Tulip Fever was finally released in cinemas this week after a long, arduous series of delayed premieres and behind-the-scenes drama, all of which seemed to be far more exciting than the film itself. For a movie that inspired such giddiness over its fumbled release, the product itself was mostly boring and not worthy of any genuine anticipation. You can read Rebecca’s wonderful review here. I’ve thought many things while waiting for Tulip Fever to screen, most of them over the state of The Weinstein Company’s bank account, but one question continued to rear its head in my mind: Who the hell would pick Dane DeHaan over Christoph Waltz?
I mean, I’m not alone here, right? It’s bad enough that the film expects us to believe Dane DeHaan is a magnetic sex god with wonderfully suckable fingers, but to write a role of a doddering but kindly old man utterly devoid of sexuality only then cast Christoph Waltz in the part is practically begging for my incredulity. I imagine that Hollywood sees two-time Oscar winner Christoph Waltz and immediately thinks ‘European equals villain’ so I’m not especially surprised that they’ve yet to understand just how many women are totally into him. It’s the same thing with a lot of distinguished actors and actresses over the age of 45: They can be positioned as sexy but seldom sexual. I prefer to imagine a version of Tulip Fever where Waltz and Vikander’s unbalanced relationship was truly explored, but that’ll send me verging into fan fiction territory and that’s a whole other problem altogether.
Perhaps this is just my own id manifesting in its preferred ways, but this fascinating case of double miscasting highlighted something that’s always bugged me about the entertainment world. They have established a norm for cinematic romances wherein a noticeable age gap is the norm, usually with an older man paired off with a younger woman, but the effects of that are almost entirely ignored. I’ve written about this phenomenon before but it bears repeating - if you’re a 25 year old woman and you were to bring home a guy in his late 40s, your parents would ask questions. Any guy in his 40s bringing someone he’s old enough to have fathered to the work night out will have certain assumptions made about them. How do you cope when the person you’re seeing has kids your age? How heavily does the mere concept of your own mortality weigh over you when you know that you’re going to die many years before the person you love?
These are ideas that have been explored in film before, but so many age gap relationships on screen are simply coded as a default representation of love and sex. Nobody wants to question why Tom Cruise keeps getting paired with women 20 years or more younger than him because that would force people to acknowledge how old he actually is and what that would mean in terms of ideas about Hollywood’s relationship with masculinity.
This model takes form in several ways: Sometimes the age gap is simply ignored, either because the film wishes to present it as just how things work or because we all have to pretend the leading man is younger than he is; Or it’s positioned as a victory for the hero, a sign of his ceaseless virility and sheer animal magnetism. It’s true that many women have that fantasy involving older men but I don’t really see the true appeal of that conveyed in most films. That’s in part because those stories tend to be centred on the man’s experience, wherein getting the girl is just the nice trophy to add to the shelf after saving the day. A young woman throwing herself at such a guy is just assumed to be part of the way things are done. Sometimes it feels like the film is rubbing that in the audience’s faces and daring them to say something (see basically all of Woody Allen’s movies).
There’s little thought given to the ways a younger woman truly drawn to an older man would wish to navigate the early days of that attraction. Sooner or later, there would need to be a conversation about the mundane logistics of being in a relationship, and those dynamics are inherently different when one of you is old enough to have gone through all that stuff about mortgages, life insurance, health problems, and much more.
Older men with younger women is the norm - the opposite is too frequently written as a joke. Either the younger man has some kind of ‘icky fetish’ for cougars (a term I hate) or the older woman is a past-her-prime relic who yearns for her youth at any cost. Hollywood barely sees women over 45 as human, much less sexual beings.
All of this tends to be exclusively heteronormative too. LGBTQ+ relationships are still shockingly rare in mainstream entertainment, and the ones we get struggle to even approach such dynamics, as if the concept is too tough to tackle outside of straightness (Carol is an interesting and must-see rebuttal to that).
There are great examples of age gap romances in entertainment where special attention is paid to exploring the pros and cons of that dynamic. Everyone knows of Harold and Maude, Hal Ashby’s cult black comedy wherein a death obsessed 18 year old guy falls for a vivacious 79 year old woman. It’s a spiky film that revels in its discomfort but it’s also one where you completely buy the connection between the eponymous duo. Nancy Meyers offered a wry take on the mystique of Jack Nicholson with Something’s Gotta Give, casting him as a lifelong lothario who seldom dates women under 30, only to fall for someone age appropriate. Being a 63 year old man with a 29 year old girlfriend probably looks great on paper, but there are obvious consequences, and the film manages to balance the inherent comedy of this match-up with the poignancy of getting older and your health letting you down. This film also gives us a subplot where Erica, played by Diane Keaton, has a brief relationship with a younger doctor, played by Keanu Reeves. It’s sweet, believable and not played for pity. Nancy Meyers is good at that. Prime centres on Uma Thurman’s romance with a man 14 years her junior and the complications of her therapist being his mother. That film is surprisingly stark in showing a common reality of such situations - sometimes, you’re just too immature for it to work, even if you do love them.
Of course, not all age gap romances end happily or even start out as such. Love is hard work, and there are countless pitfalls you can find yourself stuck in. sometimes, when you’re young, you’re completely committed to the idea that you’re not like everyone else you’re age because you’re so much more mature than everyone else, and that’s something people love to take advantage of. That may be territory too tricky for some projects who prefer to treat romance subplots as mere window dressing and not a complex element of the story worth telling.
This week, Reese Witherspoon’s new film, Home Again, will open. Directed by Hallie Meyers-Shyer (daughter of Nancy), the film will feature Witherspoon as a single mother who allows three dashing young men to live in her house. The following week will see Darren Aronofsky’s much anticipated mysterious drama mother! premiere nationwide, wherein Jennifer Lawrence will be paired off with Javier Bardem. Let’s wait and see how age plays its part in two very different films about relationships.