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?