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Why the Hollywood Age Gap Matters

Tom Cruise, 50, with 33-year-old co-star Olga Kurylenko in "Oblivion"

Tom Cruise, 50, with 33-year-old co-star Olga Kurylenko in “Oblivion”

The culture blog Vulture did some math last week, demonstrating that as stars like Tom Cruise age, their female co-stars and love interests remain quite young. Striking examples include 21-year-old Kiera Knightley playing opposite 43-year-old Johnny Depp in Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest, and 49-year-old Brad Pitt appearing alongside 37-year-old love interest Mireille Enos in the upcoming World War Z. Why do these numbers matter? Because the women we see up on screen have an impact on how we view women in the real world.

When I read that Vera Farmiga was 36 in Up in the Air, playing against George Clooney at age 48, I could only think, “Wow, she looked so old in that movie!” I didn’t think about how old Clooney looks because I’m used to seeing graying, “chiseled” men on screen. We’ve made it seem more normal, more natural, to only idolize women while they’re extremely young. Anyone over 35 now seems grandmotherly, hardly worth a hero’s interest.

There's a seven-year age gap between "Iron Man" stars Gwyneth Paltrow and Robert Downey Jr.

There’s a seven-year age gap between “Iron Man” stars Gwyneth Paltrow and Robert Downey Jr.

The practice of putting very young women on screen with much older costars has almost nothing to do with how real relationships pan out. According to U.S. census data from 2012, in about half of all heterosexual marriages, the husband is at least two years older than his wife. But age gaps of 10 years or more are quite rare: 33 percent of marriages are between people within a year of each other in age. In movies, it’s standard to see an age gap of 10, 15 or 20 years.

There’s a seven-year gap between Robert Downey Jr. and Iron Man love interest Gwyneth Paltrow (they were 43 and 36, respectively, when the film was released in 2008). Imagine what it would be like if Downey played against a woman of his own age. Would audiences be so upset to see a stray gray hair, or a smile line? It seems insane that men are considered “sexy” (and therefore bankable) well into their 60s, while women have to get in line behind Judi Dench and Helen Mirren.

For an example of what ageism can do to an actress’ career, think about Demi Moore. In 1990, she became a superstar with Ghost. Over the next seven years she had 16 film credits. And in 1997, the year she turned 35, she utterly disappeared from theaters. Moore became famous for having a younger boyfriend, and for “still” looking good in a bikini when she reemerged in 2002 in Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle, but she hasn’t made a hit since. Julia Roberts, back in the spotlight since 2010’s Eat, Pray Love, had minimal credits after she turned 35 in 2002.

Famke Janssen is nine years older than "X-Men" trilogy co-star James Marsden

Famke Janssen is nine years older than “X-Men” trilogy co-star James Marsden

Moore and Roberts aren’t stage-trained actors’ actors, the way that Dench or Mirren are; they’re much more like Matthew McConaughey, a sex symbol who generally tends toward lighter fare. All three rose to fame about the same time, but McConaughey has had no trouble turning out a long string of hits. McConaughey even told NPR’s Terri Gross that he just “let the work come to him” to secure more meaty roles, like his recent film, Mud. Think about the last time you heard an actress say she “let the work come to her.” It’s probably this side of never.

Of course, there are major exceptions to this gigantic age gap — and many of them come from movies based on comics. In the X-Men series, Famke Janssen is four years older than Hugh Jackman, and nine years older than James Marsden. Natalie Portman is older than her Thor co-star, Chris Hemsworth. But Hemsworth is at the start of his action-hero career. When he is in his 60s, will he still pursue women of Portman’s age and acting stature?

As a moviegoer, I just want to see the most fun, believable and enjoyable actors and actresses on screen. It shouldn’t matter if they are old or young. But, if we keep thinking 40 is “old” for an actress, we’re soon going to lose out on more movies with Angelina Jolie (age 38), Kate Beckinsale (39) and Penelope Cruz (38). Maybe it’s time to redefine what actresses in their 40s and 50s can do.


  • Celos Beats

    SO true. the Media has a lot to do about how we see ourselves and same goes for actress. they can make or break them. SMH

  • Matt

    You forgot to mention the upcoming “Man of Steel” in your list of comic movie exceptions.
    Henry Cavill – 29
    Amy Adams – 38

  • Ben Lundy

    “But, if we keep thinking 40 is “old” for an actress”

    But who’s “we?” It certainly isn’t me. Hollywood is going to continue to cast young women in lead roles (I say “lead” reservedly, as women don’t usually get lead roles outside of rom-coms and a few dramas) because the target demographic of the industry is 18 to 34-year-old men. Men are in control of the industry, and men are the target demographic.

  • PretenderNx01

    Gwyneth just got People’s most Beautiful Woman at 40.
    And with Robert only 7 years older than her, I’d say that’s pretty close. You mention only 1/3 of marriages are a year a part (but you state it like it’s a majority).

    The Hollywood Age Gap is worth talking about but this article is poorly written.

  • Bl00dwerK

    In most cases, but not all, men age better than women…

  • Chuck777

    She’s 38? Wow!

  • Chuck777

    No they don’t. Culturally, we just accept how men age more than we accept how women age.

  • Anonymous Jones

    I’m sick of all these contrived arguments.

    We aren’t the ones who cast movies are we? The people who are investing millions of pounds producing films are. People who invest millions of dollars in a film want to make sure they get their investment back.

    It may be “wrong” but this is just the way of the world. Sex sells. I’m not saying that older women can’t be sexy, but usually, a 25 year old woman is sexier to people then a 45 year old woman.

    I hate these “blame society” articles. Tell this to the producers! Ordinary people don’t decide who’s in movies. And they can’t be blamed for preferring to see a 25 year old woman then a 45 year old woman.

    It’s just human nature! I’m sure if a study was done in night clubs, younger women would have much more success finding mates then older women. Maybe it’s unpolitically correct to say this, but the real world isn’t politically correct! It’s time for people to move on! If they want to make a change, convince producers to start hiring older actresses. Articles like this sound nothing but one-sided moaning.

  • Anonymous Jones

    every culture in the entire history of humanity has held the same standards of beauty that younger women are more desirable then older women. It’s not cultural, it’s instinctual.

  • Derek

    I’m okay on losing out on Kate Beckinsale movies! She’s awful.

    Famke Janssen is an interesting example though. In Hemlocks Grove she’s playing the mother of an adult child but she’s clearly cast in the sexy role too. Maybe things are changing.

  • thesnappysneezer

    X-Men, Famke Jansan was Jean Grey at 35/36 at the time while Cyclops was portrayed by James MArsden who was 26/27 at the time, Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine was about 32 then. She was older than both of them and pretty considerably in relation to Cyclops.

    Still, I would say there is a lack of quality younger male actors. Too many pouty pretty boys. When age equality among genders comes, it will all just be young people with the older in bit supporting roles.

  • SpiderS

    About Amy Adams two words “Baby face” and there’s only 2 years difference between Hemsworth and Portman so no biggie.

  • raygun

    Depp and Knightley weren’t love interests in the Pirates movies. She was Orlando Bloom’s love interest. Bloom was 25. She was 21.

  • Cae

    I wonder how many more articles it will take to change human nature? Check out the film industries in India, Japan or Brazil – people everywhere value the same things. How ’bout next time, instead of the usual whining, you write a script that makes your point and see if anyone buys it? That would totally break a few stereotypes…

  • shaunn

    I wholeheartedly agree with the sentiments behind this article, but I also think that you may be oversimplifying what is at work here. The question of physical attraction may not simply be the product of social forces, though the social element does play a role. The conventional explanation of this phenomenon is that younger woman are regarded as more attractive by men because evolution has selected for this. In particular, women are attractive based on qualities that make them desirable as mothers and most likely to produce healthy offspring. Youth is associated with those qualities. Physical beauty is associated with symmetry, which is, supposedly, a marker of good genetic health. By contrast, men are “attractive” to women based on physical qualities, too, but there is an additional factor that can play a major role in women’s calculations. These are qualities that indicate men are good providers. These qualities are often associated with power and wealth and they often come with age. So, women (in general) may have wider criteria of “attractiveness” that does not make age an insurmountable barrier. I know this sounds a bit too convenient and certainly doesn’t account for the fact that many women are not drawn to older men and don’t choose their mates based on their ability to provide ( the “bad boy” phenomenon, etc). Other, more complex personal psychological factors play a role in what individuals find “attractive.” But there are likely many more women who find older men attractive than men who find older women attractive. Most women probably agree that Brad Pitt, George Clooney, etc. are, in fact, attractive men, whereas many men would probably find women beyond a certain age as unattractive or certainly less attractive. Of course, the obvious comeback to all of this is that this is what society has determined. Possibly, but the evolutionary argument is pretty compelling. There is a lot of evidence that much of human behaviour is hardwired in our genes for evolutionary reasons. Questions as basic as what we find sexually attractive would, undoubtedly, be part of that. Anyway, it may be that we can construct a society that values older women the same as older men and, as women become more powerful, many of these dynamics might start to change. But I don’t think that the “natural” factors at play here can be easily dismissed, as much as I wish they could be.

  • Tina Power

    I’m 37. Guys my age bore me. Seems like they’re all waiting for death to happen. I attract guys much younger than me all the time. Mostly between 22-26. Sometimes I get a guy in their 30s.

  • fuqdisqus

    Homosexual men are in control of the industry.
    The target demographic is 12-year-olds.

    Feel free to figure any connection.

  • fuqdisqus

    Famke Janssen appears to have aged more than ten years in the last ten years.

  • XSpectreGreyX

    I agree completely with what you just said. I keep seeing things like this where people go on self-righteous rants. The prevailing opinion is that younger women are more attractive. Same goes for men. There are exceptions, but they’re just that – exceptions. That has always been the case. Get fucking use to it, because everyone else has.

  • Ohoni

    Age is irrelevant. If they look good and they fit the part they’re being cast for, then that’s plenty. The unfortunate thing is that older women are less likely to look door or fit the part they were cast for. I mean, to use the example above, Famke Jensen was well cast as Jean, in a vacuum, but it was a bit silly that Marsden was cast opposite her when he was meant to be the older of the two. One of them shouldn’t have been cast in their respective role.

  • Joe_HTH

    She doesn’t come within a million miles of being the most beautiful woman.

  • Joe_HTH

    It’s bullshit for men in Hollywood to be considered in their prime at 40, but women are over the hill at 40. Kate Beckinsale is about to be 40. Have you seen her lately. She is hotter than any 25 year old woman I’ve seen in Hollywood. She is about as far from over the hill as it gets.

    It’s garbage that women are treated so poorly by Hollywood compared to men.

  • Joe_HTH

    You’re a frickin’ idiot. You wouldn’t know a good actress if she sat on your face and wiggled. Kate Beckinsale is light years better than Famke Janssen and is a damn good actress. You don’t think so because you’re ignorant, and have only seen her in stuff like Underworld, Total Recall, Pearl Harbor, and Whiteout.

    I’d suggest you pull your head from your ass and see films like Cold Comfort Farm, Much Ado About Nothing, Last Days of Disco, Nothing But the Truth, and Snow Angels.

    Or you could do everyone a favor and shut up.

  • Joe_HTH

    It’s not in Hollywood, and the reality is far, far different.

  • CMM

    A better example of ageism is “Vampire Diaries”. No one is over 50 on that show when they should be, particularly city leaders, sheriff, etc., if for no other reason than to convey a sense of realistic depth to the history of the town’s involvement with vampires and such. You don’t even see background extras over than 50 such as in the bar or school with teachers for instance. Kat Graham (23), the witch, has actresses playing her mother (Persia White – 41) and her grandmother (Jasmine Guy – 51) only a few years older than each other. I can somewhat accept White being 17, when she had Graham’s character, but Guy being 10 when she had White’s??? It’s ridiculous.

    In the article above, how many of those married men are having affairs with younger women? Or did? It’s possible.

    Men being about 10 years older than a supposed love interest or partner is OK, so long as it looks believable, just do not make them a parent of the woman. Any older gets unrealistic though. Any complaints about a 7 year difference is a little silly.

    Actresses like Julia Roberts can relax after making 20 million a movie. It’s not like they need cash. Plus they marry and raise kids too, so that both explains a possible absence from film. Same with Demi Moore. Let’s not forget they can make bad film choices that end up being bombs rather than hits. This can also cause a desire for producers not to cast them. There is also the fact studios want explosive blockbusters more than character driven films, so work is limited by that too.

  • Molly the Owl

    I do think that the age difference between actors and actresses do affect how we see couples in every day life. I don’t believe that men truly age better than women, they have just as many wrinkles and gray hairs as the years progress, we just aren’t used to seeing a grey haired woman with a leading man. I think we come to perceive this as normal.
    It’s not a new thing either, in one of my favorite films, North By Northwest, Cary Grant’s ‘mother’ is only 7 years older than he is and his love interest is 20 years younger. Cary certainly looked his age in that movie, but he was still cast opposite a beautiful ingenue.

  • SJNeal

    Like most articles on this site…

  • shaunn

    I understand what you are saying and I don’t deny that Hollywood reinforces this whole thing to a ludicrous degree. I’m just not convinced that Hollywood created it in quite the way that the author suggests. Of course, it’s really hard to tell for the reasons you allude to. If Hollywood had been showing us realistically aged people from the beginning, would we have this problem now? My original post suggests that we probably would, for the reasons I cite. Hollywood is about creating fantasy and the fantasy that most men find appealing and attractive are women who are supposed to be 60 but look (on film) like they are 40, if that old. But the idea of perpetuating certain kinds of fantasies and the worship of youth are phenomena that extend far beyond just Hollywood and reinforced by many different aspects of our society. This may be particularly bad in the West but, again, the appeal of youth as beauty is likely also hardwired into our genetic makeup.

  • Sandinista

    Why are we using Hollywood stars as a measurement standard? They’re clearly outliers when it comes to looks. In the real world, Amy Adams would be relentlessly chased by all age groups. Same for almost all of the 40 year olds in Hollywood.

    And many people have already stated…this is just human nature and lest I be accused of some kind of sexist cliche take a poll among your female friends…see how many women you meet that will chase a man younger than they are. Even women follow this standard.

  • Ladies Making Comics

    “If they look good and they fit the part they’re being cast for, then that’s plenty. The unfortunate thing is that older women are less likely to look good or fit the part they were cast for.”

    Fuck. That. Shit.

    1995. GoldenEye. Judi Dench took over a role that had been played by bland old men for 30 years. And she made that role BETTER.

    Hollywood needs to expand their own conception of the roles women can play, so that older and/or less attractive women have the same chances as older and/or less attractive men.

  • kalorama

    “When I read that Vera Farmiga was 36 in Up in the Air, playing against George Clooney at age 48, I could only think, “Wow, she looked so old in that movie!”

    She looked “so old”? Really? Jesus.

  • Adam Fuqua

    It’s not women. It’s people in general. It’s a very skewed industry in a couple of respects and age is just one of them. I think one of the biggest problems is that movies blow huge budgets casting guys like Cruise when they could spend much less and probably get better talent with a relative unknown. However, they go with the face people know. For whatever reason, actresses can’t seem to sustain successful box office returns than men, or at least the execs are willing to take the risk over again with certain men. Most actors’/actresses’ careers would be over with a box office bomb Jack Reacher, but for some reason the execs keep handing him $5 million a film.

  • Ohoni

    Judy Dench did well in that role. I don’t think she could have pulled off Jean Grey though. Some roles don’t have specific appearance requirements, and focus more on gravitas and experience. Plenty of roles do require a certain level of desirability to them though, and while there are at least a dozen or so major Hollywood actresses that have held up sufficiently well over the years, it’s by far the exception not the rule. It’s pointed out in the article how often it is that male actors are much older than their leading ladies, but the article misses the point that they are considered roughly equally attractive by members of the opposite sex. If you want to see more older women in Hollywood movies, then get more men to find older women more attractive.

    Sure, married couples might tend to be fairly close together in age relative to on screen couples, but that’s for married couples. There is a lot more to a marriage than looks, but movies are not (at least not in many roles). You don’t want the leading lady that is the best home maker or child raiser or emotional support in times of stress, you want the leading lady that is likely to get the most male viewers into the seats, and the vast majority of that comes from looks.

  • kalorama

    While the general sentiment behind the piece has some merit, the writer uses some pretty serious spin-doctoring and deck-stacking when it comes to examples.

    Jula Roberts “had minimal credits after she turned 35 in 2002″? Not really.

    Mirror Mirror
    Larry Crowne
    Eat Pray Love
    Valentine’s Day
    Fireflies in the Garden
    Charlie Wilson’s War
    Ocean’s Twelve
    Mona Lisa Smile

    That’s 10 movies since 2002 (not including the 2 or 3 others where she only did voice work) with a couple more in production. Clearly she’s not as busy as she was in her 30s, but she’s had 3 kids since then, so it’s possible that the decision to work less may have been partly her choice. And Demi Moore’s reduction in work had a lot more to do with a long string of box office flops than it did with her age.

    And conspicuous by the absence of any mention of her is Julianne Moore. She’s 52 and has made more movies since turning 35 than she did before.

    And saying that Matthew McConaughey has turned out a “long string of hits” is a gross exaggeration. He has had a couple modest hits in the past decade, but they’ve been sprinkled in with several duds. The biggest hit he’s had in the last decade was Magic Mike, which was a low budget project (A) that vastly exceeded expectaions and (B) in which McConaughey played a supporting role to Channing Tatum.

  • Sandra Snan

    Famke ♥♥♥♥♥♥♥ you go girl!

  • Chris

    Honestly, The reason people end up losing roles, is because they are bad actresses or actors. Megan Fox did get roles because she was a good actress. She got them for being attractive. so once that dries up so do the jobs. sad but true. If anything they should be grateful that their crap acting abilities were given a chance to be seen because they were attractive. Aside from Cruise, the 4 other men listed in the first two paragraphs are good-great actors. That is why they get roles. Look at Helen Mirren, or Susan Sarandon, or Meryl Streep (who i hate), they get roles because they are good actresses.

    If anything though, we should be blaming the screenwriters for making such crappy female leads/characters. If they were better written characters you could cast someone who can act as opposed to someone who’s only talent is looking good. Then again, Michael Bay will always be the exception to this rule.

  • Chris

    Fox didn’t get roles*

  • pDUB

    yet, here we are, aren’t we?

  • Bl00dwerK

    Yes, they do. That’s why younger women like older men and older men like younger women. We don’t need culture to tell us who looks good and who doesn’t…

  • Bl00dwerK

    Beckinsale is the exception, not the rule…

  • B

    Ben, you’ve nailed it with the target audience being men between 18 & 34. The studios assume that particular audience wants to watch women roughly their own age (young and attainable) who they can desire, and men who they can respect (older and accomplished) and hope to be like. Actresses age out of that narrow demographic far faster than actors who can actually gain respect, and appear more accomplished with time.

  • CultureIsAs

    Saying “Sex sells” then claiming “Ordinary people don’t decide who’s in movies” is a direct contradiction. Producers sell sex because ordinary people consume it. Ordinary people decide who’s in movies by what they pay to see. The producers respond to society’s whim, not dictate it.

  • CultureIsAs

    Part of being an enlightened human is not living by instinct alone. Tear off your clothes and live in the woods as a feral beast if you want; some of us have loftier standards and higher ideals for humanity.

  • Mike

    There’s a lot of younger women who go after older guys, although it doesn’t necessarily mean they get married. I will say, as a guy, I am beginning to feel sexier and more confident going into my thirties. They say that guys begin to reach a maturity level at 28 than women usually hit between 22-24. For me there is an overwhelming sense of confidence in older guys that is simply not present in [most] younger twenty somethings. Chris Hemsworth and James Marsden are sort of abbreations. They look a lot older and act a lot older a lot younger, whereas most 26 year old actors are playing high school students still.
    Also, I think it’s important to realize that Downey Jr.’s age in Iron Man is not openly revealled however it’s somewhat implied in movie one that he’s in his younger years, Certainly younger than he is in real life. Also, he’s caked in as much make up as his female co-stars so he’ll look younger.
    Also, going back to personal experience, guys bodies mature in their late twenties/early thirties. As an avid gym rat I can tell you we go through muscle maturity. The “look” of guys that hollywood finds attractive is a lot more prevalent in older guys, not younger guys. Younger guys kind of have more awkward bodies, which, like I said, tends to corner them into those high school roles until they get older.
    You have to remember these guys are playing characters so only the professed age of the character is what counts. If you’re like Amy Adams you’re still getting cast in roles that seem much younger than her actual age. This seems to me to be a non controversy.

  • DC Sheehan

    If we gays control the industry then I’m casting Ving Rhames in every movie with me as his love interest.

  • Larry

    If women in Hollywood are being cast out at a younger age than men, than only means that more women are being hired. If Vin diesel is still playing hunk roles at the age of 40 something that means some younger guy lost his opportunity. But you don’t see us men complaining and bitching about it now do you.

  • amy_ability

    Another awesome older woman: Helen Mirren, in Red and as Prospero in The Tempest. Her as Prospero was worlds better than any male actor I had ever seen in that role!

  • Liz

    I thought Tom Cruise got 20 mil a film.

  • Liz

    I know many younger women who prefer men their own age.

  • primetime2123

    that number just shows that the most important thing in casting is appearance. amy mcadams looks way younger than her age. so this age gap thing has no merit because most of these guys listed such as tom cruise, brad pitt, keanu reeves etc etc all look significantly younger than their age

  • primetime2123

    and I know many who don’t.

  • primetime2123

    you are correct. Its dumb to use Hollywood movie stars as examples. Just ridiculous. Guys like Brad Pitt, Tom Cruise, and Keanu Reeves etc etc would be pursued by older AND younger women if they worked regular 9-5 jobs because they are better looking than most guys.