In the February 1993 issue of Movieline magazine, Joe Queenan examined movies in which older men become romantically involved with inappropriately young women. This was around the time of the Woody Allen-Soon Yi Previn scandal. Twenty-five years later, in light of more serious allegations against the director, “the heart wants what it wants” seems almost quaint. But back then, Allen’s personal relationships were largely viewed as just that, personal. If the lauded filmmaker wanted to make a fool of himself with Mia Farrow’s adopted daughter, Hollywood was willing to let him. Collectively, they shook their head at his bad judgement and moves on.
With that in mind, Queenan structures his article around the conceit that Allen could have learned some lessons from Hollywood’s depiction of May/December romances in “jailbait” movies like Lolita. There are some laughs to be had if one can get past the “ick factor” Woody Allen now carries.
Woody Allen obviously hasn’t learned much from the movies. Or else he hasn’t seen the right ones. Hollywood has provided an impressive string of moral lessons on the dangers young women present to the old men who would pursue them.
It was a tragic affair when we first heard of it, and it is a tragic affair now. A pretentious middle-aged intellectual sets up house with an attractive woman a few years his junior. Alas, their relationship eventually sours as he becomes obsessed by his wife’s beautiful but cerebrally impoverished teenage daughter. One day, his wife stumbles upon a supremely damaging piece of physical evidence confirming her suspicion that her mate has fallen in love with her child.
An eruption occurs. Soon, the older man is involved in a wild affair with the young girl, but he is assailed by pointed inquiries from his concerned neighbors, and is even awakened in the middle of the night by a call from a total stranger demanding to know more details about his seemingly immoral relationship with his young mistress. His reputation is destroyed, his career lies in ruins, as friend and foe alike condemn his immoral behavior. The verdict of society is clear: James Mason (Professor Humbert) had no right to take up with his wife’s daughter by a previous marriage, Sue Lyon (Lolita). As boring and conventional and thoroughly bourgeois as it may have been, Mason should have done the right thing and remained true to Shelley Winters (Mrs. Hayes) till death did them part.
It has been 31 years since Stanley Kubrick directed his groundbreaking, highly controversial Lolita, yet the screen version of Vladimir Nabokov’s famous novel has lost none of its power to shock, amaze and, yes, even horrify. Of course, the film’s message is particularly relevant this year because of last summer’s shocking revelations about Woody Allen’s infidelity to his longtime companion Mia Farrow, a breach of faith culminating in his apparently sordid affair with his longtime girlfriend’s daughter Soon-Yi Previn.
It is not our intention here to judge Mr. Allen or Ms. Previn, nor to draw unflattering comparisons between the often eccentric behavior of Ms. Farrow and her somewhat more rotund screen counterpart, Shelley Winters, which may have contributed to the Messrs. Mason’s and Allen’s decidedly idiosyncratic behavior. But we would be most remiss as film connoisseurs and auteur buffs if we did not underscore the disturbing similarities between the events depicted in Lolita and the events that have actually transpired in the Allen-Farrow contretemps. And we would be even more remiss if we did not wonder aloud how it was possible for an individual as steeped in cinematic lore as Mr. Allen to ignore the moral warning signs that had been planted firmly in his path by a film such as Lolita and others of this ilk–black-and-white pictures that regularly played at the Bleecker Street Cinema, the Carnegie Hall Cinema, The Thalia, the Regency and all the other arty Greenwich Village Him houses where Allen spent his formative years.
The arts–and yes, that term does include motion pictures–are the deepest repositories of a civilizations values, guideposts planted on the Highway of Life to help the young and the untutored find their moral bearings (obviously, there are exceptions to this rule–Russ Meyer, David Lynch). Motion pictures such as Lolita are not mere diversions, mere entertainments, mere amusements; oh no, they serve a higher purpose. And what is that purpose if not to guide the viewer toward the One, the True and the Beautiful? Their purpose, their raison d’etre is not merely to help a bored filmgoer while away a few stolen hours. Their purpose is to warn the viewer to eschew the crass, the vulgar, the base. Their purpose is to warn the viewer to keep one’s eyes on the prize, one’s chin up, one’s nose to the grindstone, one’s eyes on the road, one’s hands upon the wheel. Conversely, their purpose is to warn the viewers to keep one’s hands off one’s wife’s or girlfriend’s daughter, and at all costs to avoid public liaisons with obvious jailbait.
By choosing to ignore the lesson James Mason learned in Lolita, Woody Allen has displayed a truly remarkable naiveté. For that lesson is simple: May/December romances are to be avoided at all costs. They are messy. They are difficult. People’s hearts get broken. Unwanted babies get born. Alimony and child-support litigation can occur. And sometimes the man ends up in jail.
It is not as if Lolita was the first or only time that the motion picture industry has dealt with the subject of older men’s fatal infatuations with younger women. Perhaps the most memorable treatment of all was The Blue Angel, the 1930 film that made Marlene Dietrich an international star. In that film, a doddering old professor played by Emil Jannings falls hopelessly in love with a cabaret singer wearing ruffled panties, a garter belt and a top hat. It can happen. But the relationship doesn’t work, nor did it ever have a chance of working. Yet The Blue Angel is one of those films that has been a staple on art-house programs for more than half a century. Therefore, we know, without a shadow of a doubt, that Woody Allen had to have seen it at some point in his career, and may even have seen it several times. Yet for some strange reason he chose to ignore its message.
He also chose to ignore the message of Baby Doll, the 1956 Elia Kazan film in which the downwardly mobile cotton-gin operator Karl Maiden has his life ruined after falling in love with a 19-year-old girl who still wears ruffled baby-doll pajamas and sleeps in a baby crib. Hey, the heart wants what it wants. Although this film is the trashiest of the trashiest, even by the standards of mid-’50s, Johnny-Reb film noir, we know that Woody Allen had to have seen it because it was directed by the cultural avatar Elia Kazan and was based on a screenplay by the unbelievably pretentious Tennessee Williams, and therefore became a staple on the art-house circuit for decades. Yet for some strange reason he chose to ignore its message.
The list of arty films warning older men not to screw around with teeny-boppers goes on and on. In 1978, the incredibly pretentious French director Louis Malle explored the subject in Lolita Does the Big Easy, also know as Pretty Baby. This film features putative human Keith Carradine as a pretentious photographer, totally obsessed with his art, who helps the downtrodden Susan Sarandon start a new career using her in his pictures, and who then starts screwing around with her gorgeous daughter. Boy, is this deja vu or what? Pretty Baby has been a staple on the art-house circuit for years; it was released a year before Allen’s Manhattan. Woody Allen, an incredibly pretentious guy who is totally obsessed by his art, who helped Mia Farrow start a new career by putting her in his pictures, and then got involved with her luscious daughter, had to have seen it. Yet for some strange reason he chose to ignore its message.
Even before Louis Malle sank his teeth into it, the unbelievably pretentious Italian director Bernardo Bertolucci had explored the subject in his 1973 film Last Tango in Paris. Although this film has quite a bit more stuff about conventional sodomy than any of the other films we have mentioned, it nonetheless contains a reasonably straightforward moral message: Don’t mess with the young stuff. Last Tango has been a staple on the art-house circuit for 20 years, so we know that Woody Allen has to have seen it. Yet for some strange reason, he chose to ignore its message.
Since the disclosures about Allen’s affair with Ms. Previn have become public knowledge, there has been much discussion in the press about the striking similarities between Allen’s masterpiece Manhattan and his own life. In that film, it will be recalled, the twice-divorced Allen character, having broken up with the neurotic Diane Keaton, ends up patching things up with Mariel Hemingway, the cuddly high-school girl he jilted earlier in the film. In the final scene, Allen seems to be saying that it is possible to fool around with borderline jailbait and get away with it, the very opposite of the message conveyed in The Blue Angel, Lolita and Pretty Baby, all of which are unbelievably pretentious art-house films that we can be pretty certain he saw. How was it possible for someone like Woody Allen to have ignored the warnings he was being given in these films?
The answer is actually quite simple: He saw those pictures on a double bill with films like Sabrina and Georgy Girl, and those flicks confused the issue. In Billy Wilder’s 1954 classic, Sabrina, the pixieish chauffeur’s daughter Audrey Hepburn is torn between falling in love with William Holden, a man 10 years too old for her, or Humphrey Bogart, a man 30 years too old for her. She finally settles on Bogie, and the two live happily ever after. In Georgy Girl, Silvio Narizzano’s 1966 classic, James Mason plays a dirty old man who falls in love with a girl 30 years younger, and ends up marrying her. Sabrina and Georgy Girl have both been staples on the art-house circuit for years, and almost certainly appeared on the same bill as pictures like Lolita, Baby Doll, Pretty Baby and Last Tango in Paris many times over. Woody, who seems like an impressionable man, may have been confused by the contradictory messages he was receiving from the morally self-canceling double bills, and decided that screwing around with girls 30 years younger was a judgment call. This almost certainly contributed to the cradle-robbing mentality we first saw in Manhattan, and have now seen in Manhattan.
Another contributing factor to Woody’s moral confusion was the fact that most of the movies that dealt with this subject in the past decade–while Ms. Previn was growing up–were trashy, low-budget productions that Allen would never have seen, not only because they would never make it onto the art-house circuit, but because the art-house circuit in New York no longer exists; developers tore down all the art-film houses. Here, we are talking about movies like Blame It On Rio, Sunset, Creator and the spectacularly ungodly Butterfly. In each of these movies, an old coot, played, variously, by Michael Caine, James Garner, Peter O’Toole and Stacy Keach, falls in love with a girl roughly 30 years younger, usually with disastrous results. But Woody Alien would not have seen Blame It On Rio, because Joseph Bologna is in it; would not have seen Creator, because Vincent Spano is in it; would not have seen Butterfly, because Pia Zadora is in it; and would not have seen Sunset, because Bruce Willis is in it, and because, well, nobody saw it. Let’s face it: the man who is arguably America’s greatest living director did not get that way by wasting his free time watching Vincent Spano movies.
Thus, even though the movie industry, all through the ’80s, continued to churn out movies warning senior citizens like Woody Allen to keep their hands off youngsters, those films were no help to Woody because they were so awful they never made it onto the art-house circuit, which doesn’t exist anymore anyway, so he never got to see them. He had to rely on old standbys like Sabrina and Georgy Girl, and they clouded his judgment.
As a public service to older men who are thinking about getting involved with girls 30 or more years younger than themselves, or who are giving serious thought to moving in on their longtime girlfriends’ daughters and then saying something like, “The heart wants what it wants,” Movieline has compiled the “Essential May/December Video Library,” also known as “The Jailbait Baker’s Dozen.” These are not the only movies that deal with the subject, nor are they necessarily the best. Rather, they are the only films the local video store had in stock the night we stopped in. For purposes of thematic and gender consistency, we have ignored older woman-younger man films such as The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone and Harold and Maude, and have also avoided older man/younger boy films such as Death in Venice because they do not apply to people like Woody Allen, and because they have too much depressing Austrian music. Still, the compilation is of sufficient breadth and scope that it would make a fine addition to any film library, even though it might make your babysitter nervous to see them all together, side by side, on the shelf.
Here then is our list;
Baby Doll (1956). Fortyish Karl Maiden, a complete asshole, has a weird, unconsummated marriage with 19-year-old Carroll Baker, who is first seen sucking her thumb in a crib, clad in baby-doll pajamas with ruffled shorts. Baker is seduced by Eli Wallach, an immigrant cotton magnate, who chases her around the house while clutching a riding crop, then gets all tuckered out and has a nap in her crib. Maiden, having burned down Wallach’s cotton mill, ends up getting hauled off to jail for arson, which suits everybody just fine. The movie is memorable for Wallach’s subtle remark, “This world is built on the principle of tit for tat,” and because Maiden keeps a look of wide-eyed terror on his face for two hours, not unlike a guy who’s just had all of his American Express Travelers Cheques stolen.
Blame It On Rio (1984). Fortyish Michael Caine falls in love with his best friend’s teenage daughter. Michelle Johnson, who sleeps with a teddy bear and who shares a bedroom with Caine’s own teenage daughter, played by Demi Moore. Yes. Caine’s Lolita is named Jennifer, and yes, she has breasts that are not to be believed, though Caine certainly has no trouble believing them. Best line: ”I love it when your glasses steam up.” ATTENTION PARENTS: Film contains rabies jokes and Valerie Harper.
The Blue Angel (1930). Emil Jannings plays a crusty old professor who falls in love with Marlene Dietrich, a talented, pre-Nazi Madonna in slightly roomier underwear. The relationship ends in tragedy, though many would argue that if you’re going to have your life end in tragedy, there are worse fates than having your life end in a tragedy involving Marlene Dietrich. Especially in that getup.
Butterfly (1981). Stacy Keach, a poor mine-shaft security guard, makes love to Pia Zadora, even though she thinks he’s her father. Meanwhile, Pia already seems to have gotten knocked up by Edward Albert, whose parents are played with zest and verve by June Lockhart and Ed McMahon. (McMahon was chosen for the role because he was the only actor stupid enough to be credible in a role as a man who would welcome Pia Zadora into his family.) As things turn out, the baby did not spring from the Albertian loins, but was actually sired by Pia’s mother’s lover, James Franciscus. Moreover, Pia may even be Franciscus’s daughter, meaning that she has slept with one dad and slept with another man who she thinks is her dad. Keach now begins to suspect that Pia may be a tramp, and murders Franciscus before he has a chance to sleep with anyone else and further complicate the plot. Keach is convicted of incest and sentenced to 10 years in jail at a trial presided over by Orson Welles, who spends a considerable amount of time gasp¬ing at Pia’s formidable knockers.
“He didn’t do anything to me that I didn’t want to happen,” declares Pia, a statement the court has no trouble believing. This film is memorable because of the wonderful scene where Keach teaches Pia optimal mining techniques, and because it demonstrates that no matter how bad Woody Allen’s problems are, they could be a whole lot worse.
Georgy Girl (1966). James Mason plays a wealthy, dirty old man who dreams of taking the plump, dowdy Lynn Redgrave as his mistress. Instead, Redgrave falls in love with the flashy mod Alan Bates, who has just knocked up Charlotte Rampling, who, in one of her first films, is cast, ingeniously, as a slut. Redgrave adopts the baby, is deserted by Bates, and ends up marrying her aging, wealthy benefactor. A film best remembered for its truly ghastly theme song, Georgy Girl is basically a fat girl’s Lolita.
Last Tango in Paris (1973). Fiftyish Marlon Brando sodomizes 21-year-old Maria Schneider, volunteers to prepare a dead rat for dinner, plays “Shenandoah'” on the harmonica, and says a lot of things like, “I wanna get a pig. Then I want the pig to fuck you, and I want the pig to vomit in your face,” then wonders why the relationship doesn’t work out. European.
Lolita (1962). James Mason, a pretentious urbanite obsessed by art, marries a strange woman, falls in love with her jail-bait daughter, forces her to lake piano lessons and go to museums, brings her A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man while she’s in the hospital, and drives her to Los Angeles, where he is supposedly working on a film about existentialism. Any similarities between Vladimir Nabokov’s screenplay and Woody Allen’s entire life are purely coincidental.
Pretty Baby (1978). Keith Carradine, a corpse masquerading as an actor, marries Brooke Shields, a charismatic, 12-year-old prostitute. But not even she can breathe any life into the anorexic deadbeat.
Susan Sarandon steps out of character by showing off her breasts.
Sabrina (1954). Audrey Hepburn spends two hours dressed like a wholesome Jean Seberg, while aging juvenile playboy William Holden gets champagne flute fragments impacted in his ass. Humphrey Bogart, mysteriously cast as a Wall Street tycoon, wears a Homburg, mumbles a lot, and eventually sails off to Paris with the perky Hepburn. John Williams, cast as Hepburn’s chauffeur-dad, hams it up. From the unchallenged genius Billy Wilder.
Voyager (1991). In a real stretch, Sam Shepard plays a mopey civil engineer who falls in love with the daughter of a woman he deserted 20 years earlier because she wanted to have a baby, while he bad a good job offer in Baghdad. The girl gels bit by a poisonous snake, but doesn’t die from the snakebite. Instead, she dies from the bump on her head caused by keeling over a rock after the snake bit her. Mom sees Sam off to the airport, but expresses no interest in resuming their admittedly offbeat relationship. Oedipal.
The final three movies in our collection all showcase the work of one of the silver screen’s living legends: Mariel Hemingway. It is often said that fine wines get better as they get older. But Mariel Hemingway comes straight from the vineyards of Ernest & Julio Gallo. In 1979, she was passable as the high-school senior Woody Allen fell in love with in Manhattan, but was ludicrous as the white-trash babe Peter O’Toole falls for in Creator (1985), and was unspeakable as the nymphet James Garner gets involved with in Sunset (1988).
In fact, Mariel Hemingway’s three incursions into May/December romances underscore why movies of this ilk are generally so bad. May/December–or jailbait–films by their very nature juxtapose a young actress with a much older actor. This almost invariably results in a profound dramatic imbalance, because the veteran actor can usually act the pants off the female newcomer. The result is something akin to Muhammad Ali sharing the ring with Richard Simmons, contributing to such unlikely pairings as:
James Mason/Sue Lyon
Peter O’Toole/Mariel Hemingway
Stacy Keach/Pia Zadora
Marlon Brando/Maria Schneider
Michael Caine/Michelle Johnson
All things considered, it’s surprising that the films aren’t a lot worse.
On the other hand, they’re bad enough. In the horrendous Creator, Mariel plays a trash-talking truckstop babe who gets involved with the donnish biologist Peter O’Toole, who is attempting to genetically reconstruct his wife, dead for 30 years (her amino acids are out of sequence, that’s the reason for the holdup). Vincent Spano is also in this film, but let’s not get into that. Mariel is especially unconvincing in a scene where, bathed in grease, she repairs a pick-up truck while singing, “I’m a Woman–W-O-M-A-N.” In another scene, she falls asleep on the couch, and as the camera lovingly hovers above her face, the viewer is treated to indisputable celluloid evidence that Mariel can act bad in her sleep, no mean feat.
Then there’s Sunset, Blake Edwards’s miraculous 1988 bomb, in which Mariel plays a cross-dressing bordello operator who falls in love with James Garner, who plays a 90-year-old Wyatt Earp who has come to Hollywood to work as a consultant on a cowboy movie starring Tom Mix, played with verve, gusto and panache by Bruce Willis, I kid you not.
Unmentionably retrograde as these films are, they form essential components of the Home Nymphet Video Collection. Despite their absurd plots, their horrible scripts, their eighth-rate acting and Vincent Spano, these films, viewed as a unit, provide an indispensable moral compass that horny, middle-aged men everywhere can use when reaching a decision about preying on women who are young enough to be their children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren or nieces once removed by marriage. Had Woody Allen looked at these films, or looked at them more carefully, he would have been less reckless in making the decision to abandon Ms. Farrow and take up with one of her numerous, United Colors of Benetton daughters. Woody would have learned from Mason, would have learned from Brando, would have learned from Keach. Oh, he might have been momentarily blinded by the moral frappe served up in numbskull piffle such as Sabrina and Funny Face, but had he really studied these movies, and studied them carefully, the way he studied The Seventh Seal and Grand Illusion, he would have stuck to the straight and narrow. Instead, he has strayed far from the path of righteousness, and must now accept the same verdict from society that Sue Lyon once handed down to James Mason: “You’re sick , . . You need help.”
Only Pia would disagree.
Joe Queenan became Mickey Rourke (for just one day, you understand) for our December issue.