The Hollywood Gender Age Gap (Part 1)

Hollywood Age Gap Part 1

There has been renewed interest lately in the Hollywood practice of casting older male actors alongside much younger females in romantic interest roles. Commentators give various examples where 50-year-old men and significantly younger women are paired up romantically on screen. But are these just cherry picked cases? Exactly how prevalent is this practice?

Here at GraphJoy we’re all about the data. In the first part of our inaugural series we chart the movie careers of 20 of the top male Hollywood actors from 1980-2015 and compare their ages with the women who played their on-screen romantic partners.

With more than 400 films from three-and-a-half decades to draw upon we find a recurring, intriguing pattern in the careers of the male actors that may surprise you. We also compare our data with the U.S. population of married couples to show that on-screen Hollywood age gaps differ wildly from real life.

The curious case of Tom Cruise

When it comes to A-list male actors from the past few decades Tom Cruise has remained one of the most prolific stars of the big screen. From Risky Business (1983) to Edge of Tomorrow (2014), Cruise has played opposite 23 different female actors in romantic situations. Although Cruise is just one of the 20 actors in our research group, his career serves as a useful way to introduce our findings.

Tom Cruise

Age gap of Tom Cruise and the female actors who played his on-screen romantic interest characters.

Perhaps the most striking observation from the above chart is that, apart from just four movies at the beginning of his career, Tom Cruise repeatedly pairs up with younger female counterparts, and the age difference between them generally increases over time. Across his career Cruise is on average seven years older than the women who act as his romantic partners and the biggest age disparity is a staggering 20 years.

As the men get older their female counterparts do not.

An average age gap of seven years across his career may not sound unreasonable. But consider that Cruise is virtually the same age as his female colleagues until he reaches the age of 35; on average he is one year older in his first 11 films. This gender age equality can be observed in Cruise’s graph by comparing the two lines up until Jerry Maguire (1996) where they start to diverge.

After turning 35 years old the average age difference for the remainder of Cruise’s films increases to 12 years, which is a giant step up from one year. As Cruise reaches his fifties the women who portray his love interests are still in their early thirties; only twice do they reach a high of 37. This pattern repeats itself in the graphs of the other male actors in our group; as the men get older their female counterparts do not, and this mysterious age of 35 almost invariably acts as the turning point.

Oblivion Movie

Tom Cruise and Olga Kurylenko in Oblivion (2013). At the time of its U.S. release, Cruise was aged 50 and Kurylenko was 33. Copyright Universal Pictures and its partners.

See the sidebar for more information on how we compiled the data, how we selected the 20 male actors, and our definition of romantic interest characters. The sidebar also contains individual charts for all 20 actors like the one above for Tom Cruise.

The league of extraordinary gentlemen

Although representative of the group, Tom Cruise’s graph is specific to his own career. Aggregating the movie age gap data from all 20 male actors reveals a recurring pattern of Hollywood studios casting the men alongside much younger female actors as their romantic interests. But it’s not until we split the age gap data by the male age of 35 years old that we see the startling results.

Gender age gaps when male actors aged 0-34 and 35+.

Gender age gaps when the male actors are aged 0-34 and 35+.

When the men are younger than 35 the median gender age gap is a tiny 0.75 years. Half of these films have gender age differences between -2 and 4.5 years (male age compared to female), while the full range (min to max) of age gap data is reasonably balanced from -10 to 14 years. There is a little skew towards the male actors being older, but it is small enough to conclude that there is no gender age bias in casting as long as the men are younger than 35 years old.

The median age gap is almost ten years for the men aged 35+ years old.

After the male actors turn 35, though, the median age gap leaps up to almost ten years and now in half of these films the men are 5 to 15 years older. Furthermore, a quarter of these movies have gender age differences of more than 15 years. The lower end of the data range stays virtually the same at -11 years but the upper end increases to 45 years. Incidentally, 25% of movie age gaps when the men are 35+ years old fully covers the range of 75% of films when the men are aged 0-34.

The following table lists each actor’s average age gaps for the movies released when they are aged 0-34 and 35+ years old. A few interesting features stand out. All of the actors’ age gaps increase after the age of 35 apart from Harrison Ford, who is the sole exception. Ford’s average age gap stays virtually the same at around 14 years before and after the age of 35, defying the trend we have observed.

Average age gap
Actor Aged 0-34 Aged 35+ Difference
Denzel Washington 2.01 15.33 13.32
Harrison Ford 14.27 13.89 -0.38
Arnold Schwarzenegger 4.29 13.14 8.86
Tom Cruise 1.25 12.55 11.30
Michael Douglas -2.23 11.13 13.37
Robin Williams -0.34 10.56 10.91
Steve Martin 2.54 9.83 7.29
Michael Keaton 1.69 9.73 8.03
Bruce Willis -4.13 9.63 13.77
Bradley Cooper -6.69 8.27 14.96
Leonardo DiCaprio -0.01 8.23 8.24
Tom Hanks 1.53 8.11 6.58
Brad Pitt 4.23 7.18 2.96
Matt Damon 3.70 6.83 3.14
Will Smith -0.33 6.22 6.55
George Clooney 5.86
Kevin Costner 0.65 5.73 5.07
Matthew McConaughey -0.19 5.40 5.59
Russell Crowe -2.11 3.44 5.55
Channing Tatum 1.59
Table of actors and their average age gaps when aged 0-34 and 35+.
George Clooney has no applicable films when aged younger than 35 and conversely Channing Tatum has none so far over the age of 35.

See the sidebar to view charts of each actor’s career like the one above for Tom Cruise.

Most of the average age gaps increase by more than 5 years after the male actors turn 35 years old, although Brad Pitt and Matt Damon limit their increases to about 3 years. Bradley Cooper’s average age gap undergoes the greatest transformation from almost seven years younger than his female colleagues when aged 0-34, to eight years older when aged 35+.

40% of our actors have average age gaps below zero when they are aged 0-34, meaning they are on average younger than their female colleagues. Excluding Ford, the highest average age gap while aged 0-34 is a little over four years. After turning 35 years old, every actor has an average age gap above five years, apart from Russell Crowe (and Channing Tatum as explained above).

We’ve shown that the average gender age difference increases dramatically after the men turn 35. But what about the frequency of the male actors appearing alongside older or younger female actors?

Number of movies where male/female actor is older when male is aged 0-34 and 35+.

Number of movies where male/female actor is older when male is aged 0-34 and 35+.
When aged 35+, the men are older in 91% of cases.

After turning 35 years old the male actors appear in many more films with younger female counterparts than they do earlier in their careers. When the men are aged 0-34, they are older than their female colleagues in 58% of 106 cases. After turning 35, the men are older in 91% of 311 cases.

Some screenplays require significant age differences between romantic partners and we have not excluded these cases. For example, Steve Martin is 33 years older than Claire Danes in Shopgirl (2005) and Michael Douglas is 44 years older than Imogen Poots in Solitary Man (2010). In these instances the character age discrepancies are built into the stories and therefore influence the casting decisions.

There are only a handful of such cases, though, and it is interesting to observe, at least for this combined filmography from 20 male actors, that there are no movies where an equivalent age gap occurs in the reverse, let alone close to 33 or 44 years. In fact, the greatest age disparity where a female actor is older than any of our 20 men in a romantic scenario is 11 years in the film The Insider (1999), in which Russell Crowe and Diane Venora play spouses.

Men of a certain age

When we plot the ages of the male group as a whole together with the women who played their romantic interests we can observe where the gender ages diverge and by how much. For all the movies released when the men are in their twenties the average male age is 27.19 years. The average age of the women playing the romantic interest roles in these movies is slightly older at 27.61 but they are so close that we can consider them to be equal.

Average actor ages (by gender) grouped by male decade

Average actor ages (by gender) grouped by male decade.

The gap starts to widen when the men reach their thirties. As the decades progress the gap continues to increase until the male age decade of 50-59 where the gap is at its maximum of 14 years. The difference only decreases slightly when we move into the male decade of 60-69.

Male actor age decade Average male age Average female age Difference
20-29 27.19 27.61 -0.42
30-39 35.88 31.44 4.45
40-49 44.44 34.88 9.56
50-59 53.94 39.75 14.19
60-69 63.96 50.86 13.09
Average actor ages (by gender) grouped by male decade.

We can see the strong bias towards the males being older than the females when we plot their ages on a scatter (X, Y) graph. The blue diagonal line shows the 1:1 ratio between male (X axis) and female (Y axis) ages. The shaded gold area covers the range where the age difference is plus or minus ten years.

Age plot of male and female actor ages

Age plot of male and female actor ages.

In 64% of cases the male and female actors’ ages are within nine years of each other. Some readers may feel that a nine year difference is hardly controversial. But consider the distribution of the data: there is a heavy skew towards the males being older. It is much more likely that the male is older by 2-9 years than the reverse. Further, the remaining 36% is almost entirely made up of films where the men are older by more than nine years.

Male age compared to female Percentage
Older 20+ years older 6.70
15-19 years older 10.07
10-14 years older 18.23
6-9 years older 17.75
4-5 years older 11.75
2-3 years older 10.79
Within 1 year (+/- 1 year) 14.87
Younger 2-3 years younger 4.32
4-5 years younger 2.64
6-9 years younger 1.92
10-14 years younger 0.96
15-19 years younger 0.00
20+ years younger 0.00
Distribution of age disparities in Hollywood movies (male actor age compared to female).

In more than a third of movies (35%) the male is older by at least ten years and in more than half of movies (52%) the male is older by six years. Conversely less than 1% of female actors are more than ten years older (4 movies to be precise), and a little less than 3% are more than six years older.

Distribution of age disparities in Hollywood movies (male actor age compared to female)

Distribution of age disparities in Hollywood movies (male actor age compared to female).

Stranger than fiction? Hollywood versus the U.S.

Some defenders of the Hollywood studio casting system may argue that these movies are only presenting a reflection of relationships in real life. But when we compare our film age gap data with the United States married population we find a wildly different result.

Age gap comparison between Hollywood movies and U.S. married heterosexual couples

Age gap comparison between Hollywood movies and U.S. married heterosexual couples.

Using heterosexual U.S. marriages as the comparison to our on-screen heterosexual movie relationships, it is clear that Hollywood does not come close to matching the population. In 53% of U.S. marriages the men are either within one year or are 2-3 years older than the women (a range of -1 to +3), whereas in 53% of Hollywood movies the male actors are six or more years older than their female colleagues.

In 53% of cases Hollywood male actors are 6+ years older.

There is still a skew towards husbands being older than wives in U.S. marriages but the distribution of the U.S. marriage data has a wider spread and is also unimodal. That is, the married data is more varied (for example, it has data points at “15-19 years younger” and “20+ years younger” whereas Hollywood does not), and has one clear peak at “Within 1 year” compared to Hollywood’s cluster of peaks.

It should be noted that we are comparing U.S. marriages from the 2013 census with movies released in the past 35 years containing on-screen romantic situations: everything from marriages, de facto relationships and romantic pursuits to ex-partners and one night stands. Nonetheless the difference in the data distributions is big enough to confidently state that romantic character age gaps in Hollywood movies starring the leading male actors of the past 35 years do not reflect society.

Conclusion

We aggregated the filmographies of 20 of the top male Hollywood actors from 1980-2015 and examined the age differences between these men and the female actors who played their on-screen romantic interests. We found a mysterious male age of 35 years old where the female actor casting pattern changes dramatically.

When the male actors are aged 0-34, they are frequently paired up on-screen with similarly-aged female actors. After the age of 35 years, though, the male actors are repeatedly paired up with significantly younger women: on average, ten years younger.

Before we can definitively prove a casting pattern, though, we need to look at the data from another angle. In part 2 we will reverse our analysis and examine the careers of the top female actors from 1980-2015, and the ages of the men who played their on-screen romantic interests.

Will the women remain consistently younger than the men or will A-list actors like Julia Roberts, Meryl Streep, Jodie Foster and Sally Field challenge our results? Stay tuned.

 

Data sources: IMDB, various film studio web sites, U.S. Census Current Population Survey (2013), Wikipedia.

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