It has been a criticism of the film industry for a long time that while male actors are appreciated for their talents and an older face is said to give a man ‘character’, women are only appreciated for their beauty. In this society and certainly in Hollywood beauty is equated with youth and women are put under pressure to stay looking young even if they have to resort to extremes such as cosmetic surgery.
Male actors often play the leads in movies until they are in their 50’s, whilst their female romantic leads stay young. Of course art should imitate life and for a couple in their twenties it is average for the man to be 2 or 3 years older than the woman, this rises to about 7 years for a couple in their forties. Life can also imitate art. Johnny Depp, age 52, this February married Amber Heard, 29, who he met during filming of The Rum Diary in 2011.
Research into movie romantic age gaps show that currently there is a four year age gap between on screen lovers, not much more than the real life gap. Studies comparing dramas and romantic comedies between 1984 and 2014 show it has decreased from a 10 year gap in 1984.
Of course there are famous male actors who will often play opposite female co-stars 20 years younger than them and these large age gaps are the ones which we are likely to take notice of.
Age gaps between the male and female lead are by no means a new phenomenon. In the 1942 classic Casablanca, Ingrid Bergman, 27, played opposite Humphrey Bogart, 16 years older than her.
When a woman hits her mid-30’s she is deemed unable to play the love interest and is relegated to playing ‘mom’ roles. In Hollywood a mother can often be only a few years older than her son and nobody bats an eyelid. An extreme example is Oliver’s Stone’s 2004 movie ‘Alexander’ where Angelina Jolie plays the mother of Colin Farrell, who is just a year younger than her, without any attempt to make Jolie look older with make-up.
Women in Hollywood are looked down on for not ‘ageing gracefully’ and disappearing from the main roles, but what choice do they have if they want to keep their career? One actress even sued IMDb for giving away her real age because she believed it was used against her when deciding what roles she could play.
A story which made headlines recently was 37 year old Maggie Gyllenhaal saying she’d been told by a producer that she was too old to play the lover of a 55 year old man. She was quoted as saying “It was astonishing to me. It made me feel bad, and then it made feel angry, and then it made me laugh.”
Of course the older actresses who do get good parts are very visible and respected. Dame Helen Mirren came to the defence of Gyllenhaal by elegantly claiming that the sexism and ageism in the film industry is “fucking outrageous”. She went on to say “It’s ridiculous. And ’twas ever thus. We all watched James Bond as he got more and more geriatric, and his girlfriends got younger and younger. It’s so annoying.”
Are age gap-relationships in movies playing to men’s fantasies, or is it evolutionary psychology for both sexes? Men tend to want a young, beautiful and fertile partner and women are drawn to the protection, resources and commitment an older man may have to offer.