In drama, as in life, the greatest love stories don’t work out. Romeo and Juliet do themselves in. Tristran and Isolde can’t get it together. It’s no coincidence that we leave Audrey Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart midkiss on a Parisian runway at the end of “Sabrina” (1954) or that we fade from Norma Desmond in “Sunset Boulevard” (1950) at an ecstatic moment when she is blind to her lover’s demise and ready for her close-up. “If you want a happy ending,” as Orson Welles put it, “It all depends on where you stop your story.”
The most memorable love stories in the annals of Oscardom often depend on a generation gap for their mythic sense of separation.
“In a permissive society, age is the last of the romantic impediments,” says writer-director Audrey Wells, whose 1999 “Guinevere” was a bold, seriously regarded treatment of this theme. “A striking age difference between two lovers is one of the few things that can cause people to recoil, and whisper in restaurants.”
So agrees producer James B. Harris, whose “Lolita” (written by Vladimir Nabokov and directed by Stanley Kubrick) was nominated for a screenplay Oscar in 1962.
“Divorce is no longer taboo,” he says. “Race is no longer a problem. Difference in age is the only way left for two lovers to fulfill the classical act of excommunicating themselves from society in order to be together.”
When Billy Wilder brought Swanson and William Holden together for “Sunset Boulevard,” he wasn’t just exploiting a May-December tension, he was making a Gothic point about two very different eras in Hollywood, and the tragic narcissism of the place.
In “Sabrina,” the huge age difference between the stars feels like an unhappy accident — one Wilder and his partners nervously covered. Holden, who played Bogart’s more glamorous younger brother, was made to fill his butt with splinters by sitting on a champagne glass, removing himself from contention under a cloud of ridicule.
Similarly, the glaring age gap between Jack Nicholson and Helen Hunt in “As Good as It Gets” (1998) is neutralized by making the only rival for the heroine’s heart a gay man played by Greg Kinnear (who coincidentally sat on another champagne glass when playing the Holden role in the 1996 remake of “Sabrina.”)
As David Lean said of the theme of adultery in “Brief Encounter,” an audience must be given room to “forgive” the lovers their transgression.
Thus the entrenched hypocrisy of the inconstant lover played by Diane Keaton in “Manhattan” (1979) clears the way for Woody Allen to pursue truth in the form of Mariel Hemingway, despite that she’s nearly 30 years his junior. The emptiness of the life endured by Anne Bancroft’s Mrs. Robinson in “The Graduate” (1967) not only makes her seduction of Dustin Hoffman’s gawky Benjamin all the more poignant, it makes her Medea-like fury when he takes up with her daughter all the more logical and even, by implication, tragic.
The far more tender union between the local reject (Timothy Bottoms) and the coach’s wife (Cloris Leachman) in “The Last Picture Show” (1971) locates the sad, desolate epicenter of a time and place — a loneliness that afflicts everybody in that little Texas town, but of which the lovers alone are conscious.
For all its sexual candor, the emotions driving “Last Tango in Paris” (1973) are not so erotic as they appear — the film being, at heart, not the chronicle of a May-December fling so much as a heartbreaking collision between a young woman fleeing her marriage and a man whose wife has committed suicide.
The sense of taboo around such relationships is still powerful. For the middle-age hero of “American Beauty,” which swept last year’s Oscars, an underage cheerleader was the embodiment of forbidden fruit. Tales of older women taking up with younger men tend almost invariably to be tragic; tales of older men with younger women have far cheerier outcomes.
“This largely reflects the private lives of the men who make movies,” says critic David Thomson, author of “The Biographical Dictionary of Film.”
Leading men, he observes, simply have longer romantic careers than leading ladies: “The rare exception is ‘A Lion in Winter,’ where you have Peter O’Toole paired comfortably with Katharine Hepburn despite a nearly 25-year age difference — but I’d be hard pressed to think of a second example.”
“As more women’s work is produced, you’ll have more examples,” says Wells. “Not that I endorse this, but we never fault a young woman for seeking position, mentorship or security from an older man, because men are conventionally expected to be providers of these things. Yet a young man who seeks these things from an older woman is seen as repellent, upending his quest for masculinity.”
The truth of such relationships, Wells argues, and the value of such stories, is to be found in whatever psychological wound, “whatever unhappy dynamic in one or both pasts is being resolved, and appeased.”
Or, as Nabokov has Humbert Humbert say to himself in a little poem near the end of “Lolita,” when his lust has been transformed sorrowfully into love:
“The moral sense in mortals is the duty
We have to pay on mortal sense of beauty.”