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Study: How Much Older Are Male Leads in Romantic Films than Their Female Co-Stars?

Study: How Much Older Are Male Leads in Romantic Films than Their Female Co-Stars?

Last week, Oscar-nominated actress Maggie Gyllenhaal revealed that, by Hollywood standards, she was “too old” to play the on-screen love interest of a 55-year-old man. She’s 37. Following this, I was asked by a few regular readers of my site to crunch the numbers and look at whether there has historically been an age gap between male and female actors in romantic films.

So I built up a dataset of 422 romantic films (“rom
coms” and romantic dramas) that grossed over $1m at the US box office and
released between 1984 and 2014. I then determined which two actors
were the main heterosexual on-screen couple (details of the methodology is at
the bottom of this article) and looked at the actors’ exact ages when the film
was released.

In summary: 

–At no point in
the past 30 years has the average annual age of female leads been older than the average age of their male counterparts.

–On average,
males leads in romantic films are 4.5 years older than their female

–The age gap is
slightly smaller on films directed by women

–Women have
directed 12% of romantic films between 1984 and 2014

–Robert Redford,
Dudley Moore and Richard Gere have the largest age gaps among male leads

–Julia Roberts,
Debra Winger and Winona Ryder are normally much younger than their male

The Men Have Always Been Older

At no point in the past 30 years has the average annual age of
female leads of these romantic films been older than the average age of their
male counterparts. On average, the age difference between 1984-2014 is 4 years,
6 months and 29.6 days.

The closest gaps were in 1988 and in 2009, when the men were just 0.6
years and 0.8 years older, respectively. (That’s 219 and 292 days, for data
pedants). The years with the greatest gaps were 1984 and 1991, with 10.4 years
and 9.2 years. (Or 3,781 and 3,344 days, respectively).

The Dystopian Romantic Comedies in 1984

1984 saw the release of a crop of romantic comedies that paired
particularly older men with much younger women, including:

–“Micki + Maude” – Dudley Moore
(49) and Amy Irving (31)

–“Unfaithfully Yours” – Dudley
Moore (50*) and Nastassja Kinski (23)

–“The Woman in Red” – Gene
Wilder (51) and Kelly LeBrock (24)

–“Blame It on Rio” – Michael
Caine (51) and Michelle Johnson (18)

*My research looked at the exact age of the actors/actresses
upon the film’s release and Dudley Moore had a birthday between his two films
on this list.

Before conducting this research, I had never heard of “Blame It On Rio,” but I was rather
surprised to learn about this “light-hearted romantic comedy.” The
romantic couple are a 51-year old Michael Caine and an 18-year old Michelle
Johnson. According to Rob Hartill on IMDb, the plot is
as follows: “
Caine plays a man on holiday in Rio with his best friend. Both
men have teenage daughters with them. When Caine falls for the amorous daughter
(played by Michelle Johnson) of his best friend, they embark on a secret, if
slightly one-sided relationship. Johnson’s father is furious when he finds out
about the ‘older man’ in his daughter’s life, and sets out to hunt him down
with the aid of Caine!” 

Not only does a teenage female lead implausibly chase a man
well over twice her age, but she does so in some cases while topless. Not quite
the kind of “romantic comedy” cinema-goers would expect today! 

Does the Gender of the Director Change the Situation?

Ever so slightly, yes. I have written extensively in the past
about the under-representation of women in the industry 
(hereherehere and here), so it will come as no surprise to
regular readers to learn that 88% of the films I studied were directed by men. Of
the directors who had directed at least three of the films on my
list, Sydney Pollack had the largest average age gap, at 16 years and
5 months.

On average, the male leads in films directed by men were 4.53
years older than their female co-stars. In films directed by women, the male
leads were 4.16 years older than the female leads.

Which Actors/Actress Have the Largest Age Gaps?

I took a look at the most featured actors and actresses within
my 422 romantic films and at the average age difference in their films. Robert
Redford and Dudley Moore are the men with the highest average age difference
between themselves and their female co-stars (20 years and 18 years,

The only women to have appeared in four or more of my films and
to have a higher average age than their male counterparts were Goldie
Hawn (8 months older, on average) and Sandra Bullock (1 year and 4 months

Notes and Caveats

This research is looking at a particular subset of films and
comes along with various definitions and restrictions, including:

Selecting the
films to study. 
Defining exactly what a romantic film is, is harder than it at first
seems. I initially turned to IMDb and Wikipedia, but both are very liberal
with the genre term ‘Romantic.’ In the end I chose to use the criteria
given by Box Office Mojo for their sub-genres of Romantic ComedyCrime – Romantic ComedyRomantic Comedy – FantasyRomantic Drama and Romantic Fantasy. I used these to
create two master lists for my research, that of Romantic Comedy and
Romantic Drama.

non-relevant films. 
excluded 34 films from the Box Office Mojo lists, as they did not fit my
criteria for a romantic film having two clear leads, one male and one
female. I did not include gay love stories as (a) there are sadly so few
and (b) it doesn’t speak to the exact topic I’m researching today, i.e.
gender inequality on screen. Some films were excluded because there was
not one clear couple, such as ensemble films like “New Year’s Eve” and “Love Actually” and films about
love triangles, such as “Keeping the Faith” and “Threesome.”

Relevant dates. My initial
dataset spanned over fifty years of films, but in the end I decided to
focus my research on films released between 1984 – 2014 inclusive, leaving
me with 422 films to study. Interestingly, the data I have suggests that
1983 was the only year in the past 35 years when female
actresses in romantic films were, on average, older than their male
counterparts. Sadly, I don’t feel that this result is anything significant, as there were only a small number of films in my dataset for
that year. In order to be able to rely on this figure, further research is
needed to ensure a comprehensive look at romantic films released in 1983. The
films from that year with the largest age gap between an older woman and
younger man were “Two of a Kind” (35 year-old
Olivia Newton-John playing opposite 30 year-old John Travolta) and “Valley Girl” (21 year-old
Deborah Foreman and 19 year-old Nicolas Cage).

Defining the
release date. 
the official “date of release,” I used the first time the film was screened
to the public in a commercial cinema. For most films, this was their
USA release date (95.3% of films, to be exact). If IMDb and Wikipedia disagreed,      then I took the earliest date.

Defining “the
main couple.” 
chose the relationship which we as the audience are rooting to
succeed. In “Win a Date with Tad Hamilton!” (2004), for example, we are rooting for Topher Grace’s best-friend character, rather than the
celebrity played by Josh Duhamel. Similarly, in the Bridget Jones films, it
is Colin Firth, and not Hugh Grant, who will be measured in this research.
For films I’d not seen and was not sure about, I usually went to the
plot breakdown on Wikipedia and read the final few paragraphs.

Studying the age
of the actor/actress, not the characters. 
Many people look
older or younger than their true age, and so if we want to measure
representation of relationships on screen, then character age might be
a more effective metric. Sadly, I can’t think of a way of measuring it
without researching the backstory of each character in each film, so the
actors’ ages will have to stand in as a proxy for now.

Determining the
performer’s age. 
I compared the age of the actor/actress on the first day the film was
screened to the public. 

Dates of birth. For five
performers I could only ascertain a year of birth, and so I set their
birthdays to January 1.


Today’s subject is exactly the type of topic I enjoy
researching. The answers are quite clear, datawise, but what they mean is open
for discussion. Art and culture influence how we live our lives and what
we regard as “normal,” and the film industry is a big part of that.

According to research by dating giant OkCupid, men
and women calculate the age of their “ideal partner” very differently. A 20-year-old woman is apparently most interested in guys aged 23. This rises as the woman
ages; a 30-year-old woman wants a 30-year-old man. At 40, they’re after a 38-year-old man and at 50, their Mr. Right is 46.

Men, on the other hand, are always after a woman aged around 21,
no matter how old the man gets!

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