There’s a line in the Michael Ondaatje novel, The English Patient, where the title character says of himself, “I had reached that stage in life where I identified with cynical villains in a book.”
I know what he means.
I’ve reached that stage in life where I’m too old to identify with the youthful protagonists of your typical romantic comedy, and this corollary hits me especially hard near Valentine’s Day, when Hollywood and TV movie channels screen their most romantic offerings.
Take, for example, one of the great classics of the genre, Breakfast at Tiffany’s.
Once upon a time, I could see myself as the Paul Varjak character (played by George Peppard, 33 at the time the movie was released in 1961), the young writer with great ambitions yet to reach his potential in the big city, in love with his equally youthful neighbor, Holly Golightly (Audrey Hepburn, 32).
Now when I watch that movie, I find I’m closer to one of the older, not-so-attractive supporting characters: the pathetic, heartbroken Doc trying to win back Holly (Buddy Ebsen, 53), or the cougar (Patricia Neal, 35, actually only three years older than Hepburn) using money to keep a leash on her boy-toy, Paul. Or, God forbid, the lecherous Mr. Yunioshi (Mickey Rooney, 41).
Hollywood's December-May Romances
Of course, in the silver screen version of romance, I can find plenty of examples where a much older leading man wins the girl decades younger, like another classic rom-com, Sabrina, 1954, where Humphrey Bogart, 54, successfully woos Hepburn, 25.
And Hollywood recently has created a sub-genre for the older audience, the “geriaction” movies like The Expendables or Red with the same car chases, gunfights and explosions and featuring the same old actors.
But back here in reality, most of us know that we’re unlikely to get into a spy caper or end up with — or even want to be with — a partner half our age.
The latter scenario always uncomfortably reminds me of an interview I saw of Eva Marie Saint when she said she had to give a supporting arm to co-star Cary Grant, 20 years her senior, while they clambered over rocks representing Mount Rushmore in North by Northwest.
Protagonists I Can Identify With
Yet, with a little searching, there are examples of movies in which mature characters are realistic, but still attractive, sexy and paired with age-appropriate partners. These are the protagonists that I like to identify with today:
The Best Years of Our Lives In the 1946 movie about three GIs returning home after World War II, Fredric March, 49, plays a middle-aged banker who served as an infantryman. After a long marriage and a long separation, he and his wife, played by Myrna Loy, 41, find they’re still attracted to each other and very much in love.
But when their love-lorn daughter says she envies their perfect relationship, Loy delivers this wry but realistic assessment of their marriage to March: “We never had any trouble? How many times have I told you I hated you and believed it in my heart? How many times have you said you were sick of me, that we were all washed up? How many times have we had to fall in love all over again?”
The African Queen Bogart, 51, is matched with a Hepburn, but this time it’s Katharine Hepburn, 44. Bogart isn’t the suave Rick Blaine from Casablanca. He’s a dissipated riverboat captain who calls Hepburn’s character, the sister of a missionary, a “psalm-singing, skinny old maid.” He doesn’t realize that by the second reel he would see her as we see her, a beautiful woman who would help him become a reluctant hero.
Desk Set Grown-up romance was also a feature of the movies Katharine Hepburn made with co-star and real-life partner Spencer Tracy. I like this 1957 offering, a battle of the sexes that turns into love, which was made when Hepburn was 49 and Tracy was 57.
Indiscreet Cary Grant regularly starred opposite actresses who were decades younger, from Audrey Hepburn to Grace Kelly. But in this 1958 rom-com, the pairing is closer to the mark, with Grant, 54, opposite Ingrid Bergman, 42. It's about a bachelor pretending to be married.
Sexy, Older Leading Ladies
And to be fair, there are several good examples where the smart, sexy older actress is the senior half of some adult movie romances.
In the 1950 film All About Eve, a veteran actress played by Bette Davis, 42, fends off attempts by a conniving starlet to steal her roles and her man, played by Gary Merrill, 35. Davis actually married Merrill in real life.
The worldly Tallulah Bankhead, 41, plays a World War II journalist who captivates John Hodiak, 29, when they get set adrift in Hitchcock’s 1944 film, Lifeboat.
More recently (2009), the intelligent Patricia Clarkson, 49, is a woman who has an unexpected love affair with a charming Egyptian, played by Alexander Siddig, 43, in Cairo Time.
Maid Marian's Midlife Questions
After being paired with much older men ranging from Fred Astaire to Gary Cooper, Audrey Hepburn was finally cast opposite a younger — if only by a year — actor in Robin and Marian, 1976.
Hepburn was 46 and co-star Sean Connery was 45 in this adventure about an aging Robin Hood and Maid Marian reunited after a long separation. Their midlife status leads to the following questions:
“Am I old and ugly?” Maid Marian asks Robin at one point in the film. “Am I anything you’d want?"
The answers, of course, are no and yes.