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The Hollywood Romance Age Gap: A Statistical Analysis.
An exploration of cinema's long-running treatment of romantic age differences.
Intro: Al Pacino's Miracle Baby
This past May, 83-year-old Al Pacino and his 29-year-old girlfriend Noor Alfallah announced they were expecting a baby. The news received overwhelming media attention due to the extent of the age gap and various sensational rumors surrounding the pregnancy. As far as the Internet is concerned: [Much older person] + [Much younger person] + [romance] + [lovechild] = [media circus]. The incident was internet schadenfreude at its most vicious, though I'm not sure what Al Pacino did to deserve such ridicule.
At the same time, relationships marked by generational gaps are a fixture of Hollywood romance—both fictional and real-life. So today, we'll explore cinema's portrayal of romantic age discrepancies, the films and filmmakers that serve as notable outliers in crafting these characters, and the industry dynamics that drive these depictions—all through the lens of data.
The Hollywood Age Gap Database
Lynn Fisher's Hollywood Age Gap repository collects data on silver screen love interests — with over 880 relationships cataloged from 630 movies — and then calculates the difference in those actors' ages. Fisher's dataset skews towards relationships with noticeable gaps and therefore does not represent all movie romances perfectly. Still, this information proves useful for examining exceptional cases and the gender dynamics endemic to considerable age differences.
The Silver Screen's Romantic Outliers
When we look at the database's largest gaps, we find comedy classic Harold & Maude maintains the most sizable age differential.
Relationships with significant discrepancies are typically a central feature of a film's plot or appeal, blatantly signaling crucial information about one or both characters. In the case of Harold and Maude, Harold is a morbid young man, and Maude is a free-spirited septuagenarian. Each character demonstrates traits non-representative of their seniority, and these eccentricities are diametrically opposed for comedic effect.
Such extreme contrasts are meant to be noticed (viewers typically recognize a 35+ year difference), allowing writers to play with shared social norms in developing the story. On the other hand, many age gaps (those that aren't as severe) are either overlooked or irrelevant to the film's narrative, as these relationships are a product of the Hollywood casting and marketing machine.
Consider the database's list of movies that feature multiple large-gap romances—composed mainly of entries from the James Bond franchise.
Bond's romantic entanglements contribute to the character's mystique, as his younger lovers allow him to embody a particular ideal of masculinity. A given Bond actor may grow older, but his lovers generally stay the same age. In A View to Kill, 58-year-old Roger Moore is romantically entangled with partners ages 28, 29, 30, and 37. Having four lovers 20+ years younger isn't inherently wrong; I'm more curious about filmmaker intent, or lack thereof.
A View to Kill's unique age variance is an outlier, yet Hollywood films readily feature relationships between an aging male actor and his forever-younger love interest. Numerous male actors—and unmistakably zero women—have starred in multiple large-gap romances.
Hollywood has an unfortunate history of aging-out actresses well before their male counterparts. And sure, a mature female character may be allowed to carry a film, but only if her love interest is a man of similar age.
These media depictions partially mirror attitudes found in online dating markets, as documented by OkCupid co-founder Christian Rudder who used the site's trove of data to show how women and men differ in the ages of the people they're attracted to. According to the OKCupid data, men of all ages tend to seek women in their early 20s, while women are most attracted to men their age.
Perhaps art imitates life, or art influences widely held values—or all of the above. Regardless of directional influence, it's clear that producers, writers, and directors are developing projects based on some assumptions of shared norms or their highly specific worldview.
In fact, large-gap relationships can function as a recurring motif within a filmmaker's body of work. Looking at directors who repeatedly feature sizable age differences, we find a conspicuous outlier in Woody Allen (because of course we would).
If you don't know why this graphic is unfortunate, then you may want to google something along the lines of "Woody Allen accusations." Allen often cast himself in relationships with younger females, a recurring theme that has sparked much debate (to put it lightly). Second on this list is John Glen, a filmmaker who stewarded numerous James Bond films across multiple Bond actors, not just Roger Moore—a fact that recontextualizes the rationale behind his casting decisions (this guy may have held strong opinions about Bond's target demographic).
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The Industry Dynamics of Romantic Age Gaps
Examining the most excessive age discrepancies is amusing, but to what extent do these outliers represent Hollywood's normative casting process? Like many of our initial findings, most large-gap romances showcase connections between older men and younger women (at least, according to the Fisher dataset).
And while these sizable gaps represent a subset of all relationships, they suggest a radical dissimilarity in partner standards vis-à-vis gender seniority. Relationships featuring older men demonstrate increased variability in age differential, while older females are often partnered with those of similar age.
At this point, you may believe the entertainment industry qualifies as a “boys club”—and that's a fair assumption based on these findings. But there is potential for a re-thinking of Hollywood's age gap.
Fisher's database stops cataloging entries in the late 2010s, which means our conclusions do not represent our current media environment. The last few years have seen greater diversity and inclusion efforts from film studios and a proliferation of wide-ranging streaming content. There are more stories and more storytellers from traditionally overlooked backgrounds.
The dataset suggests female filmmakers are more likely to produce romantic entanglements with older female characters, though there is plenty of room for growth.
Perhaps changing social mores and increased inclusion could meaningfully affect legacy gender roles. These breakdowns constitute a retroactive analysis of Hollywood gender roles, meaning future iterations of this work could differ immensely.
Final Thoughts: Coding Gender into Romance
In 1973, cultural theorist Stuart Hall introduced an encoding/decoding model for explaining how media creators program messages into their work and how audiences interpret these messages. According to Hall, "encoding" encapsulates the media production phase when creators infuse their ideologies, cultural beliefs, and professional norms into their products. In many cases, this programming can (knowingly or unknowingly) reinforce prevailing societal standards. Conversely, "decoding" comprises the audience's interpretation of the content.
For example, in A View to Kill, producers and filmmakers encoded the protagonist to symbolize virility (he's dating younger women, how cool!), and much of the audience may have decoded this exact takeaway when the film was released. Today, however, we may view Roger Moore's love interests in a different light as audience interpretations mirror ever-changing cultural norms. What was once suave may now be questioned.
The process of encoding and decoding media has experienced a paradigmatic shift over the past decade, as the Internet has ushered in a more participatory viewer experience. Suppose you think Richard Gere's movies feature too many younger lovers. In that case, you can provide your hot-take via hashtag, a shortform video, a weekly newsletter, a spicey Reddit comment, or a good old fashion Facebook post.
In response, Hollywood executives must be hyper-aware of decoding during the encoding phase of project development. And sure, increased scrutiny of the development process often irritates tensions within America's culture wars (just search “movie backlash” on Google News for examples). Still, this feedback loop generally leads to influential people being a bit more thoughtful, which is a good starting point.
The nature of romantic age gaps may likely shift as filmmakers pay greater attention to how they encode romantic pairings. And who knows, there may be a not-so-distant future where James Bond exclusively dates women his age or older.
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