Maggie Gyllenhaal had a good run, but now that’s she’s 37 years old, it’s time for her to cover up, put her affairs in order, and stop the charade of thinking she can attract a 55-year-old man. At least that’s the message Hollywood seemed to send recently when she didn’t get a movie role because she was considered too old to play the love interest of a man 18 years her senior. “It was astonishing to me,” she told The Wrap. “It made me feel bad, and then it made me feel angry, and then it made me laugh.”
Of course, this type of Hollywood ageism is nothing new. Humphrey Bogart was 16 years older than Ingrid Bergman in Casablanca, Gene Kelly was 20 years older than Debbie Reynolds when they sang in the rain, and Pretty Woman‘s Richard Gere was 18 years older than Julia Roberts. Gyllenhaal herself is not unfamiliar with romantic storylines opposite an actor old enough to be her father—and I still loved Crazy Heart!
The double-standard has everything to do with power, specifically the male hierarchy in control of the industry that gets to project their tastes. You can do a little research and discover that some of Hollywood’s heavyweight decision makers—the studio execs who can get a film green-lit with the snap of a finger—are men whose own romantic relationships accurately reflect that male/female age disparity. That’s not insignificant.
This type of foolishness also has a lot of do with practical Hollywood gender inequalities, especially those that are currently in the headlines. The A.C.L.U. recently urged the government to investigate Hollywood’s hiring practices due to the “widespread exclusion of women directors“—only 4 percent of the top-grossing films in the last 12 years were directed by women. It’s not surprising that when females direct—or, just as importantly, write the script—they bring a different perspective that requires different characters and character relationships that might be more liberal about age and sex. And that perspective might also reflect a segment of the ticket-buying population who is being underserved—one that can appreciate the allure of Julianne Moore as much as Colin Firth.
Gyllenhaal’s final emotional reaction to the insult was laughter—good for her. But this brand of sexism will only become a laughing matter when Amy Schumer builds a sketch around it.