“Maybe the darkest film ever made in the classical Hollywood system – I still can’t believe [Alfred] Hitchcock got it made – is Vertigo, which is essentially about this older man who fantasises about a woman and what she should be like, a young, beautiful, erotic object,” he says. In the 1958 thriller, James Stewart, then 49, plays a retired police officer who convinces a woman he meets (Kim Novak, then 24) to change her clothes and dye her hair so that she can resemble another woman with whom he is obsessed. “For us, it leaps out at us and we go, ‘that’s very strange’. Back then, it was something that even mainstream female audiences would not have been as quick to identify.”
The reason more people are now calling out the massive age differences between men and women is because filmmakers – though still largely men – simply can’t get away with it so easily any more, says Dr Lauren Rosewarne, who specialises in gender at the University of Melbourne.
“Filmmakers are more cognisant of expectations of audiences, but also backlash from audiences, that dodgy casting decisions or big age gaps in relationships, unless it’s essential to the plot, are going to be called out [on social media],” she says, noting that this has dovetailed with more women making films and the #MeToo movement.
Yet even in the absence of Hitchcock’s – and other filmmakers’ – “perverse” male characters who control their younger, female counterparts, the trend with regard to male and female stars remains problematic.
“Women are expected to bring hotness and fertility to the table, and men are expected to bring smarts and money,” says Rosewarne.
This, and the problem that comes with it – namely that women above the age of 40 “age out” of roles of substance as male stars begin starring with younger women – has been annoying people for a while.
As Tina Fey cracked while co-hosting the Golden Globes in 2014: “Meryl Streep is so brilliant in August: Osage County, proving that there are still great parts in Hollywood for Meryl Streeps over 60.” (The audience howled, and Streep gave a knowing nod.) One year later, Maggie Gyllenhaal noted that she had, at 37, been told she was “too old to play the lover of a man who was 55. It was astonishing to me.”
Recently, a small but increasing number of films have either featured women in control who are older than their love interests, or women who are similar in age to their male counterparts.
In this year’s Good Luck To You, Leo Grande, Emma Thompson, 62, plays a woman who hires a sex worker, played by 29-year-old Daryl McCormack, to live out her fantasies. And in Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest outing, Licorice Pizza, Alana Haim plays a 25-year-old who shares a mutual attraction with a 15-year-old local wheeler-and-dealer. (Thankfully, as many critics have noted, nothing physical happens between the pair.)
Two years ago, filmmaker Radha Blank starred in her debut film, The 40-Year-Old Version, as a 40-year-old playwright-turned-rapper who embarks on a romance with a man played by actor Oswin Benjamin, then 26. And this year’s Top Gun: Maverick sees Tom Cruise, now 59, matched with Jennifer Connolly, 51.
“We need to show women ageing on screen, we need to show that their bodies age and change and their minds evolve, and become more interesting,” says Jessica Ford, a University of Newcastle lecturer in film, media and culture studies, adding that there is still a distinct lack of women in film who aren’t heterosexual, thin, able-bodied and privileged. “We’re not seeing queer, fat, black women being embraced for all their flaws and beauty on screen,” she says.
This is crucial because what we see on screen can affect our aspirations in real life, says Professor Lisa French, dean of RMIT’s School of Media and Communications.
“If everyone widely thinks [older] women are not sexual, that might have an impact on relationships and… real expectations in the world, who knows? It’s a stereotype. And stereotypes are oppressive. You can’t be what you can’t see.”
Additional reporting by Osman Faruqi
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