The trailer for The Greatest Showman dropped last week to mixed responses. Hugh Jackman’s passion project all-new musical on the life of P.T. Barnum raised the expected criticisms regarding its seeming whitewash of history, with Barnum positioned as a bright-eyed optimist who believed in the power of difference and diversity, rather than being an exploitative show-man who used marginalized individuals for personal profit. No doubt this will be discussed further once the film is released, but there was one element in the trailer that made me roll my eyes harder than anything else. Jackman’s on-screen love interest is played by Michelle Williams. Charity Barnum was two years older than her husband. Williams is twelve years younger than Jackman.
This may end up being the least of The Greatest Showman’s crimes once the reviews roll out, but it’s hard to ignore the industry indulging yet again in one of its most beloved fetishes. While men are forever at the top of their game, at least in the entertainment business, actresses have decidedly shorter shelf lives. Time and time again, we see the bright young woman of the hour paired with a man who could easily be her father, or at the very least an older brother. The problem is so prevalent that there’s an entire website dedicated to documenting the most egregious examples.
There are two major takes on the age gap romance that Hollywood likes to use: One where the gap is never mentioned, and one where the story tries to convince you that the pair are the same age. The latter made an especially glaring appearance in the latest take on The Mummy, with Tom Cruise romancing Annabelle Wallis, an actress 22 years his junior. This is nothing new for Cruise, whose films have become defined by his apparent agelessness, but with The Mummy, it became an unavoidable issue. The film, which Cruise was alleged to have wielded an immense level of creative control over, works hard to convince the audience that his character is a go-getting loveable rebel in his 30s, or at least a comparable age to Wallis and co-star Jake Johnson. At one point, Russell Crowe’s Dr Jekyll makes a comment about Cruise being a young man: Crowe is one year younger than Cruise. When paired with Wallis, Cruise’s ego takes a different stance. The pair are clearly intended to be a romantic pair, but he never actually kisses her, although a kiss was in the original script according to Wallis. It’s a “have your cake and eat it” moment for the leading man: Be self-aware enough to know this kind of age gap romance doesn’t go over well with many viewers, but still let them know he could totally do that.
The former example is more common, as audiences are expected to buy the possibility of 30 year old Catherine Zeta-Jones being romanced by 69 year old Sean Connery, or Roger Moore seducing women 30 years his junior in A View to a Kill, or the pairing of Maggie Gyllenhaal and Jeff Bridges in Crazy Heart, divided by a mere 28 years (Gyllenhaal was also open in calling out this sexism, having admitted to being turned down for the role of a 55 year old actor’s love interest because she, at the time age 37, was deemed too old). Romance is seldom the central focus of these stories; rather, it is the cherry on top of the cake for the male protagonist’s narrative. Save the world, make the money, be personally satisfied, and then get the much younger girl, just because you can. Or, if you’re Woody Allen, to rub it in to the world.
Stephen Follows’s research on the subject summarised that, while the average gap between men and women in films is only 4.5 years, he also noted that “at no point in the past 30 years has the average annual age of female leads of these romantic films been older than the average age of their male counterparts.” All of this leads to a resigned sense that this is simply the way things are, and besides, it’s just film so why bother?
Film, that great empathy machine as Roger Ebert noted, reflects our world, for better or worse. When the most expensive and well marketed movies of the year all take part in this system of undiscussed age gaps, it creates a twisted perception of our society that reinforces archaic ideas about the worth of women. All too often, “love interest” is the only role open to women in film, as they are deemed “too old” for action roles after 30 and denied the opportunities of prestige pics because such stories are seldom seen as worthy when centred on women, much less so women of colour. When all that’s left is to be a prize to be won, the industry, and the people telling the stories, seem determined to make that “prize” as fetishized as possible. Ergo, she must be young, lithe, shorter than the man, and supple in her submission. It’s a way to ensure that men are always positioned as being eternally in their prime. Women aren’t people to be loved, they’re features to be upgraded.
It’s nothing new, of course. The problem is as old as Hollywood itself. Loretta Young was 13 years younger than Spencer Tracy when they were paired together for 1933’s Man’s Castle (the pair did subsequently have an affair off-screen). Cary Grant was frequently the romantic lead against younger starlets like Grace Kelly and Audrey Hepburn (25 years difference with both women). Hepburn was the prize in the love triangle of Sabrina between William Holden (11 years older) and Humphrey Bogart (30 years her senior - Bogart’s character was the lucky guy). Hepburn was akin to the Jennifer Lawrence of her day, in that she was a wildly popular and acclaimed actress who seldom seemed to be paired with men her own age. Lest we forget Rex Harrison in My Fair Lady (21 years her senior), Gary Cooper in Love in the Afternoon (28 years her senior), and Fred Astaire in Funny Face (an eye-watering 30 years her senior).
There are examples of the reverse, but they’re nowhere near as common as the supposed default mode of age gap relationships, and more attention tends to be brought to him. The concept of an older woman dating a younger man becomes a driving part of the story, whereas with the older man, it’s just assumed that his ceaseless virility reigns supreme and shouldn’t be mentioned again. Sometimes, the age gap makes a more depressing appearance, as a woman closer to the male star’s age than not will be cast as his mother. Diane Lane plays Henry Cavill’s mother in the DC Universe, which isn’t unfeasible given the 18 years age difference, but how often do you get to see her be the love interest in a dynamic like that? Then there’s Angelina Jolie playing Colin Farrell’s mother in Alexander, one whole year older than him. It’s almost as if these men can’t even stand to see their on-screen mothers age.
It’s not just that this problem is sexist, although it very much is. It’s also staggeringly boring storytelling. Age gap relationships are a real thing, and many people share their lives with partners whose age greatly exceeds their own. It’s something that undoubtedly impacts their relationship, and it doesn’t go unnoticed by the world. Surely there are stories to be told there that film and TV could explore? There’s surprisingly little in the way of entertainment centred on romance where the differing ages of the players is a central issue. So many writers, directors and executives want the aesthetic appeal - and increased male ego - of the age gap relationship, but don’t care to do the creative work of showing how such romances actually work. Laziness doesn’t exactly trump misogyny, but the combination of the two is especially exhausting.
This problem doesn’t happen in a vacuum, and with the industry’s pay gap as prevalent as its age one, calling out the misogyny remains a priority for any fan or critic who wants change. When tangerine Mussolini and his own near-silent trophy wife are positioned as a relationship ideal by some very sad people, it’s key that our most powerful medium work to reflect the true depths and challenges of romantic partnerships. The film industry in Hollywood is over a hundred years old. Perhaps it should start acting its age.