Rewind: Onscreen And Off, What’s Age Got To Do With It?

'Prime' has us asking: When it comes to love and sex, do the years really matter?

In Hollywood, both onscreen and off, the May-December pairing of an older man with a much younger woman is as common as paparazzi-induced fender benders. We’re all used to (and tired of) seeing Woody Allen, Sean Connery, Michael Douglas, Warren Beatty, Clint Eastwood, et al., paired romantically with women young enough to be their daughters. But it’s an old Hollywood tradition, dating back to the days of Humphrey Bogart, Cary Grant and Jimmy Stewart, and so it’s never really a big surprise when it happens.

But pairing a more mature actress with a younger male love interest is comparatively rare. In the romantic comedy “Prime,” Uma Thurman (who is 35) plays 37-year-old Rafi, a yuppie who falls in love with 23-year-old artist David, played by Bryan Greenberg. When the May-December gender tables are turned, the age-discrepancy issue isn’t just a casual casting choice; it usually drives the plot — or at least serves as major insight into the characters’ personalities.

In Mike Nichols’ social satire “The Graduate” (1967), the affair between directionless college grad Benjamin (Dustin Hoffman) and his mother’s friend, Mrs. Robinson (Anne Bancroft), is about anything but passion. It’s about how the brittle Ben has no idea what he wants and is used by the cold, empty older woman, dehumanized to the point of having no first name, who considers him a mere tool of distraction (and certainly not good enough for her daughter).

It’s not uncommon, of course, for the cinematic older woman to be a sad housewife. In Peter Bogdanovich’s “The Last Picture Show” (1971), the (closeted) coach’s neglected, ailing wife, Ruth — played by Cloris Leachman, seeming much older than her 46 years — beds young Sonny (Timothy Bottoms) just so she can feel something, anything. Leachman’s achingly poignant portrayal, bridging every emotion in the human palette, deservedly won her an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress.

Of course, “older” is relative. Only a kid would consider the ravishing 23-year-old Jennifer O’Neill “old,” but that’s how she’s cast in the WWII-era coming-of-age flick “The Summer of ’42″ (1971). O’Neill plays Dorothy, a war widow who finds comfort in the arms of the teenaged Hermie (Gary Grimes, not the misfit Elf). The film’s soft-focus romance-novel sensibility has, in these post-Mary-Kay-Letourneau times, devolved into a gauzy filter that, to some, barely obscures a clear case of statutory rape.

Then again, sometimes “older” isn’t relative, as a third entrant from 1971 shows. (Man, was that a year for this particular theme or what?) In the cult classic “Harold and Maude,” a morose teenager (the otherworldly Bud Cort) falls in love with a vivacious 79-year-old (Ruth Gordon, one of those rare actors who seem to have been born old). The film is ham-fisted with a sugar glaze, but it works, aided largely by a perfect Cat Stevens soundtrack. Far from prurient, this gentle gem may be the richest love story of all the films mentioned here — while also featuring the largest age difference — and should be required viewing for every self-absorbed, sullen teen who thinks s/he knows it all and that this ugly world ain’t worth the effort.

Then there are the films where the younger man serves as an empowering form of beefcake for the female lead. In “Thelma & Louise” (1991), the long-suffering Thelma (Geena Davis) discovers that all it takes is a romp in a hotel room with a cowboy-hat-sportin’ bad boy (Brad Pitt) to regain a sexuality lost by years spent with a neglectful hubby. In 1998′s “How Stella Got Her Groove Back,” Angela Bassett plays a 40-something single mom/stockbroker whose Jamaican vacation yields an unexpected souvenir: a washboard-abbed 20-year-old hunk named Winston Shakespeare (Taye Diggs).

Conversely, the allure that the older woman often holds for the younger man has driven the plots of all sorts of movies. Nicolas Cage obsesses over Cher in “Moonstruck” (1987). Andrew McCarthy’s college hormones rage for Jacqueline Bissett in “Class” (1983). Jake Gyllenhaal goes for Catherine Keener in “Lovely and Amazing” (2001) and follows up with Jennifer Aniston in “The Good Girl” (2002). Teenager Oscar Grubman falls for Sigourney Weaver (and Bebe Neuwirth) in “Tadpole” (2002). In “Y Tu Mamá También,” two young Mexican lads share, uh, experiences with a lusty older woman (Ana López Mercado).

Usually, however, the younger man is just not to be taken seriously. In “Something’s Gotta Give” (2003), Keanu Reeves plays Dr. Julian Mercer, a man in relentless pursuit of elder playwright Erica Barry (Diane Keaton). Julian is handsome, successful, thoughtful, attentive — everything, it seems, that a woman could want. But Erica never really falls in love with him, saving that emotion for the distant and immature but older music exec, Harry Sanborn (Jack Nicholson).

Still, at least Julian’s mature tastes didn’t lead to his death. In 2001′s “In the Bedroom,” everyone disapproves of architecture student Frank’s (Nick Stahl) relationship with Natalie (Marisa Tomei), an older mother of two. Frank’s parents think Natalie’s a distraction. Natalie’s scary, white-trash, estranged husband, Richard (William Mapother), thinksFrank’s a threat. So he kills him. “In the Bedroom” asks a lot of questions, one of the most germane certainly being: Can a May-December relationship ever work?

How ingrained is the notion that older men belong with younger women? Consider “Unfaithful” (2002), Adrian Lyne’s tale of adultery and its consequences. When Ed (Richard Gere) confronts the French bookseller (Olivier Martinez) with whom his wife’s been cheating, he asks, incredulously, “How old are you?” — seemingly shocked that Connie (the truly gorgeous Diane Lane) would deign to sleep with someone so young. The thing is, Gere is 16 years older than Lane; Martinez is just one year younger than she is. But we’re expected to add this to the list of grievances Ed has against the younger man. The argument could be made that Ed was primarily threatened by a handsome cad who happened to be his wife’s age, but Gere’s not exactly the picture of insecurity. The implication here is that Ed can’t believe that his wife was diddling this immature kid.

The debate over the merits and pitfalls of the trans-generational relationship will never go away, especially with movies like “Prime” and the tabloid-friendly exploits of Ashton and Demi keeping it on the table. We just wanna know one thing: Will Joss Whedon’s “Wonder Woman” tackle the thousand-plus years age difference between our heroine and Steve Trevor? Now that’s a generation gap.

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