than Dustin Hoffman, who was, in turn, five years older than Katharine Ross, who played her daughter. Somehow that "older man" subplot escaped me. But shame on all of us for missing the film's truly shocking subtext --  how on earth did Mr. Robinson (eight years older than his wife) avoid criminal charges when he married and impregnated a nine-year-old?

By Amy Benfer

Amy Benfer is a freelance writer in Brooklyn, N.Y.

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