Hollywood’s Unethical Aging Leading Man Tradition

[Let’s see, I tried to get everyone off the silly NFL kneeling protests (just because I write a lot about something doesn’t mean I don’t think its that important), and a simple pro-civility post turned into a donnybrook. Hmmm...how far can I get from both issues? Maybe this will work…]

The Business Insider has an article about something that has bothered me for decades: Hollywood’s embarrassing addiction to pairing young actresses with aging male stars, even when it’s ridiculous. There is nothing wrong with a 60 year old man romancing a 25 year-old woman, just as there was nothing wrong about the romance between an elderly woman and a twenty-something male in “Harold and Maude.” However, the appearance of such pairings is unavoidably sexist, and cuts hard against Hollywood’s posture that it is a force for liberalizing the culture.

The article, by Meg Shields, says in part…

“American Made” premieres this week, bringing two reunions with it: Tom Cruise and “Edge of Tomorrow” director Doug Liman, and Tom Cruise and his ever-growing age gap with his female co-stars. Sarah Wright (who plays Cruise’s wife in the film) was born in 1983 just a couple months after the premiere of Risky Business, making her 22 years Cruise’s junior. 

…It’s a well-known fact that Hollywood likes to pair older men with younger women. And to be clear, there’s nothing wrong with an age gap between two consenting adults. According to the 2013 US Census, 4.8 percent of heterosexual married couples included a husband 10-15 years his wife’s senior. The problem, rather, is that Hollywood doesn’t really care about showcasing the stories of that 4.8 percent so much as normalizing the expectation that women are only romance material when they’re in their mid-20s/early-30s, whereas men are free to age and remain conceivably f—able.

… I crunched the numbers for every single Tom Cruise movie, comparing his age relative to that of the actresses playing his love interests over time. All told, Cruise’s age gap mirrors, and indeed confirms, the larger critique of Hollywood’s bias against older actresses. This isn’t just anecdotally-sourced rhetoric, by the way. There’s more and more statistical evidence showing how women age out of Hollywood. Time and The Pudding, for instance, do a great job at visualizing how more roles and dialogue are available to men as they age, where the opposite is true for women.

I was intrigued by this article because I just saw Cruise’s remake of “The Mummy” (and a more ludicrous spectacle it would be hard to find). Tom looks great for his age, at least a decade younger than he is, and he is inherently youthful, so it is a bit unfair to use him to make this point. How about the oogy pairing of Catherine Zeta-Jones and Sean Connery (above), looking every inch of his 69 years in “Entrapment”? When Cary Grant at 60 was paired with the gamin Audrey Hepburn in “Charade,” Cary’s fans weren’t bothered, but he was: he said that he felt uncomfortable playing the romantic lead at an advanced age, and began planning his retirement. John Wayne was never a comfortable romantic lead, and while Howard Hawks made the by-play between the Duke at 52 with 28 year-old Angie Dickinson in the great “Rio Bravo” work, teaming Wayne with much younger women didn’t seem right; a few movies later, he was back with Maureen O’Hara.

The constant spectacle of such pairings as old Humphrey Bogart with young Lauren Bacall in “To Have and Have Not,” old William Holden with young Faye Dunaway in “Network,” old Gene Hackman with young Barbara Hershey in “Hoosiers,” and many more,  with Cruise’s films continuing a pattern that ossifies biases and stereotypes regarding women, reinforces a cultural view of heterosexual relationships as driven by patriarchy, and perpetuates the source of devastating neuroses and insecurity among American women particularly that as they age, they are less desirable, admirable, interesting, relevant, and vital.

This is, as I have noted, an old cultural problem. I have no idea how to fix it, or even if it can be fixed.

I do know this, though: Tom isn’t helping.

67 thoughts on “Hollywood’s Unethical Aging Leading Man Tradition

  1. In 1972 I went to see the Rolling Stones at Boston Garden. This was the infamous concert that almost had a riot. Anyways I am right down front with Mick doing a rendition with all the struts and gyrations of “Street Fighting Man.” This was just comical with Jagger who probably goes 135 lbs. dancing around like Mr. Bad Ass. A possible SNL skit? Now that was unethical! Pinky Lee was more intimidating.

  2. I do know this, though: Tom isn’t helping.

    Heh. I don’t blame Tom. Some people are just blessed with remarkable youthfulness and vigor. I’m happy for him.

    I loved his Jack Reacher movies, they are the sort of violent escapism that totally appeals to me. Every time I see him, I think of the line in Jack Reacher movie where he tells the villain “I’m gonna beat you to death, and drink your blood from a boot.” That ranks right up there with Bruce Willis’ “Toldja” after warning the villain he was going to kill him if he touched him again in The Last Boy Scout.

    Never grow old, Tom. Too late for Bruce, though, he looks his age.

    • Heh. I don’t blame Tom. Some people are just blessed with remarkable youthfulness and vigor. I’m happy for him.

      On the other hand, he looks really young to reprise his role in a sequel to Top Gun. (Only name recognition would make it possible to make such a reprise.)

      • Well, it depends upon where in time they place the sequel, I guess (I have not paid any attention to it at all). If it’s sometime around the Iraq War, I think it could work out well in that aspect.

        Either way, Top Gun was a singular moment for me. I was in Charleston learning advanced nuclear controls maintenance when that movie came out, and what it meant to a young sailor like me during the cold war is hard to describe.

        • Saw it the night before I took my SAT test. Took the edge off enough that I over performed the next day (I was tired from watching the movie late the night before, and thus did not stress about the test per se)

    • Have you read the books? I refuse to see the movies. I know that sounds petty, but much of the series depends on the fact that the male character is absolutely HUGE. I’m only 5’5”, and I think I am taller than Cruise!

      • I actually have not, but perhaps I will. To be honest, I felt the same way about the theatrical version of Dune and The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo and I know people who initially felt the same way about Lord of the Rings.

        Honestly, I think when we go down the road of “I refuse to watch the movie,” (and I’m certainly familiar with that road), we are showing a kind of elitism. Visual media is inherently limited, and directors make a ton of compromises that inevitably disappoint those who have read the books first. But there is something about seeing book heroes brought to life, even in a limited and often stilted way, that I have learned to find compelling.

        • Dune is a horrible movie — and I don’t think my life is better for having seen it. I obviously love the book though. I’ve seen both versions of TGWTDT and liked both, although I loved the book more. I’m one of those rare birds who think the LOTR movies are better then the novels.

          I’m not refusing to see the Reacher movies because of elitism, it just defies common sense that they cast a small man in the role. The role requires a body builder type. The Reacher movies might be good in their own right, but they by design will have to be completely different from the books.

          The Reacher books are not great literature, but they are good, fun reads and are perfect for when you’re stuck in an airport or are lying near a beach and you don’t want to use that many brain cells.

          • I’m one of those rare birds who think the LOTR movies are better then the novels.

            You realize that makes you a heretic in many circles? Those folks have torches and pitchforks!

            Although I admit that the extended versions of the movies soothed a lot of my objections to things missed. I am holding out for extended versions of The Hobbit Trilogy (They made three movies about a book 1/20th the size of LOTR?!?) before I buy (and for the prices to get reasonable)

              • Whoa, you went from ‘preference’ straight to ‘hate.’ Really? Can’t we all just get along? Where does the bias against iconic fantasy novels ever end? Are you also a nascent book burner (after Hollywood memorializes the content in a superficial blockbuster, of course)?

                I could understand if you felt that way about The Simarillion as that book had all of the flaws of LOTR and almost none of the strengths, being a dry (made up) history of people and events far in the dim past of our heroes’ story. But who didn’t laugh at the antics of Tom Bombadil, the strongest character in the series, being not effected by the One Ring? Or sit enthralled at the story of the Ent-Wives, long since lost to their mates? Who could resist the demise of the Witch King at the hand of a Hobbit, using a weapon found in the tomb (barrow) of those the Witch King fought in life?

                • When I write here, I often do so quickly. Hate is too strong — I can’t hate such a beautiful — and genre creating — world, but I don’t like Tolkien’s writing style. I get what he was trying to do, but I don’t like it. So, let me say that I prefer the movies to the books, and although I appreciate the books, I never need to read them ever again.

                  Also, I was never a 12 year-old boy, which I think had something to do with it. All the smart boys were reading these books in late elementary and middle school and, being a smart girl, decided to give them a try. Ack. I read them again as an adult, but they still didn’t ring my bell.

                  My husband owns a ton of the Tolkien paintings and calendars that were done in the 70s.

          • Dune the movie was awful, although I have a bit of nostalgia for Patrick Stewart as Gurney Halleck in his journeyman days. Get ready for a shock, though, I do agree that the LOTR movies were better in some ways (not all) than the books, mainly in tightening up a narrative with too many unnecessary sidetracks (Tom Bombadil and the Scouring of the Shire top the list) and too many supporting characters (Glorfindel, Halbarad, Fatty Bolger etc.)

              • Unforgivable? FOTR was in the neighborhood of 3 hours as it was, and takes a good 30 minutes just to get going between Galadriel’s prelude and Gandalf sending the hobbits out on the mission. Also, the other “slow movements” (Bree, Rivendell, Lothlorien) are greatly compressed to make room for the fight at Weathertop, the pursuit by the Nazgul, Gandalf’s Jedi-like fight with Saruman and later escape, the mines of Moria stuff, and the battle with the White Hand orcs. To add an additional 20 minutes to a half hour with Tom, which wouldn’t have advanced the plot at all and would have provided little of interest (although Goldberry would have been some eye candy) would have had moviegoers getting bored and fidgety. Tom and the Scouring of the Shire (which drags out the denouement after the primary objective is accomplished and the primary villain defeated) were wisely the first things to go.

  3. “Cruise’s age gap mirrors, and indeed confirms, the larger critique of Hollywood’s bias against older actresses.”

    Agreed, but in Cruise’s case, can we rule out Scientology?

    Were you excepting “Risky Business?” Because a VERY comely Rebecca De Mornay (Lana) was three years older than Cruise.

    Another flick that popped into my mind was the highfreakin’larious, star-studded 1978 screen adaptation of Neil Simon’s “California Suite.”

    Just ~ 1 year apart, Maggie Smith’s aging actress Diana Barrie (in L.A. for the Academy Awards, which she won for her role) & Michael Caine’s…um…sexually unavailable Sidney Cochran were a real treat to watch.

  4. It’s not just the movies. My wife’s and my (both mid-sixties) common comment when we see the typical sixty year old guy with a twenty or thirty year old cute young thing is, “Isn’t it nice that guy is taking his daughter out for dinner!” And then of course there’s the older gay guys with much younger cute young thing gay guys that the older gay guys swoop down upon and squire around. It’s an equal opportunity problem.

    As my wife was fond of saying when we were in our twenties: There’s nothing sexier than a fat wallet.

  5. Bob Newhart was 43 when he started his first sitcom, the actress who played his wife was 35. Newhart was 53 when he started his second sitcom, the actress who played his wife was 39. Newhart was 63 when he started his third sitcom, the actress who played his wife was 40. Newhart was 68 when he started his fourth sitcom. Apparently he realized that he had stretched it as far as he could: his wife was dead.

  6. he constant spectacle of such pairings as old Humphrey Bogart with young Lauren Bacall in “To Have and Have Not,” old William Holden with young Faye Dunaway in “Network,” old Gene Hackman with young Barbara Hershey in “Hoosiers,” and many more, with Cruise’s films continuing a pattern that ossifies biases and stereotypes regarding women, reinforces a cultural view of heterosexual relationships as driven by patriarchy, and perpetuates the source of devastating neuroses and insecurity among American women particularly that as they age, they are less desirable, admirable, interesting, relevant, and vital.

    This paragraph warms the cockles of my social justice warrior’s heart.

    • Er … I’m a social justice warrior, but I would have totally dated Connery (if given the chance). Then again, I hear he’s a dick, but that was my type (sadly) in my twenties.

  7. These women who date or marry older Hollywood stars know what they want: A guy with plenty of money and celebrity status which will get them a great seat at the academy Awards. Trophy wives will never go out of style. If middle class guys or women must be protected against stereotypes in these pairings we have turned into a nation of wimps.

    • Jack’s post isn’t about the choices of actors, though; it’s about fictional characters. Directors make choices when they choose to pair older men with younger women in their movies, and the pattern of choices reinforces exactly the cultural problems Jack identified. (It’s also one of the many ways Hollywood is hypocritical in its stance on progressive values.)

      • It’s unethical if the directors change the original story to force this arrangement, say Chloe Moretz reprising the role of Ophelia in Hamlet Rebooted starring Mel Gibson as Hamlet.

        Chloe Moretz would be a fine Ophelia, though too old, but Gibson would now be way too old to reprise his role from 1990.

      • I wonder though if we aren’t overthinking this. For every (I struggled trying to soften this dichotomy, but I failed, and blunt it is!) old man/young woman pairing you could name, I feel like I could name several pairings where the subjects were closer in age. But even if that weren’t true… Men and women age differently, and men and women appreciate different things in their partners.

        Spart said that 20 year old her would have been all over Connery, I just don’t think the average 20 year old man would have been all over Betty White. And I tried to think of some actresses that might be considered older and attractive… I came up with Angelina Jolie and Charlize Theron before I realised that both of them are barely 40. Maybe Michelle Pfeiffer? Julianne Moore? Sharon Stone? Is this Hollywood pushing a narrative on the viewers, or is this Hollywood supplying the viewers with what they want to see?

        • “Hollywood pushing a narrative on the viewers”

          To it’s credit (earned in far too short supply of late) it did start a “new” narrative with its ahead-of-the-curve “The Mary Tyler Moore Show.”

          There, the aforementioned Betty White’s Sue Ann Nivens was cast as wanting to get all up into Ed Asner’s (~7.5 years younger in real life) Lou Grant.

          • After throwing away her previous hunk who had passed his pull date like he was a used up wad of tissue…

            Demi’s toyboy was newsworthy exactly because it was an exception. Many (like me) also suspected that it was a mutual publicity stunt, cementing Demi’s self engineered image as a strong defiant woman who could and would do anything a man could (You will recall her “Suck my cock” line as the abused female SEAL) on her side, and making Kutcher a bigger star and celebrity (See: Cognitive Dissonance Scale) that he had been (or deserved to be.) I think it was cynical as hell, and in then grand tradition of other arranged Hollywood pairings the publicists approved of. Cruise and Kidman, Robert Taylor and Barbara Stanwyck, Elizabeth Taylor and John Warner, Charles Laughton and Elsa Lanchester, Ellen DeGeneris and Ann Heche, Kermit and Miss Piggy….

            • We have always thought Kermit and Miss Piggy to be a true love match. Today he is 62 to her 41, and they both seem comfortable with the frequent separations their divergent career paths have required. Of course, they do have the added advantage of having lived on the same Street since they were a tadpole-and-piglet pair.

              Unfortunately, though the 21 year gap has never seemed to interfere with their romance, they are discriminated against by lookists, and thus doomed to defy Hollywood’s strictest rules about height and size coupling, the male being somewhat delicate in features, small in stature, and possessing a voice in the higher register, while the female is, well, larger all the way around. In fact, some homo-swino-ranidaphobes have dared to suggest that Miss Piggy has always been Kermit’s “beard” and that their relationship is entirely bogus (LGBT “outers” were quick to counter with the idea of adding “F” and “P” to their acronym just in case).

              Ignoring all unfavorable publicity — which no doubt their publicists have withheld from their view anyway — they hop-trot on together, happily, separately, to continued fame, fortune and family (they have been considering adoption, we hear, but have not yet settled on a species).

  8. Not sure of the unethical aspects of it or even the sexist aspects of it.

    It is self evidently true that rich, handsome, attractive men have total babes hanging off of them.

    Women have been getting featured as ingenues at 19 since FOREVER, see Lauren Bacall and Princess Leia and constant other stars whose co-stars were men in their late 20s or even early 30s.

    It’s not sexist or unethical to hire 19 year olds as ingenues. It’s not sexist to pair older handsome men with younger YOUNG women.

    It’s what the market seeks, it’s what we see occur in the wild.

    • It isn’t sexist that actresses are considered washed up and not attractive enough to be a romantic lead after their mid-30s while their male co-stars don’t have that problem at all?

      • Quantity v Quality thing, maybe?

        Maybe, women in general have a larger quantity of attractive individuals compared to their population, and so competition will naturally favor the young, whereas, men, and I think I can vouch for us, aren’t, in general, all that attractive, except for a noticeably smaller percentage of us…and so competition is naturally easier for that smaller subset, and for longer duration as well?

        Biology isn’t fair, but no kidding, I think the hidden takeaway here is actually the opposite: there are far more attractive women (and I mean exponentially far more) to the whole population of women than there are attractive men to the whole population of men.

        • ”and I think I can vouch for us, aren’t, in general, all that attractive,”

          hey, Hey, HEY, some of us have feelings, which tend to remain sharper than our features.

          And my Dear nearly 90 year-old Mother always tells me how good lookin’ I am, in the…um…proper lighting.

            • I think you’re also wired to note attractiveness in one gender and obviously there’s nothing wrong with that. 🙂

              In any event, I think you are halfway right. Men who care about their looks focus on fitness, but are not socialized to wear make-up, fuss with hair, wear clothes that they think the other sex will find appealing, etc. Men work out, take a shower, and put on whatever clothes is appropriate for their jobs or task for the day. Tall, relatively fit men are deemed attractive — no mascara needed.

              Most women — regardless of our age, weight, etc., begin paying careful attention to hair, make-up, clothing at a young age — as early as 10. I think the overall effect of that is that women seem more attractive than men, but I think that’s just because we spend at least 30 minutes each day putting in that effort.

              With a little bit of hair dye and make-up, a lot more of you could look like Jaime from Outlander. (If you don’t know what I’m talking about, check with your wives/girlfriends — or Google away.)

      • I think (and your mileage may vary) that this is more about making money than social awareness. Hollywood, for all of their progressive pretensions, has to sell movies to a broad (and thus general) audience to make the money necessary for a modern film. Attempts to alienate large swaths of potential movie fans could lower your take. They still do it, and sometimes make enough to justify being ‘edgy,’ but look at the formulas that are made over and over: they make the big bucks.

        Men (being who we are programmed to be) tend to want to look and date younger women, on the whole, and thus will pay to see younger actresses. Women tend (again in general) to want older, stable men, and thus this is what Hollywood shows us.

        Human nature plays a part in this, even if the reasons are no longer valid in modern society, where women are not (necessarily) dependent on men for money, social status, and so on. Men no longer need young wives to bear children (both of which died a distressingly large percentage of the time 100 years ago: giving birth is dangerous.) But the programming lives on, at least so far.

  9. Yeah, some stars look slightly awkward when they can no longer internally deny the age gap. Some enjoy it too much. I will say I lose respect for the stars who have way younger screen love interests as a standard. I understand the studios/production might push for younger people for money or big break reasons, but stars this big have SOME control, too. That 4% are the success stories. But the studios’ wish to extend the shelf life of an actor past the young adult bracket, makes guys think it’ll be easy to get a younger woman at any age. (why I like Marigold Hotel)

    Sometimes the age difference doesn’t matter if they are equals. In most movies the age difference emphasis is on the trophy aspect, so I avoid those movies as a rule, as I don’t like or root for the lead. I prefer an equal, with their own accomplishments and career, I run into enough kids at work who are still growing up that pretty and clever wouldn’t be enough for me.

    • Actually I don’t care if somebody like Jack Nicholson is paired up with Helen Hunt. In “As Good As It Gets” it worked very well: A cranky old neurotic character with a younger woman who is exasperated with the guy. Giving him a part as Superman with a much younger Lois Lane would be ridiculous though. Let the audience decide if the pairing works.

      • Great movie. I don’t think it counts because the mismatch is an element of the drama. Jack has been typically matched with women in his own age bracket or near it, but then, he’s not a typical leading man, and wasn’t even when he was younger.

      • Giving him a part as Superman with a much younger Lois Lane would be ridiculous though.

        Agreed; Lois should always be a few years older than Clark, and a bit more experienced in her field. [/nerd]

  10. Is this merely noticeable because it’s noticeable?

    Has anyone actually run down the statistics of movies features some sort of romantic interest, or even just the ones where romantic interest is a key story line and figured out the ratio of movies featuring wildly disparate ages to movies that really don’t?

    I mean, I can see how this is a problem…if it actually, statistically, is a problem.

    Is it?

    • I think that’s the wrong comparison; the better one would be comparing older male/younger female romantic pairings to older female/younger male romantic pairings.

      • I think the Jack’s article centers around there being a disproportionately high number of really old men paired with really young women portrayed in movies in relation to the actual number of those pairings in real life, then comparison is to the WHOLE paired up population, not to pairings of really old women with really young men.

        So, if Hollywood’s # of portrayals of old men/young women compared to portrayals of all relationships is grossly higher than the ratio in real life, then maybe there’s a “there” there…

        If not, maybe we’re just noticing it because it’s noticeable.

  11. “reinforces a cultural view of heterosexual relationships as driven by patriarchy”

    If two consenting individuals willingly select each other out of the pool of available individuals, how on earth does their age (within the legal limits), undo their consent. That is, how do grown adults choosing what they think is best for their cooperative happiness a perpetuation of patriarchy?

    “and perpetuates the source of devastating neuroses and insecurity among American women particularly that as they age, they are less desirable, admirable, interesting, relevant, and vital.”

    I don’t know how much movies are to blame for this as much as advertising in our materialist-narcissist world does.

    • Again, I don’t think Jack’s post implies any criticism of the romantic choices made by consenting adults. He’s talking about movie portrayals. These of course affect the choices of consenting adults in the real world, because we are all affected by what we see and are told to expect by the culture at large.

  12. I’ve seen the same kind of parings in theatrical productions too that go well beyond the reasonable confines of the characters in the script. Even shows like South Pacific and Sound of Music which have scripted notable age differences between the romantic leads, some productions have taken it to absurdity to give an obviously “aging” leading man another atta-boy feather in his cap hugging and kissing a twenty-something.

    I walked out of a production of South Pacific where the age difference was completely absurd.

    • In the original South Pacific, Mary Martin was 45 as Nellie (though she was playing much younger) and Ezio Pinza was 58. At least there was a good reason for that gap: Emil is a bass, and basses sound better the older they are–and Pinza was the most famous bass alive at the time.

      • The one I walked out of Nellie couldn’t have been a day over 25 and I’m pretty sure that Emi was pushing 90, of course they cast reasonably age appropriate children in the roles of Ngana and Jerome. The playbill said they were “proud” (I’m not kidding, they said “proud”) to cast him in the roll he had played in the same theater nearly 30 years earlier. It was absolutely terrible.

        I haven’t been back to see a show from that company again, likely never will.

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