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Why female A-list stars have romantic interests who are decades older

Jennifer Lawrence has twice been paired onscreen with Bradley Cooper, who is 15 years older than her.
Jennifer Lawrence has twice been paired onscreen with Bradley Cooper, who is 15 years older than her.
Christopher Polk/Getty Images
Jennifer Lawrence has twice been paired onscreen with Bradley Cooper, who is 15 years older than her.
In Woody Allen's new film, "Irrational Man," Emma Stone is paired opposite Joaquin Phoenix, who is 14 years older than her.
Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images
Jennifer Lawrence has twice been paired onscreen with Bradley Cooper, who is 15 years older than her.
Scarlett Johansson was 18 when she was paired opposite then-52-year old Bill Murray in "Lost in Translation." In the recent "Avengers" movie, she's paired with Mark Ruffalo, who is 17 years her elder.
Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images for Disney

Young A-list female stars almost always play romantically opposite men who are often decades older. Kyle Buchanan tackles the issue in a new article on Vulture — with Emma Stone, Jennifer Lawrence and Scarlett Johansson serving as prime examples. Buchanan tells the Frame that he noticed the problem at Cannes, watching the new Woody Allen movie "Irrational Man" with Emma Stone and Joaquin Phoenix.

Emma Stone: A string of erectile dysfunction

"In that movie, he's playing an impotent man in his forties, and I thought to myself, 'Didn't Emma Stone just play romantically opposite a man with that very problem, Edward Norton in 'Birdman'?" Buchanan says. "I think if we had a 26-year-old female friend who in the space of one year had two boyfriends with erectile dysfunction in their forties, we might say, girl, come on, date your own age for just a little bit!"

Scarlett Johansson's real life relationship age difference vs. on-screen

Those May-December romances are a big part of Woody Allen's storytelling, but they're far from limited to his films.

"In the last Avengers movie, Scarlett Johansson, who's 30 now, was romancing Mark Ruffalo's Hulk — he's 47. And that's actually not all that rare, especially for an actress like Scarlett Johansson. A whole lot of her relationships have been 10, 15, 20 years older than her on screen. In real life, she's married to a man who's two years older than her. On the movie screen, she's never dated somebody that close to her in age."

We looked to find counterexamples to Buchanan's point, but we only turned up two recent major films with an actress who was even slightly older than her male romantic lead. There's "The Fault In Our Stars," where Shailene Woodley is two years older than Ansel Elgort, and "The Notebook, with McAdams just a hair older than Ryan Gosling. But Woodley's trending up, too.

"Shailene Woodley, her last two love interests beyond 'Fault In Our Stars' were Thomas Jane in the Gregg Araki movie ["White Bird in a Blizzard"] — he's in his forties — and she's now playing opposite Joseph Gordon-Levitt in Oliver Stone's Edward Snowden movie. He's in his late thirties. So it's happening to her too."

What happened when Jennifer Lawrence hit the A-list

Looking at census data shows that actual real life marriages don't show this same age gap, with most successful married couples being within about two years of age, Buchanan says.

"Certainly, in Hollywood, it can be a different story when you've got really high-powered producers with some beautiful blonde thing on their arm, but I think we want more for our most talented young actresses, like Scarlett Johansson, Emma Stone, and Jennifer Lawrence, [than] to be mimicking this arm candy dynamic."

Director David O. Russell has put Lawrence in this older man/younger woman position in multiple films. Lawrence won the Oscar for her role in his "Silver Linings Playbook."

"He also tends to cast her up. She's playing opposite men like Bradley Cooper, Christian Bale, and in her next movie, Edgar Ramirez, who are all in their late thirties, and Jennifer Lawrence, who has not yet even turned 25, is playing these parts like a widow, a divorced single mother, that would usually go to women in their thirties."

Women in their 30s paying the price

Maggie Gyllenhaal recently brought up the fact that she was told she couldn't play the love interest for a 55-year-old man because she was too old — at 37.

"I think what we're seeing is this squeezing out of 30-year-old women in Hollywood, because their parts, their parts that ought to be played by thirty-something women, are instead being played by these young women in their twenties."

It's a dynamic that's not new for Hollywood — you can go back to Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, who had a 25-year-old age difference. In 1990, "Pretty Woman" had a 22-year-old Julia Roberts opposite a 50-year-old Richard Gere, though in that case, it was part of the story of a young hooker with an older john.

Unlike those movies, though, the large age difference isn't even mentioned in these current films.

"It's just this sort of blurring of the lines. It's a really interesting thing that we're sort of accepting this as the default," Buchanan says. "It's something that you'd probably guess that our young women are dating so-much-older men on screen, but once you see it plotted out so starkly on these charts, it's alarming. These women are not allowed to date young men their own age, and I think the effect that that's also having is, there's not really a whole lot of young A-list male stars in their 20s to play opposite them, because Emma, Jennifer and Scarlett keep getting pushed towards men in their forties."

The quality of the projects may be one thing that keeps this happening again and again.

"I think the thing with all three of those women is they want the big, A-list, prestige movies, and by and large, those are made by middle-aged men about middle-aged men. And those middle-aged men are anxious to work with the most talented, young, beautiful actresses that they can find, so unless they're taking these few and far between roles in projects like 'the Hunger Games,' that's kind of all that they've got."

It's a product of the male gaze, the fantasy that a man — especially an older man — has about what a woman looks like. With major movies directed by men, with male producers and often male studio executives, those films can tend to reflect that fantasy, even when it has no relation to reality.

"I'm not trying to demonize May-December relationships, and certainly not calling these women out on their careers, which by and large have been pretty successful, and they've made great movies and played great roles, but I do think it's unusual. These are [the] three biggest, most talented young women in the 30-and-under age bracket, and ever since they hit the A-list, they are routinely steered towards men who in many cases could be their father's age."

How this trend could change

Audiences continue to embrace these movies, even with the large age gaps. Buchanan says what needs to change is for people to talk about it more.

"There are certain things where there's a lot of groupthink in Hollywood, and a lot of people who are afraid to go against the grain and say, 'This is a little bit weird, did anybody vet this?'

There are a variety of areas where there's not always the vetting you would expect — Stone got some flack for portraying a part-asian character in Cameron Crowe's new movie "Aloha."

"You would have thought there might have been a system of checks and balance there, but there wasn't, and there often isn't when these young women are being steered towards older men on screen. Until people bring it up enough that Hollywood starts to think about it."

Looking at the charts showing the female actors' ages next to their male co-stars, it looks like a comparison of the price of gold — flatlining — with Apple stock — going straight up. And that gap is growing wider and wider.

"I do think that as soon as these women hit it big, everything changes for them. You look at somebody like Jennifer Lawrence, who by and large, before she made 'the Hunger Games,' which made her an A-lister, was playing opposite men her own age — young men. And if it weren't for those 'Hunger Game' movies, which continue to produce sequels, she wouldn't have had a love interest around her own age in years. Those movies give her Josh Hutcherson and Liam Hemsworth, they're targeted at young people. Other movies, like 'Silver Linings Playbook,' like 'American Hustle,' they give her love interests like Christian Bale and Bradley Cooper, who are pushing 40."

The male A-list shows the reverse trend

There's an equally wide gap when you look at older A-list male actors — like Johnny Depp, Harrison Ford and Tom Cruise — who play opposite much younger women.

"There's almost a ceiling that happens where these men, in many cases, are entering their fifties and sixties, and yet their love interests' ages are staying the same. Very few of them will even have a love interest who's over 35, which seems a little bit absurd. So yeah, this is sort of the flip-side of that — that these young women who honestly by and large should be dictating the parameters of their love interests, should have movies built around them, are still, still being steered towards older A-listers on screen."

When an actress hits 40, she starts to be given mother roles and is usually no longer considered for romantic leads. It's an ageism that actresses face.

"When we did our piece a few years ago where we compared George Clooney, Denzel Washington, and other men of that ilk, the ages of their love interests, people said, 'well why don't you do something for female superstars and see the ages of their love interests?' And not only is there not their disparity, but it's very rare that women get to enter their forties and fifties in Hollywood and still have love interests. Movies are just not set up that way."

It's not happening just in studio films, but also independent films.

"It's kind of endemic. It's happening everywhere. A lot of these are not comic book movies, they're small, prestige dramas. Jennifer Lawrence made one with Bradley Cooper called 'Serena,' that came out earlier this year, and that's another movie where that film had originally been developed for Angelina Jolie to star — Angelina Jolie, who's in her late 30s. The fact that Jennifer Lawrence, who shot that movie when she was 23, could slip into this role is a little bit interesting."

Hollywood continues selling fantasy, from superheroes to giant earthquakes — and the idea that an older man can have younger women looking up to him and falling in love.

"I think that's absolutely part of the fantasy, but that's an interesting thing, and I wonder if it's almost like indoctrination, that it's also selling this fantasy towards the young women who want to see their favorite actors on screen. I don't know that the fans of Emma Stone who want to know what she's wearing, they want to know her makeup tricks, they want to know what she's like in real life and be her BFF — do those women want to date Colin Firth, who's 54, who Emma Stone dated in a credulity-defying way in 'Magic In The Moonlight'? I don't think that's the case."

The cycle looks to be continuing with other up-and-comers — Buchanan found that 24-year-old Margot Robbie is falling into this same trend.

Charts courtesy Vulture.

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