There are four corners in a ring (usually) and we need all of them to fit this Smackdown inside. When I first caught a preview for “Next,” I saw Nicolas Cage, Julianne Moore and Jessica Biel were set to star. I thought, “Oh, they’ll make a good pair. I wonder who Biel plays, his daughter?” Imagine my dismay when I learned Moore’s role was another throwaway, as it was in “Children of Men,” and Jessica Biel was Cage’s love interest! My reaction, I believe, was akin to Biel’s many teenage girl fans, who began following her as the Reverend Camden’s oldest daughter in the hit TV show “7th Heaven.” That would be “EEEeeewwww!!” Clearly, they’re too young to remember how Hollywood used to routinely pair an aging male lead with star power to a young female with equal draw, regardless of credibility or good taste.
Enough of these contrived romances resulted in the Yuk! Factor, which is the audience’s reaction when the surrogate Father-Daughter symbols were forced to kiss. Feminism in the ’70s put a stop to that, more or less, but now with Cage, Harrison Ford, Bruce Willis, and even Denzel Washington entering their own Emeritus Years, we may see a revival of the queasy May-December phenomenon. Rather than focus on the failures, let’s put three films in the ring that made it work and see which one did so with the greatest style and believability. These several notable films made the age-difference thing work, either because the plot was well-written enough for us to believe in the romance, or the stars themselves sold it on their sheer exuberance and likeability, forcing us to root for The Geezer and The Teaser. But most of the time (Rest in Peace, Anna Nicole and Hubby), it has been sheer Yuk! Factor.
If you want to know what the film’s actually about, you can read fellow Smackdown critic Mark Sanchez’s review. For my purposes here, it’s pretty clear that 2007’s age-gap romance “Next” certainly is a contender for the highest Yuk! Factor. It’s evident early on that Biel was cynically chosen for her recent “Most Sexiest” title in mags like “Maxim” rather than for her acting chops or suitability for the role. She and the venerable Nicolas Cage share NO on-screen chemistry whatsoever which makes the generation gap even more awkward than it had to be. That’s a shame because Jessica Biel has paid her dues and learned her craft only to be exploited for her sexuality. Still, if you think it bothers you to watch Cage and Biel go mouth-to-mouth, imagine how Justin Timberlake must feel while he’s sitting in a lonely hotel room on tour.
A True Champion
Director Hal Ashby’s definitive black comedy, the 1971 cult classic “Harold and Maude,” may just have defined the post-Viet Nam, Watergate Era of American Cinema. In this film, the entire plot hinges on how much you believe in, and applaud, (or Yuk!), the oddest of Odd Couple romances, between young, rich, suicidal, nearly silent Harold Chasen, perfectly played by Bud Cort, and Maude, a voluble, life-loving, experience-embracing, 79-year-old Holocaust survivor. The incomparable, irrepressible Ruth Gordon made this role the crown jewel on a glittering, decades-spanning career, and we not only affirm her soul-rescue of Harold, but also are ourselves uplifted by Maude’s world-view. Comically, Gordon, then ‘only’ 75, was playing a character older than her age in real life! Opposing Harold, Maude, and Life, Logic, and Love are a great supporting cast, headed by the hilarious Vivian Pickles as Harold’s disapproving mother, Charles Tyner as his war-mongering uncle, and Cyril Cusack, in a great part, as Harold’s long-suffering psychologist. A unique Cat Stevens score perfectly complements the action on-screen.
A True Champion
In 1963, back when America still knew how to make a classic romantic comedy, director Stanley Donen made “Charade” which was really a Hitchcock-esque murder mystery stylishly masquerading as romantic comedy, complete with a Henry Mancini score, usually reserved for a film of froth and fun. And “Charade” is fun, from the witty sexual repartee and evident chemistry of Audrey Hepburn and Cary Grant, to the picturesque locales of Paris, to the black comedy villainy supplied by pros Ned Glass, George Kennedy, James Coburn, and Walter Matthau. There is stolen Nazi money, betrayal, deceit and double-cross served up like whipping cream and cherry on a delicious cinematic sundae. The graying Grant’s seduction by the amorous young Hepburn works because of the French location: Donen expects we will be more accepting in a more cosmopolitan setting, and he is right. This romance wouldn’t have worked in a prudish, American backdrop; hence, no Yuk! Factor.
A True Champion
When Lauren (Betty) Bacall breathed, “You know how to whistle, don’t you, Steve? All you do is put your lips together and blow” at a cynical Humphrey Bogart, cinema history was suddenly remade. Adventure stories had grown up, romantic portrayals matured, and the very way that men and women related to each other onscreen, was changed forever by this single line, and by the sly, knowing smiles exchanged between a balding, aging man with a lisp, and a young, tall, slim, chain-smoking beauty. When the history of American movies is discussed, everybody talks “Casablanca,” but it was corny and hokey when set next to misogynist Hemingway’s All Man, All Woman love story, 1944’s “To Have and Have Not.” The setting is Martinique just prior to the United State’s entering WW II, but the plot of wartime intrigue is just an excuse to showcase the talents of established mega-star Bogart, the emerging star Bacall, legendary tunesmith Hoagy Carmichael, and maybe the most gifted character-actor of all time, Walter Brennan. The dialogue, as they used to say, “crackles,” and over 70 years later, audiences still chuckle and relish in the witty sexual double-entendres tossed off by a peerless cast, under the direction of equally matchless Howard Hawks. Brennan’s exchange, “Was you ever bit by a dead bee?” with Lauren Bacall ranks up there with Gable’s “Walls of Jericho” speech from “It Happened One Night,” or any of Joel McCrea’s soliloquies from “Sullivan’s Travels.” The deliberately chosen black-and-white photography is beautiful, and the film itself moves like something from the music-video era, instead of stately 1944.
We’re not debating each film’s merits here, we’re talking YUK! Factor — who had it, and who avoided it? Which Old Coot matched with ingenue provokes the largest involuntary gag reflex? We started with the pairing of Nicolas Cage and Jessica Biel in “Next” which seems to exist only to opportunistically cash in on Biel’s award-winning Hotness Factor. Even though there’s only an 18-year real difference in their ages, the non-connection between the two just reinforces the theory that it is the studio-manufactured aspect of the romance, not the age gap itself, that we object to.
So…o…o different from “Harold and Maude”, which boasts an age difference between Gordon and Cort of 52 years yet remains, after all this time, charming, gentle, and life affirming. Watching it, you’ll possibly start out Yuk!ing but you’ll end up cheering.
Audiences in 1963 who first saw “Charade” were barely aware of the generation gap between Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn, which numbered 25 years. Hepburn was so charming and beyond her years, and Grant so sophisticated, and the age difference so completely irrelevant to the plot, that any objections to the subsequent romance, on the grounds of age, seemed like sour grapes from an insipid Rube.
The same gap of 25 years separated Humphrey Bogart from the delectable Jewish American Princess, then 19-year-old Lauren Bacall. Her extraordinary confidence, husky voice, and smoldering sexuality not only made the large difference in ages of “To Have and Have Not”‘s stars irrelevant, it was, to movie-goers of the time, virtually invisible. Soon after the film’s release, when it became public that a real-life romance had erupted between Bogey and Bacall, audiences not only accepted the unlikely liaison, they cheered it, and demanded more screen romance from the same duo. And they were not disappointed, as a classic love affair between two devoted, married people delighted fans of Betty and Bogey for many years, until his untimely death.
Over the years, I’ve shared dozens of Yuk! Factor films with audiences of all ages themselves. The results are not predictable. Clark Gable, for example, actually spoofed the phenomenon in 1959’s “But Not For Me,” and viewers then, and ones who now view it in retrospectives, howl. I’ve asked rabid Audrey Hepburn fans who they would rather see their favorite heroine with — Cary Grant or George Peppard — and they pick the suave Grant every time. (What really sells them on “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” are the clothes.) No surprise, then, that 2007’s “Next” takes top spot in Yuk! Factoring, but not for the obvious reason of turkey- neck fondling nubile flesh. It is clear from theater attendee’s reactions that what is objectionable in a Hollywood May-December romance is not the generation gap itself, it is the cold, calculated pairing of two people of the opposite sex, whatever their age, for reasons that are strictly box-office. The message from lovers of film to the producers of same is, “We will believe it, but only if you believe in it, too.”
Having tagged the loser then as “Next,” let’s pick a winner…
Which of these films most completely avoided a brush with the Yuk! Factor? Which couple staring adoringly into each other’s eyes makes our hearts beat just a little faster? It is Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall in “To Have and Have Not.” They generated more onscreen and offscreen heat than an entire MTV Spring Break. It’s because, like all deliriously happy, perfectly matched couples, no one observing them, in this film, or in real life, could ever decide which of the two the “lucky” one was.