August 10, 1998 12:00 PM

Way back in ’61, when he first became a screen gem in Splendor in the Grass, Warren Beatty was 24 and his lissome costar, Natalie Wood, 23. Beatty heart-throbbed again in Shampoo at age 37; his love interests then were Goldie Hawn, 29, and Julie Christie, 33. By the time he made Bugsy in 1991, he was 54 and the woman of his dreams, Annette Bening, 33. In his latest, the raucous political satire Bulworth, Warren, 61, finds love with the very beautiful and really-a-whole-lot-younger Halle Berry, 31. In 37 years of moviemaking, Beatty has aged 37 years; meanwhile, most of the women who love him, on film, have aged—It’s a miracle!—no more than 10.

Beatty, of course, isn’t alone. Lately, it seems, you can’t go to the movies without stumbling into at least a one-generation relationship gap. There’s Michael Douglas, 53, and Gwyneth Paltrow, 25, in A Perfect Murder; Jack Nicholson, 61, and Helen Hunt, 35, in As Good as It Gets; Robert Redford, 61, and Kristin Scott Thomas, 38, in The Horse Whisperer; and Harrison Ford, 56, and Anne Heche, 29, in Six Days, Seven Nights. But wait, there’ll be more: In the currently filming Entrapment, Sean Connery, 67, canoodles with The Mask of Zorro‘s Catherine Zeta-Jones, 28. And there’s always the next Woody Allen movie. It’s an odd but undeniable phenomenon that has sparked jokes, newspaper articles and the occasional notable quote. (Asked about her transgenerational marriage with Douglas, Paltrow, who has known the actor, a friend of her parents, since childhood, said, “Obviously, it’s sort of creepy if in real life I’d be married to Michael Douglas…. There’s definitely an uncomfortable age difference.”) Mostly it raises more than a few interesting questions, including: What, exactly, is going on here? Is it healthy? Does it matter? And, at the rate things are going, when can we expect to see Hume Cronyn, 87, starring with one of the Olsen twins?

We’ll Get Back to you, Really

You want passion about this topic? Talk to an over-40 actress. At the Women in Film Crystal Awards luncheon in Los Angeles in June, Meryl Streep, 49 and smiling, took a roundhouse swing before 1,600 industry types. “The lack of good female parts for elderly women like me has two good things about it,” said Streep. “First, I get to spend a lot more time at home with my children…. And I’ve forgotten what the second good thing is.” She closed with a plea that movies stop feeding the “myth that it’s a good fantasy for a girl to want to grow up, stop eating and at 25 marry a 60-year-old and have a fabulous 10 years escorting him into his dotage. That’s a time-honored fantasy for him. What’s hers?”

Producer Bonnie Bruckheimer, a partner with Bette Midler in All Girl Productions, seconds that emotion. “I know, certainly from Bette’s standpoint, she doesn’t begrudge a younger actress coming up. She’s very entertained by some of them. But all the women in their 40s and 50s who aren’t getting parts are saddened and frustrated by that.” Bruckheimer adds that she doesn’t blame the male stars in question: “The actors are probably not the ones saying, ‘I demand that I have a 22-year-old costar!’ It’s suggested to them, and, sure, their egos will say, ‘Um, yeah, sure, I’ll take Gwyneth Paltrow!’ ”

Jane Fonda, 60, looks at it as a battle that can’t be won. “You know, in a big close-up on a big screen, seeing wrinkled lips kissing wrinkled lips, it’s not as appealing,” she said last June at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. “We older wrinkled-lips people have other things to do. Like being wise and playing wise people in movies. Yeah, it’s hard. Why do you think I’m so happy to be out of [Hollywood]?”

Meanwhile, Down at the Multiplex

What do real women think about what they’re seeing on screen? (Men, when questioned by PEOPLE reporters, had few complaints. Duh.) Some think it’s fine—more than fine, in fact. “I love it!” says Elissa Turnham, 37, who works in the oil business and had just seen The Horse Whisperer in Houston. “I’ve always liked older men. I think they’re less critical.” Some view the casting and shrug. “The age difference reflects reality,” said Darriel Prestegaard, 48, a sales representative, after seeing A Perfect Murder in Miami. “It’s society now.” And some are steamed—big time. “I don’t think this old-young thing is indicative of real life in general—but it is ruining my life,” says Jane Jordan, 35, who works for the Hyatt Hotel Corp. in Houston. “Since last Christmas, three—count ’em, three—bona fide grandfathers asked me for dates. What’s going on here? I think these old guys believe they can get women in their 20s and 30s—their children’s ages—because of what they see in the movies.” Jordan adds, “And Viagra doesn’t help matters!”

Hollywood Speaks

“Every part for every leading-lady role that is described in scripts written mostly by men is the same,” says casting director Jane Jenkins, who, with partner Janet Hirshenson, has worked on such films as Jurassic Park and Air Force One. “You have this setup with the guy doing whatever and into his life walks this either unassumingly beautiful or astonishingly beautiful woman, and she’s always between 28 and 32. Every single script. We don’t know how old the guy is. That’s not important.”

The rationale, almost everyone agrees, is economic. “From a studio marketing standpoint, it helps you get two audiences in,” says former journalist Dale Pollock, now a producer (Set It Off). “You get the older Michael Douglas crowd and the younger Gwyneth Paltrow crowd.” Richard Del Belso, senior vice president of marketing at Warner Brothers, says test audiences raised no concerns about the pairing. “We were a little bit worried, but it never came up,” he says. “Partly it’s because people got it. That couple’s relationship was older man-younger woman—a trophy wife. She looks like she could be his daughter, but somehow it’s different than in the days when Gary Cooper was romancing Audrey Hepburn and you were supposed to take it seriously.”

Additionally, once a producer has cast a star as big as Nicholson or Redford, there’s no need to spend money on a female costar of similar magnitude. “Once you pay your leading man $20 million, it’s highly unlikely that you’re going to [want to] get an actress with a $12 million to $14 million price tag,” says Joan Hyler, past president of Women in Film. “Which reflects the ‘Get the guy, they open the movie; the women are expendable’ attitude.”

So, Ego Couldn’t Have Anything at All to Do with It (Could It?)

Okay. Maybe. A little. “This is not one of the world’s greatest mysteries,” says Kenneth Turan, movie critic for the Los Angeles Times. “The actors in question have been romantic leads for most of their lives. They don’t want to play the Lionel Barrymore parts. It’s a great job to be a romantic lead, and they don’t want to give it up. And if you’re a movie star, you’re surrounded by people who tell you you can do anything.” Often, in fans’ eyes, they can. “It’s personal,” says Turan. “If you perceive a certain actor as vital, his chronological age is not going to bother you. If he can’t convince you, you’re going to start thinking, ‘How old is this guy?’ ”

Michael Douglas—who, like almost all of Hollywood’s A-list leading men, has casting approval for movies in which he appears—makes the same argument. “You’ve got some guys in pretty good shape—Sean Connery, Bob Redford, Warren Beatty, Jack Nicholson, Harrison [Ford], myself…who aren’t really ready or willing to ride off into the sunset and play those character parts,” he told The Toronto Star. Ditto Harrison Ford, who, talking to the same paper, said, “I just don’t think of age and time in respect of years. I just have too much experience of people in their 70s who are vigorous and useful and people that are 35 that are in [lousy] physical shape and can’t think straight. I don’t think age has that much to do with it.”

A Case History

Director James L. Brooks says age was a huge factor in the choices he made casting As Good as It Gets. “Originally I thought of the main characters having only a small age difference,” he says. “When I cast Helen Hunt and Jack Nicholson, I had to work hard to reconcile for myself how these two people could get along.” He told Nicholson to play a man four or five years younger than he was and asked Hunt to add four or five years to her real age. “We talked a lot and worked very hard on it,” says Brooks. “We worked on her makeup, painting lines into her face and aging her. We also worked on how a woman nearing 40 would be mentally, how she would have a more world-weary attitude. When Helen read with Jack she was fine with it. She was, ‘Okay, this works’ in terms of his sex appeal.”

Nicholson later said, in the Los Angeles Times, that Hunt’s acceptance of him in the role went a long way toward easing his own concerns. “The obligatory love interest for the middle-aged leading man is a cliché of the movies that I don’t like as a member of the audience and am always a little offended by,” he said. “But Helen disarmed that at the first meeting, and I stopped thinking about it.” And what, by the way, does Jack think about older guys with younger women in real life? “As a young man, I used to think of it as a kind of phony thing and promised myself I wouldn’t be one of these old dudes who somehow deludes himself that these people are legitimately attracted to you,” he said. “Yet, in some marginal way, I have done that job on myself.” He also pronounced himself addicted to love. “As you know, I’m almost dead,” he said. “But I’m here to convey good news for you all. Life will stay rich in this department, if you allow it.”

“A lot of women objected to the fact that a woman as young as Helen was involved with a man as old as Jack,” Brooks notes. “But that wasn’t the point.” Together with costar Greg Kinnear, who played Nicholson’s gay neighbor, “These were three very distinct people,” he says. “The point was that none of these characters were right for each other at all.

“Everyone’s got their own standard on this question,” adds Brooks. “For some women, 10 years is the cutoff, for another it’s 15, and past that they can’t imagine.” For the record, Brooks’s own theory is that the acceptable age difference is directly proportional to the thickness of the man’s accent: “You start off with an older Eastern European guy and a 20-year-old, and that’s okay,” says Brooks. “A Frenchman and a 20-year-old, that’s still fine. When you get to an Englishman, it starts to get creepy. And an American, that’s totally wrong. I mean, Milos Foreman,” he says, referring to the Czech-born, heavily accented director of Amadeus, “he can date anyone.”

And The Future

Follow the money, say producers and casting directors; that’s what Hollywood will do. “I hear a lot of grumbling, mostly from women, but it hasn’t reached a tidal wave,” says film critic Turan. “If The Horse Whisperer doesn’t do well, Robert Redford is not going to make these kinds of movies.” (Robert Redford probably will continue to make these kinds of movies. The Horse Whisperer, though not a blockbuster, has so far earned a respectable $70 million in North America; A Perfect Murder, with $64 million, and Six Days, Seven Nights, with $63 million, appear to be in the same range. Bulworth, at $25 million, was weak. As Good as It Gets, with two Oscars and more than $147 million, is the only certified big hit of the group.) Filmmaking “is a business where the goal is to entertain and give the audience what [studios] think the audience wants,” says Curtis Hanson, director of The River Wild and L.A. Confidential. “Is [balanced casting] Hollywood’s responsibility or the public’s responsibility?”

There are small signs of change. In Lethal Weapon 4, Rene Russo, at 44, is actually two years older than her costar Mel Gibson. And in many of the new movies in question, the scripts at least deal with the age discrepancy, rather than ignore it altogether. “I think it’s significant that all these films have found it important to mention the age differences,” says casting director Jane Jenkins. In Bulworth, “It was amusing that Warren Beatty kept saying to Halle Berry, ‘I’m too old, I’m too old.’ And then he says, ‘How old do you think I am?’ She looks him smack in the face and says, ‘Sixty’—and he’s aghast that she has actually guessed. It’s a sweet moment.” Six Days has a similar scene. “Well, I thought it was well worth mentioning because I felt it’s such a political issue,” Harrison Ford told The Toronto Star. “If we didn’t allude to the difference in our ages, we would be accused of being part of the perceived problem, rather than part of the perceived solution. Life and reality are full of ma tings of people of different ages.” Says Turan of the trend: “They’re starting to wise up. They’re starting to be self-referential.”

So what’s an over-40 actress to do to fill the gaps between the occasional good parts that come along? “There’s nothing we can do except try to make our own movies for the women we want to see in them,” says producer Bonnie Bruckheimer, seconding a notion championed by Meryl Streep. Younger actresses, of course, don’t face that dilemma. “They’re not worrying,” says Bruckheimer. “Yet.”

With bureau reports

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