Male directors have endlessly projected their sexual fantasies in films starring child actors having relationships with older men. Does #MeToo mark a watershed for the creeps?
The pairing of the older man and younger woman, in movies as in life, enjoys relative respectability. Somehow, daddy figures are more acceptable than old-enough-to-be-your-mother lovers, France’s current president notwithstanding. The latter is usually played for the grotesque – Sunset Boulevard, The Graduate – while the double standard of ageing allows older men to exude a sex appeal not offered to their female counterparts. But how young and how old? And will the leniency afforded such pairings survive the scrutiny of the #MeToo movement?
It is no longer possible to rationalise as consensual certain egregious pairings, or to accept with equanimity the sexualisation of underage performers. We have begun to take a second look at the smarmy overtones of movies such as Woody Allen’s Manhattan and Louis CK’s now-shelved I Love You, Daddy, in which “protective” older men ogle daughter figures in utterly self-serving ways. We may also wince at precocious streetwise teens such as Jodie Foster’s prostitute (14) in Taxi Driver and Natalie Portman (13) in Luc Besson’s Leon, supposedly “wise beyond their years”, who seem to express nothing of a young girl’s reality or hopes – but everything of a director’s fantasies.
Nymphetmania has a long and hoary pedigree in Hollywood, and flourished years before Nabokov gave us the Lolita syndrome. DW Griffith’s child-woman ingénues such as Lillian Gish and Mae Marsh were “pseudo-nymphets” (critic Andrew Sarris’s term), while Lolita was herself largely inspired by that most blatant of all paedophile fantasies, Shirley Temple. Sure, the curly-haired moppet gladdened hearts during the Depression, played matchmaker and performed various good-fairy magic tricks, but it was her blatant coquetry and sexualised gestures that made her box-office gold – and that are so alarming today. In a series of one-reelers called Baby Burlesks, between 1932-1933, in which child actors spoofed their elders, a scantily clad Shirley played call girls and nightclub performers, pranced and pirouetted and gave sidelong come-hither glances in outrageously adult stories, replete with phallic jokes and leering camera angles.
When Temple became a star in 1934, name above the title in Bright Eyes, audiences may have fooled themselves, but Darryl Zanuck and Fox knew what they were doing: figuring out just how to preserve the veneer of innocence while teasing the men who proved her greatest admirers both on and off the screen. Often orphaned, she finds herself the darling of bachelors, widowers, lonely uncles, in “love” stories that feature non-childlike caresses on both sides. In the movie’s famous song, The Good Ship Lollipop, she romps up and down the aisle among rows of men as they pass her body back and forth and yearn to soothe her little tummy ache. What felt prurient now looks like child abuse.
No wonder Zanuck lashed out with a libel suit when in 1937 Graham Greene famously blew the whistle on Hollywood’s puritanical hypocrisy by describing in meticulous detail the overt sexuality of Temple’s appeal. The movie was Wee Willie Winkie, and the way Greene lays it on the line in his review is disturbing in its own way – his prose so wittily precise, so knowing, so lubricious: “well developed rump” and “dimpled depravity” being two of the epithets. He and his magazine (Night and Day) both ponied up after being sued and Greene fled to Mexico till the storm blew over. The Victorian repression that produced Temple, meanwhile would give way to other, perhaps more subtle, sorts of nymphetmania.
Billy Wilder, a taboo-teaser by trade (witness the transvestism and gay coda in Some Like it Hot), was a specialist in age-disparity themes. Before his pairing of William Holden (39) and Gloria Swanson (51) as the gigolo-diva couple in Sunset Boulevard, Wilder directed The Major and the Minor, (1942), in which Ginger Rogers poses as a 12-year-old and is treated as such by her avuncular chaperone, Ray Milland, even as attraction begins to percolate beneath the all-too-apparent (to everyone but Milland) disguise. I’d say Wilder brings it off with only the barest (and intentional) queasiness, but I can’t imagine anyone making that film today. With Audrey Hepburn, his favourite gamine, things get trickier. Sabrina (1954) brings together Hepburn (25 but looks younger) and Humphrey Bogart (55, looks older), and begins to feel like an ageing director’s fantasy, while Love in the Afternoon (1957) with Gary Cooper (58) is downright creepy.
In 1962, Stanley Kubrick’s Lolita featured Sue Lyon (at 14, two years older than Nabokov’s heroine, and looking 17), Peter Sellers as the unstoppable Quilty, and James Mason as the wormy cradle-snatcher. Sue Lyon’s precociousness, criticised at the time, is what gives the film a kind of balance (which seems more necessary in film than in a novel).
The movie proved less troubling than the book, but anxiety over the subject of paedophilia has remained a constant. Still, our response to nymphet worship will vary from person to person, depending on context and changing attitudes. There are some artists and performers for whom nubile flesh is practically an artistic requisite, a spur to creativity. We see it in the work and lives of Woody Allen, Philip Roth, or Picasso, needing not just younger but newer women, who by their youth will provide a momentary (and illusory) reprieve from mortality. The men who go from woman to woman, ever younger, tell themselves they are victims of unruly desire, when in fact the goal is a supplicant: that fresh, female face who will look up with adoration, even idolatry, and who will love him perhaps for his ageing self, and not for his honours.
Perhaps here is the place to note the French exceptionalism (“Thank heaven for little girls”) and their rather more relaxed view of age disparities. Instead of opprobrium, there’s a Gallic shrug at philanderers of whatever age or gender. And scepticism where girlish innocence is concerned, the line between gamine and courtesan less a barrier than a career path, whether imagined by Colette (Gigi) or Marcel Pagnol (Fanny). Where we see Humbert Humbert they see the incorrigible roué, and where we see jailbait they see that most delectable of voyeuristic pleasures: girl on the cusp of womanhood. How many verité-like studies have there been of blossoming beauties ambling along the streets of Paris?
In Autant-Lara’s 1942 Le Mariage de Chiffon, the young girl (Odette Joyeux) is pursued by the elderly duke and marries her middle-aged uncle, but period customs and arranged marriages shift the onus from ethical or moral concerns to tribal custom.
The distancing afforded by period setting also applies to Louis Malle’s 1978 film Pretty Baby, with Brooke Shields (13) as the child born into a bordello. The same can’t be said of his queasy and quasi-autobiographical Murmur of the Heart (1971), with its unperturbed celebration of mother-son incest. Certainly, the French apparently take a more benign view of the older woman, often seen as a kindly instructress in the ways of love,a rite of passage for the awkward younger man.
However, once the nymphet is past those formative years, her role in the older man-younger woman relationship becomes more ambiguous. As the male artist seeks a new, younger woman as muse, so the younger woman wants the attention and reflected glory, even the mentorship, of the older man.
In an interesting segment of TV series Girls, Lena Dunham’s Hannah goes to the apartment of a sleazy author whom she has castigated in her blog as a predator, only to find herself flattered (her writer’s ego) and partially seduced.
It is a reminder once again of how often in our erotic duets we get caught in that “grey” area, where victim and abuser are hard to determine, and in which we are faced not just with competing claims and versions but, within each of us, the eternal conflict between rational desires and impermissible unconscious ones. Calling out abuse in a libertine age is never going to be a cut-and-dried proposition, but if the #MeToo movement accomplishes anything, it will be to shine a spotlight on those recesses of male vanity that have provided artistic cover, and ingenious disguise, for the exploitation of child-women.