The relationships between older women and younger men have been a cinematic fixture since an extravagant Norma Desmond set her sights on a young Joe Gillis. "The Graduate" later rode the archetypes to Oscar perfection; "Harold & Maude" broadened the emotional (and generational) stakes.
In the last few years, we've been given a jungle-themed name for the phenomenon. But the relationships have stayed largely off the screen.
After attending the premiere Thursday for the release of a new movie called "Cougars, Inc." (only the most devoted journalism in these parts), we wondered if that might be changing. The movie is about a group of boarding school boys who start an escort service for sex-starved older women, with horror-movie staple Kyle Gallner and "Cold Case" veteran Kathryn Morris the central relationship. (Denise Richards co-stars, if that gives you an idea.)
It's a relatively minor release — Asher Levin's movie will appear on video on-demand beginning today and will probably not evoke the early work of Mike Nichols. But it did call to mind how these types of relationships have started to pop up again. In "Hall Pass," Jason Sudeikis is seduced by the aunt of his friend's nanny. Later this month, another independent, "Cougar Hunting," will follow twentysomething men on the prowl for older women in Aspen. Stacy's mom, she, you know.
Smaller age gaps are also coming into vogue. Reese Witherspoon (in real life, at least) is a decade older than Robert Pattinson, but the two have a relationship at the center of the upcoming period circus-romance "Water for Elephants." Cameron Diaz riffs on age disparity with real life ex-beau Justin Timberlake in this June's "Bad Teacher," in which she stops at nothing to land Timberlake. All this follows ABC's "Cougar Town," which started out about a fortysomething woman dating younger men before morphing into a more traditional dysfunctional-family and relationship show.
The cougar trend has a tendency to evoke strong feelings — it's either a symbol of feminist empowerment or an insul that age is an issue in the first place. (In some of the movies it's played for titillation, which doesn't exactly help the case.)
Of course it's worth remembering that before it became a buzzword, cougars were the stuff of sturdy drama. And not just in Hollywood's golden age; examples from this century include "Unfaithful," "Tadpole" and "The Good Girl" (2002 was apparently the year of the cougar).
It's also worth noting that with recent hits like "An Education" and the upcoming Hugh Laurie-Leighton Meester romance "The Oranges," the other kind of May-December romance isn't exactly going away. For every cougar out there in the jungle, there are five rhinos.
— Steven Zeitchik
Photo: Cover art for "Cougars, Inc." Credit: Lionsgate