Gabrielle Cosgriff loved "Bulworth." But she was put off by the huge age difference - 32 years to be exact - between Warren Beatty and his love interest, Halle Berry.
"It just drove me crazy," said Cosgriff, a Houston writer who has co-authored a new book, "Chicks on Film: Video Picks for Women and Other Intelligent Forms of Life" (Avon Books, $12). "I kept praying she would say `goodbye and good luck' and get on with her life."Fat chance.
A slew of big-budget movies this summer might as well be subtitled "The Geezer Gets the Gal" because each pairs an aging movie star with an actress young enough to be his daughter or, in some cases, granddaughter.
In "Bulworth," Beatty, 61, romances Berry, 29.
In "The Horse Whisperer," 37-year-old Kristin Scott Thomas falls for Robert Redford, 60.
In "Six Days, Seven Nights," which opens June 12, Harrison Ford, 55, is stranded on a desert island with Anne Heche, 28.
In "A Perfect Murder," which opens Friday, Michael Douglas, 53, plots to kill his 25-year-old trophy wife, played by Gwyneth Paltrow.
And in "As Good As It Gets," recently released on video, Helen Hunt, 34, is charmed by 61-year-old Jack Nicholson.
After the Academy Award-winning movie came out late last year, it triggered lively discussions among women moviegoers who had bones to pick with the May/December romance depicted. True, sometimes the age disparity isn't a problem.
"There's a difference when it's Harrison Ford or Sean Connery," said Anne Reifenberg, co-author with Cosgriff and Cynthia Thomas of "Chicks on Film." "With some men, it just doesn't matter."
But with Nicholson, well, some of the physique critiques were less than kind. Words like "wrinkles" and "age spots" got tossed around.
And how realistic was that romance anyway? Or any of the older man/younger couplings we're always seeing in the movies?
Despite all the talk about "trophy wives," relationships between older men and younger women don't happen that often in real life, says clinical psychologist Betty Cartmell, president of the Houston Psychological Association. And when they do, they don't tend to last, she says.
"When it does happen, as a psychologist I think less of the male who's involved, generally speaking. He's trying to cope with the aging process by having someone who's newer and younger on his arm," she says.
Yet the message at the multiplex is drastically different, says Beth Olson, associate professor of communications at the University of Houston.
"What it tells women is that you can be a participant in a romantic relationship as long as you look good," she says.
Pat Lentz, vice president of Actresses@Work, a California-based coalition of actresses who are over 40, is more blunt.
"The main message they're putting out is you will disappear once you are no longer without lines and lumps. And that's a real shame."
The older man/younger woman syndrome is nothing new in the movies.
Audrey Hepburn was romanced by much older actors, including Cary Grant in "Charade" (1963), and Gary Cooper in "Love in the Afternoon" (1957). Clark Gable often was paired with much younger actresses, including Lana Turner in "Honky Tonk" (in 1941) and Marilyn Monroe in "The Misfits" (in 1961).
"It goes back to Bogey and Bacall," says Lentz. "But at least back then, there were still women over 40 in the films. Now they're almost invisible. You think about Jane Fonda having played opposite Robert Redford in three films and now she's too old for him."
Redford and Fonda are, in fact, the same age - 60.
Hollywood producers say the simple fact of life is male stars outlast their female counterparts in popularity.
While Clint Eastwood, 67, remains a superstar, along with Ford, Redford and Beatty, such female icons as Fonda, Sally Field, 51, Diane Keaton, 52, and Meryl Streep, 48, don't command anywhere close to the same salaries, roles or attention.
Perhaps only Barbra Streisand, 56, measures up in terms of clout. But no one is thinking of casting her in a movie with 23-year-old Leonardo DiCaprio as her love interest.
Cosgriff believes producers often cast attractive young women with established male box office stars to appeal to a younger audience.
"It covers all their bases," she says.
Olson, who teaches a course on gender and communication at the University of Houston, points out that older anchormen are paired with younger women on TV newscasts all the time.
"We as a society allow men to age more gracefully than we do for women. So men have a longer career and we see them in films, on the news sets or on the television set when they're into their 60s and 70s," she says.
She points out that nowadays, a few newswomen over 40 are popping up on TV screens. "But there is still a disparity," she says.
In real-life romances, even though factors vary, Cartmell believes anything more than a 10-year age difference can cause some long-term relationship problems because each person is in a different place in life.
She adds that relationships seem to work best when people have a lot in common, including race, religion, shared values - and age.
"When you think about it, most people connect in high school or college where age is a common factor," she says. "It puts the couple in the same place developmentally."
However, some factors may mitigate age differences between a couple, she says. If it's a second marriage and the children are the same age, the family may function well even if there's more than a 10-year age gap between the parents.
The couple's ages when they get together also makes a difference. "There's more differences between (ages) 20 and 30 than there is between 40 and 50," she says.
But psychotherapist Eugene Webb - author of "Men Are No Damn Good! (Pending Further Research)" (Resource Publications Inc., $14.95), a book that explores the pitfalls of being male in a gender-conscious age and culture - believes some older men seek out younger women because they view them as developmental equals despite the age difference.
"There are a lot of older men who are grown-up little boys," he says. "That's as good as it gets for them."
In the movies, Woody Allen is the prime example of a man who can't seem to deal with a woman his age, says Cynthia Freeland, professor of philosophy at the University of Houston.
In most of Allen's movies, the 62-year-old actor/director ends up with a much younger woman who finds him irresistible.
"Some men can't deal with women their own age because they are afraid that the women will see through them," says Freeland. "Women their age won't be so mystified by their aura of authority and wisdom because they can see their foibles."
However, as far as the silver screen goes, attitudes may be slowly changing. Some reviews have poked fun at the absurdity of such large age differences in "Bulworth" and "The Horse Whisperer."