American Made hits cinemas this week, hoping to turn Tom Cruise’s fortunes around after a rocky start to 2017. His new film may be a lot better than recent flop The Mummy, but it does continue a rather curious record for the 55-year-old. His onscreen wife, Sarah Wright, is his fifth love interest in a row to be over two decades younger than him.
Given the fine array of actresses who have played these parts, this isn’t immediately a problem until you realise the same cannot be said for any major female star. Does Mr Cruise have a problem with older women on screen? Probably not, especially considering the actor made his name opposite several older female co-stars. But this pattern is emblematic of an ongoing mentality within Hollywood’s studios.
Put simply, in the movies an older male character can have a relationship with a substantially younger woman without it being even referenced – think Jim Carrey and Zooey Deschanel in Yes Man (18 years), the near-40-year gap between Sean Connery and Catherine Zeta-Jones in Entrapment, and Colin Firth and Emma Stone's 28-year gap in Magic In The Moonlight (as well as many other Woody Allen movies).
In all these examples, the gap between characters is almost never alluded to, and certainly not the focus of the film. The same can’t be said when genders are reversed. If an older woman has a relationship with a younger man it’s almost always seen as something temporary – a way of bouncing back from a divorce or some recent upheaval (Catherine Zeta-Jones in The Rebound, Reese Witherspoon in the forthcoming Home Again). Either that, or the female character is portrayed as some predatory variation on The Graduate’s Mrs Robinson. In any event, the age gap becomes all-consuming and the relationships are almost always perceived as temporary, transient things.
Stories about women as a whole are scarce in mainstream film, and that is particularly the case when it comes to women past a certain age. While things have improved slightly in recent years, it is still an industry where, according to a 2016 survey, dialogue dramatically decreases for female characters over 42. It makes sense, then, that such a system would recoil at the idea of an older woman’s romantic or sexual perspective. With male directors – often the authors of these stories – the stereotype of the vulnerable lonely older woman chasing after younger men stretches back decades, with characters like Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard. The progression of these stories may have modernised, focusing more on the female character’s happiness, but they are no less patronising. Conversely, even the most objectively uncomfortable of male characters can be dismissed as a cad or a ladies’ man (Matthew McConaughey launched his career with the line “That's what I love about these high school girls, man. I get older, they stay the same age.”).
It's a dichotomy not lost on those it affects, with some of the most successful women in the industry feeling the age prejudice in the variety of the roles they accept. Brooke Shields, in the business since the age of 12, has certainly felt the tide turn. In 2009 she told US Health magazine: "I'd read a script and say 'Oh that's a great character, that's something I'd love to do' and they'd say 'Um, no, we're thinking of you for the mother'." While promoting TV series Sensitive Skin, about a woman adjusting to life in her 50s, Kim Cattrall remarked: "Women my age have very much to say, but unfortunately this business doesn't recognise that." It's worth noting that Cattrall has not made a big-screen appearance since 2010's Sex And The City 2 and, even during the HBO show's heyday, the biggest role movie studios could offer her was as Britney Spears' mother in Crossroads.
The one glimmer of light is that the film industry is quick to change its principles once profitability becomes a prospect. The recent renaissance of Isabelle Huppert in films such as Elle and Souvenir offers a road map for interesting over-40 female characters whose relationships with younger men do not dominate the plot. Until then, it joins the long list of gender equality issues that are rife in Hollywood.
Oh, and in case you were wondering – Tom Cruise’s next film is Mission: Impossible 6, in which he re-teams with Rebecca Ferguson, 33.