Today Lone Scherfig's An Education hit DVD shelves. The Carey Mulligan and Peter Sarsgaard-starring film earned 3 Oscar nominations, a Golden Globe nomination (among a myriad of other nods and awards), a 94% fresh rating, and my complete adoration. Watching a teen girl fall for an older player on the big screen is old hat, but Scherfig managed to create a film that's whimsical, yet honest; serious, yet fun; and most importantly -- a film that never fogs up the reality of a story between a young, innocent girl, and an older man who should know better.
It's rare that a feature film allows for both reality and whimsy. An Education allows you to escape into a fantasy, without forgetting reality, mixing idealized romance with real-world troubles -- balanced in such a way that the film never gets too fantastical nor too real. This is, surely, due in large part to the original true story, and Nick Hornby's excellent writing, but it's also a mark of excellent casting. A story like this is only as strong as the chemistry and talents of its leads, and the many ways the story can manifest.
With that in mind, hit the jump for seven essential films outlining the May-December experience on the big screen, and weigh in with your own top picks.
Harold and Maude
When thinking of age-disparate romance, we always think of the male player and his young, female victim. But sometimes it's not about the prey, and it's not even about the young girl. One of the best examples of the May-December theme is Harold and Maude, where Bud Cort's young Harold falls for Ruth Gordon's older Maude. It's a romance that gives the young boy a purpose in his direction-less, suicidally prankster life, while Harold allows Ruth to relive her youth in her twilight years. It's sweet, expectation-bending, and satirically believable.
Alas, not every interlude of old and young works out with ease. To balance the mirth of Harold & Maude, there's the darker sarcasm of American Beauty as Kevin Spacey's Lester lusts for Mena Suvari's Angela as part of his desperate mid-life crisis. Rather than resting in black and white simplicity, the relationship between Lester and Angela is complex, playing out Lester's lust and Angela's seduction while also revealing the very real and relatable motivations underneath. It allows for the fantasy while also making sure to cover the aspects that make inter-generational romance troublesome.
This is one of the most iconic May-December romances, Anne Bancroft's Mrs. Robinson becoming an icon for cougars and seductive women. It's the story that rips into the precarious dynamics of power, and the classic fantasy of learning the ways of love from a dominant and beautiful older woman. Funny that Bancroft was only 6 years older than Dustin Hoffman ... such is the magic of Hollywood.
Lost in Translation
What's nice with some romances is how the barrier keeps emotions in check -- circumstances and years not allowing the characters to fully explore their feelings. Although there was over three decades between them, Scarlett Johansson and Bill Murray held a wonderful sense of chemistry, barely restrained inside their performances. Sofia Coppola allows Charlotte and Bob to rediscover their lives together, and while the age difference keeps romance in check, it still lurks.
Sometimes reality swims into cinema, and that, of course, means we've gotten to Woody Allen, the man whose love of younger women has made him one of the most popular directors for years. In Manhattan, his 42-year-old Isaac is a divorced man dating a 17-year-old played by Muriel Hemingway. Allen plays his usual desperate, older character, clutching to the ease of a romance with a teenager, and how that is challenged with the possibility of someone older, and more suitable (Diane Keaton).
To give you double-duty tonight, there's Robert Downey Jr.'s Chaplin, a great companion to both An Education and today's other big release, Sherlock Holmes. The direct biography on the list, Charlie Chaplin was known for loving young women, delighting in a number of May-December romances that would make Jerry Lee Lewis blush. Downey Jr.'s performance earned him his first Oscar nomination.
If you've read any of Henry Miller's late writing, you're familiar with the idea of a young man trapped in a failing, older body. Making this idea come to life, Peter O'Toole plays Maurice, a man revitalized by a harsh teenage girl who enters his life and sparks his once-dead romantic yearnings. In a world where we've got viagra and the many jokes that accompany it, Venus offers an awkward and realistic portrayal of the true confines of age.