Older Women with Younger Men: The Rebound

Justin Bartha and Catherine Zeta Jones in The Rebound.

Justin Bartha and Catherine Zeta-Jones in The Rebound  

This week, the class is watching The Rebound, a 2009 romantic comedy starring Catherine Zeta-Jones (Sandy) and Justin Bartha (Aram). When the film was released it met with lukewarm reviews. While the two lead characters were lauded for being likable and well acted, most critics balked at the fact that the film doesn’t really explore the possibilities of the main set-up: the May-December relationship between Aram and Sandy.

While the film has a lot of predictable moments and doesn’t really make the most of either the comedic moments or the exploration of the relationship between Sandy and Aram, it avoids cheap humor at the expense of their age difference. Rather than portraying Sandy like a stereotypical “Cougar,” she is portrayed as hesitant to pursue Aram or anyone else. At first, her focus is simply on rebuilding her life and taking care of her children as they start over in the city.

Sarah Kershaw’s “Rethinking the Older Woman-Younger Man Relationship” describes the rise of the Cougar in American popular culture and talks about the reality of relationships between older women and younger men. In her article, Kershaw describes a generation of independent women who no longer seek marriage as a way of being provided for. If they seek a marriage at all, it is done from a more level playing ground where they enter a relationship with their own money, careers, and experience. Younger men find them attractive, Kershaw says, because these women have power, are attractive, have sexual experience and a liberated attitude toward sex (younger women may fear an unwanted pregnancy or being used for sex).

When comparing these relationships to the Older Man-Younger Woman relationships, there is a different dynamic. When the man is older, Kershaw’s research indicates, he is seen as a source of money and stability; he also has the potential to father children with a younger woman, whereas the older woman is often post-menopausal and children with the younger man are not usually part of the picture.

Reading Kershaw’s article, one may wonder if these women are doing as men have been doing for generations—having flings where sex is for enjoyment rather than procreation and they get an ego boost from being with a younger, energetic person who finds them attractive.

The Rebound shies away from those issues for the most part. There are the forced jokes from Aram’s friend and Sandy’s co-workers, but the pair don’t spend much time thinking or discussing the impact of their age differences. When they finally do address it during Sandy’s pregnancy complications, Sandy sends Aram on his journey of self-discovery, which disrupts the narrative in an unnatural way.

As you watch the film, think about ways in which gender roles are reversed—there is the obvious switch of Aram being the nurturer while Sandy is the breadwinner.  Sandy has an avid interest in sports that she turns into a career. What are some of the others you notice?

Older Men-Younger Women on the Silver Screen

Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall

Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall

In film pairings, the Older Man-Younger Woman is more common, so common age difference was often overlooked. For example, there was a 25-year age difference between Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall when they met on the set of To Have and Have Not; the pair was a popular couple onscreen and off. There was a 21-year age difference between Johnny Depp and Keira Knightly when the pair kissed in Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest, which Depp says bothered him.

Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn in Charade.

Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn in Charade.

Cary Grant was concerned about propriety and turned down several roles as a romantic lead when he was in his 50s. At 59, Grant did agree to take the lead in Charade opposite Audrey Hepburn (34), but expressed so much discomfort that the filmmakers changed the screenplay so that Hepburn’s character was the one who did the romantic pursuit.

Grant was one of Hollywood’s most popular romantic leads and remained charismatic and attractive throughout his career. Audiences still enjoyed his performances as a leading man, but he expressed discomfort with the image of a much older man wooing a younger woman. In reality, he did marry Dyan Cannon when he was 33 years her senior and eventually retired from acting to devote himself to raising their daughter.

Some things to think about

Kershaw’s article suggests that there is growing acceptance of the Older Woman-Younger Man relationship. What do you think? What is pop culture’s role in this acceptance (if any)? Is Kershaw’s assertion that the Demi Moore-Ahston Kutcher marriage made people look at these relationships in a new way. Is the Older Man-Younger Woman still considered (more) acceptable?


Masculinity, war films, and Windtalkers

The poster for Windtalkers sends the message that the film's story is really about the white protagonist.

The poster for Windtalkers sends the message that the film’s story is really about the white protagonist.

The film the class is watching this week is Windtalkers, directed by John Woo. We’ll address representations of Native Americans in the film, masculinity, and some things to look for in John Woo’s directing. But first, let’s do a quick overview of the War film genre in Hollywood. We’ll use John Belton’s American Cinema/American Culture as our main resource for discussing the genre and its place in American popular culture.

War films

War films occupy an important place in American cinema. This genre, along with the Western, helps us define ourselves as well as defines us to the rest of the world. These films often show a unified America that does not exist in reality and they often depict the idealized American man–a strong individual with high morals who will fight for his country (and, it is often implied, the underdog).

Belton writes, “The war film mediates our relationship to war, helping to prepare us for it, reconcile us to victory or defeat, and adjust us to its aftermath. The conventions of the war film continue to shape our understanding of real wars–to inspire us, on the one hand, to fight in them and, on the other, to protest against them. Though wars continue to be fought and won or lost on the battlefield, they also continue to be fought and won or lost through their representation on the movie or television screen. Images of war explain why we fight; they stage and restage war’s battles; and they attempt to explain why we won or lost” (182).

The war films made during and shortly after World War II were generally supportive of the American military and our role in the war. These films helped garner support for the war effort or depicted the actions of the soldiers involved as unquestionably heroic. While there might have been occasional references to “war is hell,” the mood is overwhelmingly supportive. The Vietnam war changed that. War films from the early 1970s on, often question American involvement in global wars and the decision making process  where young men and women are sent to wars for reasons other than a direct military threat to the U.S.

Belton lists four conventions in American war films:

  1.  the suspension of civilian morality during war (i.e., killing other people is no longer considered murder during war).
  2. collective goals take precedence over the goals of the individual (i.e., completing the assigned mission is more important than any personal goals).
  3.  there is rivalry between men in predominantly male groups and the objectification of women (i.e., many war films contain sub-themes where recruits compete for the drill sergeant’s favor during boot camp; when women appear in war films, they are often companions for the men when they have leave or are caregivers such as nurses).
  4. the reintegration of veterans to civilized society (not all war films include this aspect, but the struggle to return to civilian life is a frequent theme in post-Vietnam war films).

Masculinity  constructed

In “Men, Masculinity, and Manhood Acts,” Douglas Schrock and Michael Schwalbe discuss how masculinity is developed and studied. They provide an overview of masculinity studies in the late 2oth century and suggest studying how men interact and collaborate to build and reinforce masculine identities.

If you’re not used to thinking of gender as separate from biological sex, it may help to do some thinking about the ways in which gender is socially developed. Most of us are labeled “male” or “female” at birth based on our genitalia. That is our biological sex, and while it seems fairly cut and dry, there are intersex conditions that make even biological designations of male or female unclear—something that seems like an essential marker of identification—”male” or “female”—is not always a reliable or easy categorization to make.

Gender is different from our biological sex. Gender is how we view ourselves (and are viewed by others) as male or female*. Gendering starts early—often before we even make it out of the womb. Parents who find out the sex of their baby often share the news so well-wishers can stock up on pink or blue items. Since we are concentrating on masculinity this week, I’ll write about how social gendering happens with boys; you can think of similar examples of how it works with girls.

A young boy decked out in "Lone Ranger" clothes and toy gun. State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory, http://floridamemory.com/items/show/154796

A young boy decked out in “Lone Ranger” clothes and a toy gun, circa 1940s. State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory, http://floridamemory.com/items/show/154796

Cowboy costume for sale on vegaoo.com

A more recent version: cowboy costume for sale on vegaoo.com

Early on, boys are given “boy toys”—trucks, construction toys, sports equipment, and toy swords and guns. The little boy who dresses up as a fireman or a superhero gets indulgent smiles from strangers. The little boy who slips his feet into mom’s shoes gets scolded even if he has put them on because he thinks they are a neat color or he wants to be an inch taller; adults fear the little boy will “turn gay” by putting on the shoes or playing with his sister’s Easy Bake Oven. (For whatever reason, it is more acceptable in the United States for a girl to show “masculine” traits like assertiveness and interest in “boy” things like sports.)

For American males, anything that smacks of femininity or homosexuality is forbidden and adolescent boys quickly learn to use both femininity and possible gayness as insults to regulate each other’s behavior–i.e, “you throw like a girl!” Boys who do not conform to the expected gender roles are ostracized, sometimes with tragic results.

While gender roles are shifting, there is still a lot of pressure for men to conform to narrow definitions of “acceptable” masculine behavior and presentation. Men in the U.S., are, by and large, expected to be strong, assertive, to objectify women, be rational, keep their emotions in check, etc. The problem with this narrow definition is that it excludes many types of masculinity; it  assumes heterosexuality, for example, or leaves out familial cultural roots and their impact.

Many of the ways men define themselves (or are defined by society) is in opposition to the concept of Woman. Why does it seem natural to define something by what it isn’t? Are there other ways might men define themselves that isn’t dependent upon a binary?

In 2010, Esquire Magazine did a poll of American men on a wide range of topics to see how the generations felt about everything from politics to sex. Click here to see how men in their 20s and 50s responded. What might we gather about American men from the survey results? How do the two generations seem similar? Where do they seem divided on what it means to be a man in the U.S. now?


Windtalkers is a 2002 film directed by John Woo. By the title of the film, we expect to hear the story of the Navajo Code Talkers who served during World War II and kept the Japanese forces from deciphering American radio transmissions. Instead, the film focuses most of the attention on Sergeant Joe Enders (played by Nicolas Cage) and his perception of the mission, including his assignment as a body guard to Private Ben Yahzee (Adam Beach).

Director John Woo uses many parts of the formula found in standard Hollywood war films: a racist soldier, a nurse with a heart of gold, a love-sick soldier, a commander who does everything by the books, a scene where the Navajo solider saves the racist, etc. Woo also presents the Japanese soldiers as a largely faceless enemy, so he can spend more time on the pyrotechnics.

Woo built his name as an action director, so it is not really surprising that the film is actually thin on story, but Windtalkers doesn’t really show his trademark almost balletic action scenes. The hand-to-hand combat is heavy on bullets, blood, and bayonets and the large-scale battle senes are full of explosions and flying bodies, but it doesn’t show Woo’s style at its best. Be on the lookout for the juxtaposition of sound and action in Windtalkers—some of the most violent scenes in Woo’s films have a light, peaceful soundtrack. To fully appreciate Woo, check out The Killer, Hard Boiled, and Face/Off.

While we don’t get much deep understanding of the Navjo Code Talkers’ story, the film is different from many Hollywood portrayals of Native American life because it takes place in the 20th century. Hollywood often relegates Native Americans to Westerns and historical dramas. In Windtalkers, we see Ben Yahzee and Private Charlie Whitehorse (Roger Willie) as men with some complexity—Ben writes letters to his son which he is forbidden to send in case they fall into Japanese hands and Charlie uses his spirituality to deal with the stress of war.

The production crew did go to the trouble to cast a Navajo speaker (Willie) in one of the lead Navajo roles; even though some of the pronunciation by other Native American actors is sometimes off, the effort to use the authentic language is still rare in Hollywood. In many Westerns from the Golden Age of Hollywood, indigenous languages are often simply made-up languages.

Adam Beach got into acting as a way to escape the rough life and his troubled childhood. Beach has used his place in the public eye to speak up about the lives of indigenous people in North America and to reach out to other young people in similar situations. Here, he speaks about being a role model:

What obligations do celebrities have to the public? Why should someone who is part of a minority culture feel obligated to speak up for their “group”?

For another perspective on the representations of Native Americans in popular culture, click here for an interview with actor, playwright, and doctor Evan Adams.

Film terminology for the week:

Close-up—a detailed view of a person or object without other context; the actor or actress may be framed so that part of their face or only their head and shoulders appear in the shot.

Jack Nicholson in "The Shining."

Jack Nicholson in The Shining. The “Here’s Johnny!” scene is one of the most iconic uses of the close-up.

Slow motion—shots of a subject photographed at faster than 24 frames per second, which when projected at a normal rate produce a dreamy or dancelike slow action; often used to emphasize mood or capture a “moment in time.”

A shoot-out from John Woo’s Hard Boiled uses slow motion to great effect to raise the tension throughout the scene:

* I am presenting this information in fairly traditional binary terms, but it should be understood that gender is complex and most people display both masculine and feminine traits because all of us are individuals and do not conform 100 percent to any stereotyped descriptions.

Love and romance in American comedy

Myrna Loy and William Powell; the pair made several films together including the Thin Man series and Love Crazy.

Myrna Loy and William Powell; the pair made several films together including the Thin Man series and Love Crazy.

Note: This blog is a virtual lecture that accompanies a film studies class, so there are references to specific readings and films the students have access to, but the casual reader might not. However, there are also general ideas about film studies and Hollywood history that don’t rely upon the texts and films.

British writer/comic Stephen Fry suggests that the difference between American and British humor comes down to self-confidence. He claims American comics’ routines hinge on a sense of optimism, while British comics celebrate their failures. Fry’s observation is interesting for the insight an outsider brings to our humor; also, he seems to be onto something.

When looking at American movies, the main character is often an underdog who has the pluck to get out of a sticky situation through wit, a little fast talk, and action. It is kind of ironic that one of the iconic comedians from Hollywood’s early days, Charlie Chaplin, was British; his Little Tramp character was the embodiment of the American myth of the everyman who can pull himself up by his bootstraps and make a name for himself. Another American comedic icon, Cary Grant, was also British; he came to the U.S. when he was 16, reinventing himself and helping Americans imagine an American man who could be urbane, witty, and sophisticated. While Grant played several types of roles throughout his career, he first hit big in screwball comedies—our genre this week.

Slapstick and anarchy

From the earliest silent movies through to today, slapstick has been a big part of American comedy.

The Marx Brothers had a special mix of wordplay and physical humor that reflected the wisecracking urban sensibilities of an evolving America where even the sons of Jewish immigrants could become world famous movie stars. The Marxes simultaneously lived the American dream and destroyed all attempts at creating any sort of institution. The brothers started out life in a poor section of New York’s upper East Side and worked the family vaudeville act into a film career that afforded them fame and wealth beyond their expectations. In their films, the Marxes poked fun at anyone or anything that attempted to impose order or assign value–higher education, socialites, government, etc., were trampled on with glee by the Marx Brothers.

The desire to destroy the institution—physical or more often, social—is a hallmark of American comedy. This brand of humor ties in with our idea of ourselves as iconoclasts and individualists. However, even with the destruction, there is usually a resolution where the institution is restored, but changed somehow and improved upon before the restoration is complete.

Movies such as Big Daddy (starring Adam Sandler) take on the institution of marriage and family. Sandler’s character, Sonny, is first presented as an overgrown kid who is selfish and destructive, belittling his friend Kevin for getting engaged. When a child (Julian, played by Dylan and Cole Sprouse) lands in his care, Sonny is forced to grow up, but he does it on his own terms—there are experiments with letting Julian dress himself and go by the name Frankenstein. He encourages the boy to urinate in public in attempt to keep him from constantly wetting his pants, but Sonny also uses a similar creative approach to get Julian to take a bath–dressing up as the father of the boy’s favorite superhero, Scuba Steve, and asking Julian to keep Scuba Steve company in the bathtub. A threat to the newly formed bond between Sonny and the boy by the court system forces Sonny to reevaluate not only his child-rearing strategy, but also his own views on marriage and family. By the film’s end, Sonny has become “normalized” into a marriage with a newborn of his own; his “improvement” to the system is introducing the ideas that each person involved in the child’s life has an impact and that men can raise well-adjusted children if given the opportunity.

Love and laughter

The battle between the sexes provides much fodder for American comedy. While the Romantic Comedy is often thought of as a genre that appeals more to female moviegoers, its foundations are in the Screwball Comedy, which had more general appeal. See the overview of the genre on Green Cine for more in-depth information about specific films, performers, and directors.

Screwball Comedies often pitted men and women against each other in conflicts that were substitutions for sexual expression. The term “screwball” was first used in the 1930s to describe the unpredictable pitches thrown by baseball players like Carl Hubbell. Movie critics adopted the term to describe the comedy films that came about in the early 1930s that revolved around unpredictable plots and zany antics between seemingly mismatched romantic partners.

Many films of the 1930s and 1940s have been labeled Screwball Comedies, including the film we are focusing on this week, Love Crazy. However, the label is often thrown at movies that simply have an element of madcap antics thrown into the mix.

For our purposes, a Screwball Comedy usually has the following elements:

  • A couple that is mismatched socially (one is usually from the upper class while the other is middle class), but a good match intellectually
  • Absurd situations or characters with secrets
  • Physical comedy that stands in for sex or physical affection
  • Rapid-fire dialogue that includes one-liners and innuendo from both parties
  • A series of misunderstandings that complicate the plot and prevent the couple from uniting until the end of the film
  • Neither party is idealized—the pair find each other irritating at the start of the film; interest often develops as the result of a challenge (there is no “love at first sight/stars-in-the-eyes” scene)
  • The resolution includes marriage or remarriage
  • Often, the middle class is idealized as virtuous in Screwball Comedies while the rich are viewed as being in need of reform (this is due in part to the original Screwball Comedies being produced during the Great Depression when audiences sought escapism and enjoyed seeing the rich get a comeuppance)

If you have done this week’s reading, you’ll note that Screwball Comedies reached their peak during the Production Code era. During this time in Hollywood’s history, the industry engaged in self-imposed censorship and graphic depictions of sex and violence (among other things) were banned. The 1931 film Scarface is considered the catalyst for the Production Code; read more details here.

Screenwriters had to develop films that would have mass-generational appeal. Keep in mind that during the 1930s and early 1940s, going to the movies was often an all-day affair where the audience saw a newsreel, comedy shorts and cartoons, the feature presentation, and possibly, a second feature as well. The movies had to appeal to everyone and offend no one.

With the Screwball Comedies, the screenwriters found ways to push the envelope and write dialogue and situations that adults would understand as intimate in nature and younger viewers would simply find funny or entertaining.

Jane M. Greene, in “A Proper Dash of Spice: Screwball Comedy and the Production Code,”* makes the case that antagonistic relationships stood in for sex during this era. She also argues that Love Crazy is not a true Screwball Comedy.

While we do see signs of the Production Code at work in Love Crazy—the Irelands have separate beds in their bedroom, for example—and Greene points to examples of how the dialogue was edited to conform to the Production Code, many elements of a classic Screwball Comedy are missing: Steve and Susan are already married when the film opens and even during the separation scenes, they do not have a physically antagonistic relationship. Their dialogue may be a bit suggestive on the night of their anniversary, but otherwise, the pair rarely exchange one-liners that hint at the sexual tension between them. Finally, the Irelands are both solidly middle class, so no tension exists over perceived social status.

Some elements of Screwball that appear in the film: There are outside forces that work to keep the pair apart (Susan’s mother, Ward Willoughby the archer, and Steve’s former girlfriend Isobel); the misunderstandings about Ward Willoughby and Pinky Grayson, as well as Steve’s masquerade as his “sister”; and the scenes where Steve is institutionalized.

If you haven’t watched Love Crazy yet, or plan to revisit it, here are some things to look for:

  • The performances of William Powell and Myrna Loy: the duo was paired up in several films in the 1930s and 40s, including the Thin Man series. They play off of each other well and have a natural chemistry on screen that makes them believable as a married couple. While Powell isn’t as familiar to today’s audiences as other comedic actors of his generation (Cary Grant, for example), he had a natural grace and accessibility that made him an audience favorite. Likewise, Myrna Loy had good comedic timing and sass that made her more than just another pretty face.
  • The use of lighting and sound to underline the lighter comedic fare: unlike in heavy drama, the lighting in the film tends to be pretty even from scene to scene. Few dramatic close-ups are used; instead, there are many medium shots which allow the audience to focus on the entire scene unfolding rather than on the emotional impact for only one character at a time.
  • The reinforcing of middle class values: from the set design to the etiquette in place around meal times and standards of dress, the Irelands embody 1940s middle class values.
  • Gender roles and expectations: We have different visions of what it meant to be a man or woman in America at the time the film was made. How are the various characters presented? What does the film tell us about how men and women were expected to behave during this period?
  • Somewhat related—stereotypes: We see a nagging mother-in-law in several scenes. There is also a scene where the valet at the party is presented as a wide-eyed fool; the few blacks shown on screen in this era were often cast as domestic servants who also had an air of childishness about them. Listen to an NPR segment about black stereotypes in Hollywood here.

Questions to consider:

Why are relationships such a big source of comedic inspiration?

How has American film comedy evolved over the decades (or has it)?

What do you think of Stephen Fry’s assessment of the difference between British and American humor?

Until the Production Code was replaced with the ratings system in 1968, films were regularly edited or censored to conform to the standards of the code. Have you ever watched a film that you found offensive or thought should have been edited to some degree?

Film terminology for the week:

Classical cinema–mainstream narrative cinema, roughly from the mid-1910s to the 1960s. These movies are characterized by a strong story, star, and high production values. These movies usually have a clear conflict, complications that rise to a narrative climax, and a resolution that provides closure.

high key lighting–Bright, even illumination with few conspicuous shadows; this style of lighting is associated with comedies, musicals, and other “light entertainment” genres.

medium shot--A medium shot usually shows the performer from the knees or waist up; the shot is relatively close up and includes some details of the surrounding scenery.

A medium shot from Sherlock Holmes. Director Guy Ritchie places Robert Downey Jr. in front of the crowd where he is filmed from a slightly low angle.

A medium shot from Sherlock Holmes. Director Guy Ritchie places Robert Downey Jr. in front of the crowd where he is filmed from a slightly low angle.

mise en scène–how the various elements in a frame are arranged–this includes settings, decor, props, actors, costumes, makeup, lighting, performances, and character movements and positioning. Cinematic mise en scène is both the way the action is staged and how it is photographed. Also long, un-cut, unedited and uninterrupted sequences shot in real-time are often referred to as mise en scène.

Greene, Jane M. “A Proper Dash of Spice: Screwball Comedy and the Production Code,” Journal of Film and Video 63.3, Fall 2011.