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« Fischl on Art-World Changes | Main | Virginia Postrel's Essay on Choice »

June 23, 2005

Older Than Mrs. Robinson

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

Anne Bancroft was only 35 when she played "The Graduate"'s Mrs. Robinson. As for me, when I saw the movie I was a teenager who was attending one of his first R-rated movies. To my very young self, Mrs. Robinson seemed both sexy and frighteningly mature. Now that I'm in my 50s, 35-year-old women look like they're barely out of girlhood. Yet at the same time, Mrs. Robinson seems forever lodged in my brain as the timeless and eternal, predatory and self-confident "older woman." This aging thing can be confusing.

When Anne Bancroft's obituaries appeared recently, I wondered if I was the only person doing the adding and subtracting. My other small discovery: although in "The Graduate" he played a wet-behind-the-ears college kid to Bancroft's mature housewife, Dustin Hoffman is/was in fact only six years younger than Bancroft.

I see that the resourceful Colby Cosh not only did similar math, he has also made a list of current female personalities who are older now than Bancroft was when "The Graduate" opened. Since I can't figure out how to link to individual postings at Colby's site, I'll copy and paste his list, thank him, and urge to you visit regularly.

Here they are, contempo women who are older than Mrs. Robinson:

  • Jennifer Aniston
  • Christy Turlington
  • Debra Messing
  • Catherine Bell
  • Lucy Liu
  • Olivia Williams
  • Jill Hennessy
  • Parker Posey
  • Naomi Watts
  • Chastity Bono

How interesting that none of them have yet begun to play "older woman" roles.



posted by Michael at June 23, 2005


the big question to me is, were 35 year olds women more mature in 1967 than they are now, comparitively speaking.

One thing I've noticed personally is that my generation [born in 1967] takes 6 - 10 year time more to achieve what their parents did, like buying their first house and getting their first mortgage, having children, and the like. We were slowed down a bit, because we had opportunities for schooling our parents never had.

But, that's not all. There suddenly is a cultural thing that people have to look and behave 'young', which originized in the US I am afraid.

Botox, anyone?

Posted by: ijsbrand on June 23, 2005 1:50 PM

. . . Meg Ryan

Posted by: beloml on June 23, 2005 1:54 PM

I do not think Mrs. Robinson was meant to be 35--and couldn't have been, unless she gave birth to a daughter when exceedingly young. Part of the point of my list was that Anne Bancroft had to play a character a few years older, agreed to do so (something no one on my list would ever consider for a second), and gave a very fine performance indeed, faced with the contradictory imperative of the role. (Be sexy! But in a ragged, predatory, vaguely scary and intimidating way!)

Still, there probably is a genuinely changed perception of the 35-year-old female, and part of it is attributable to the extended adolescence we enjoy nowadays. To some degree the changed perceptions are rooted in hard medical progress, too. In Mrs. Robinson's time a woman of 35 was nearing the end of her safe childrearing period, and faced a biologically non-mitigable menopause just around the corner. Plastic surgery was less safe, less effective, and vastly more expensive. The tragedy of Mrs. Robinson is that there is zero chance of a second husband for her, and thus none of escaping her marriage. But at 35, in the year 2005, she'd be pretty damned marketable.

Posted by: Colby Cosh on June 23, 2005 4:37 PM

I'm sure the importance of "looking younger" plays a big part (for both sexes), especially for actresses. No one wants to look "mature" or adult. To play your age (35 or above) is one more step to losing your career. In movies today, when they cast a lead actor's mother, the mother always looks ten years older than the lead actor to make him look younger.

Posted by: Neil on June 23, 2005 4:39 PM

Incidentally, I am still kind of snickering at the discovery that Cher's daughter is old enough to be Mrs. Robinson... perhaps Cher would consider starring in a remake where one side of the triangle is grandmother-granddaughter, rather than mother-daughter?

Posted by: Colby Cosh on June 23, 2005 4:40 PM

I'm almost 50, and I think if I kissed Mrs. Robinson (something I'd love to do), people would think I'm kissing an older woman. It's something in the way she holds herself, the exhaustion and self-contempt in her voice, even the way she'd say the name "Benjamin", that makes her seem, even today, older than me, a comparative innocent 13 years her senior. I can't help thinking that if I was seduced today by Mrs. Robinson (can you tell she turns me on?), she'd have quite a bit to teach me. And she would, too.

Posted by: PatrickH on June 23, 2005 6:41 PM

Ah, who wants to be young, anymore. (Healthy, yes, but young?)

A decade or so ago I was already in my early 40's when it hit me that the women who made me look twice were all mothers of at least preschoolers, usually in their early-to-mid 30s.

Ms. Robinson was in the prime of life...!

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on June 23, 2005 7:19 PM

An even more extreme example of age-inappropriate casting was in the original Manchurian Candidate. Angela Lansbury played Laurence Harvey's mother despite being only two years older than him in real life.
Getting back to The Graduate, I'm reminded of Steve Sailer's recent postings on blonde actresses. Anne Bancroft's dark hair probably made her look older than her actual age of 35 - or, more accurately, she would have looked too young for the part had she been blonde.

Posted by: Peter on June 23, 2005 9:33 PM

Once, when I was about 27, I took a 32-year-old lady dancing. I recall thinking that I'd better treat he very carefully because, since she was so much older, she was probably pretty FRAGILE!!

Ah, the sweet ignorance of early adulthood.

Actually, she was more than 20 % older than me, so I offer that statistic as my flimsy excuse for gross presupposition.

And Friedrich's point is true. Even back in the 60s it was held that guys (especially the ones who'd gone to college or post-grad work) weren't really mature until they were about 30, and I agreed. My corollary at the time was, it applied to women at age 25. Since then, as I've gotten older, I've kept an informal metric in mind regarding minimal age for "cradle-robbing". Presently, it's about 15 years younger than my present age (65). It rules out possible dates, but it also keeps me from doing seriously foolish things, relationship-wise.

(For regular Blowhards readers familiar with my articles and comments, the above point is moot, thanks to The Lady Friend.)

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on June 23, 2005 11:17 PM

"# Jennifer Aniston
# Christy Turlington -1
# Debra Messing -1
# Catherine Bell -1
# Lucy Liu
# Olivia Williams -1
# Jill Hennessy -1
# Parker Posey
# Naomi Watts
# Chastity Bono"

(Numbers from
The really interesting thing about this list is how many do NOT have children or have only 1. Having to take responsibility for the care of another human being is imo the one thing that matures both men and women regardless of age.

Posted by: lindenen on June 24, 2005 1:25 AM

It was the voice. The raspy baritone is intimidating in a woman as it projects experience, toughness and 'a past'. One of the key's to Bogie's image as a tough guy was the fact that he wasn't scared s**tless by the 19 year old Bacall.

We still have actresses with The Voice, but not in leading roles. The last one was Kathleen Turner and she hasn't done leading roles in decades. Oh, and Debra Winger. She didn't last long because she turned out to be just as complicated as her voice indicated. Maybe they're too hard to write for. Or maybe complexity in women isn't what they're selling these days.

Posted by: Sluggo on June 24, 2005 10:35 AM

"Complexity"? What's that?

Older women ... Funny how your concept of that changes over time. When I was in junior high, the highschool senior girls looked over the hill, somehow not fresh enough. When I was a college freshman, I had a little romance with a sophomore -- now was that playing the big leagues or what? And then the next year I had a little romance with a grad student. I figured I liked women with a little livin' under their belts. These days I consider anyone that age to be barely out of diapers. One of the nicer things about aging is the way we (some of us anyway) open up to a bigger variety of charm and beauty.

How old did y'all take Mrs. Robinson to be? Anne Bancroft may have been 35, but I guess I took her character to be about ... I dunno. 42? 45? Something scarily old, like that.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on June 24, 2005 10:52 AM

"Older woman" concept, I guess, is similar to "older man".
I recall now how my girlfriends in 7th grade envied me with my first "adult" boyfriend of 17, with his mustache and meter-wide shoulders. I couldn't make them understand I was the "older" one in that relationship.

My ex is 8 yrs older than me, and my perception of his age changed drastically over the 20 yrs we were married.
When I met him I was, frankly, flattered that somebody so much wiser and with access to much more sophisticated women paid attention to silly me. Anything he said or liked was indisputably superior. I'll let you guess what I think of him now.

I had met unbeleivably smart, sexy and complex people in their 20's as well as total self-important asses (in all senses) in their 50's. And vice-versa.

Raspy voice of "experience, past and toughness" in a women...I think present a challenge for a man. Not all men like challenges.

Posted by: Tatyana on June 24, 2005 12:09 PM

I remember when I used to dream about older women.

Now, they're all my age.

Posted by: Billy Beck on June 24, 2005 12:25 PM

From a novel by Herbert Gold - Daughter Mine - about (among other things) a sixty-something man's rediscovery of a former twenty-something lover who is now in her mid-forties:

What he was beginning to feel was that, beside her ideologies, Margaret Torres also possessed, the more he looked at her, the more he sneaked little peeks at her, a worn, creased, weather-bruised, middle-aged prettiness. Wicca worship didn't ruin it. He was revising all his assumptions.

Posted by: ricpic on June 24, 2005 12:51 PM


That's just a word for a woman to whom you are irresistably drawn, but has a big 'trouble' sign around her neck.

This thread did remind me that in my early 20s I had an affair with a woman around 35. I still think of her from time to time, but until today it hadn't occurred to me that she is very close to 70 now.

Thank you. Please pass the beaker of Draino.

Posted by: Sluggo on June 24, 2005 4:10 PM

1. The biggest star of 'em all--Julia Roberts--is also older than Ann B. when she did The Graduate.

2. I never got the impression Mrs. Robinson wanted to "escape into a second marriage." As I recall, her hubby did quite well financially, which would have been important to Mrs. R. I think Mrs. R. just liked the power trip of the whole thing. When Benjamin askes her---"Shouldn't we talk first?" and her answer is "Whatever for?" when they meet at the hotel for a tryst. She likes being in charge. You guys act like Benjamin was the only younger man she ever seduced. I got the impression Mrs. R. was quite experienced at the whole thing.

3. Their first choice for Mrs. R. was Doris Day--talk about Pillow Talk! :)-who had twice the bod of Anne B. and would have been a helluva choice---too bad Doris chickened out.

Posted by: annette on June 24, 2005 4:28 PM

Let's face it people, we ALL know men are 'way less mature socially & emotionally than women, I don't give a damn how "old" they are. So, therefore it follows that they are all "younger men" to us women.

Just a wee bit of wisdom from a "woman of a certain age."

Posted by: Joyce on June 24, 2005 5:48 PM

"Maturity"? What's "maturity"?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on June 25, 2005 11:29 AM

I once saw a great feature in a magazine or newspaper where they showed photos of cinematic mothers and sons that were very close in age. In one instance, I believe, the actress was actually younger than the actor.

A photo of Angela Landsbury and Laurence Harvey from "The Manchurian Candidate" was part of this article. The only other one that I remember offhand included Cary Grant and his cinematic mother who was about the same age (or maybe she was the one who was a bit younger).

It's interesting to understand how films "get away" with this -- as film (as opposed to theater) is a "realistic" media. Of course, make-up may be a part of it. But with acting being such a competitive field one would think that most directors would eschew this route.

In my skimming of the previous posts, one reason that I don't recall being mentioned so far is the idea that traditionally in our culture (even, to some degree, in the 1920s, etc.) women usually spend a lot of time and effort to actually look younger in real life. So one's mother is not really "supposed" to look THAT much older than a son in the first place.

- - - - - -

But people brought up another interesting point that interests me: Are people today "younger" (in appearance, in behavior, in achievement, etc.) than people of the same age in years past?

To my way of thinking the answer is most definately, "Yes"!

Take teeth for instance. Most of the people in my parents generation (and socio-economic group) had dentures, etc. at an early age. Most of my cousins etc. have their own teeth, albeit with some crowns and bridgework. When I asked my cousin's boys about cavaties (when they were about eight years old or so), none of them had ever had one!!! (One of them said they had a friend who had had one!) I used to have about three at each annual dental visit.

When I was a kid (at least in my neighborhood and socio-economic group) adults really didn't ride bicycles, roller skate (at least outside of a roller rink) or dress "young." If an adult got on a bike, we kids would have thought it to be very funny -- like seeing a man in a dress (or a woman in pants).

I think part of the change is a result of a general societal shift. In past generations I don't think people aspired to be "young" to the quite the same degree as they do these days. People wanted to be older (or mature) at least in a number of ways. (For one thing, I believe it was VERY rare for young men to make good money in those days. Even a lawyer out of Harvard Law School, probably had to pay his "societal dues" first.)

Although women did probably try to look younger even in, let's say the 1920s and 1930s, I think it was to a lesser degree than today and it was not as universal an aspiration either. I think in many parts of the country and in many socio-economic groups a MARRIED woman didn't mind looking a bit mature (it might have even given her some added stature with unmarried young woman), and as she got older and became a grandmother etc. there was no thought to look like anything else but a grandmother. To look too young would be to look kind of foolish.

I think socio-economic class, rising affluence and mass culture may be important factors here -- with America becoming more affluent in general and with some socio-economic class distinctions falling with the advent of mass culture (TV and the internet).

Plus as someone noted earlier, being a mother or father takes a lot out of people. I remember visiting Red Hook, Brooklyn, in the late 1960s and being startled by how "old" and drawn out some of the young woman pushing baby carriages were. I got the feeling it was because of their hard life (and hard living -- like smoking and drinking).

When I went to live with my foster parents in the South Bronx, they were about 50 and 53 years old. Generally speaking, they and their (working class) friends were invariably overweight and frumpy looking. Even my friends' mother, Anna, who was relatively young and pretty (and probably in her late 20s?) had the house dress & "babushka" (sp?) look (and a gold crown).

Although my foster mother had some make-up and dress up things, I think they were reserved for events like weddings, etc. And I remember her saying one time (when she was in her late 50s or early 60s?) how out of place she felt at a social event (where I think most of the women were from a different socio-economic class) because all the women were so "dolled up" and young looking (some maybe even having had plastic surgery).

My foster father was an exception to some degree, though. He liked to dress up and had nice clothes. (He was proud that people in his local crowd used to compare to NYC's dapper mayor, Jimmy Walker.) But even so, looking back I realize he had about the most awful teeth I've ever seen. At that time, he had only a handful of very brown teeth in his mouth (he was a heavy smoker), the most prominent one being a brown, twisted front tooth. (A few years later, some of these teeth had to be pulled, and he finally got dentures. My foster mother had alread had dentures by this time.) To a two-year old in the 1950s, having known no other environment, this look was "natural," however, and one time I told him -- to his delight -- that he looked just like "Ollie" the dragon on one of my favorite TV shows, "Kookla, Fran and Ollie."

By the way, looking at photos of people in the past (for instance I was just looking through a book on Coney Island) it's interesting to notice how a) old everyone looks (even people who cannot really be that old), and b) how out of shape (unathletic) even the "in shape" people look.

Some examples:

Looking at the illustrated booklet that comes with the "Brigadoon" CD you see a picture of three people who won some kind of prize to see "Brigadoon" and meet the cast. These people are obviously "dolled up" but they don't present a healthy attractive appearance.

Josh Logan was infamous for being the "nudity king" of Broadway and having his male actors appear shockingly undressed (essentially just without a shirt!). It's interesting to see how out of shape these actors look -- despite the fact that Logan purposely chose what was apparently in those days considered athletic actors.

- - - - - - -

Also, it's interesting to remember that in the 1950s an actress's career as a "sex goddess" was considered to be over once she was 30 years old. As I recall, this was a pretty well-known social "rule" that was talked about in newspapers and magazines (although maybe in relatively roundabout terms, though).

So when Brigette Bardot, Marilyn Monroe and Liz Taylor became thirty years old it was considered very newsworthy. And when Monroe committed suicide, one of the big theories was that it was a result of the fact that she was on the wrong side of 30.

When did this change? I don't recall exactly when it changed (to the degree that it has changed), but it seems to me to be an outgrowth of the 1960s counter culture and rock and roll, etc. (I think this also can be said about dressing down and the "rules" for clothing.) Also the post 1960s emphasis on health (diets, jogging, marathon running, etc.) is also an important factor I believe.

I think one of the explicit "milestones" in this change, by the way, was an appearance by Jane Fonda in a scene in the movie, "California Suite," in a bikini. I know when I saw the film, I was startled at how Fonda didn't look her age, and I remember at least one movie reviewer (Vincent Canby from the "Times") also making a comment along those lines.

Posted by: Benjamin Hemric on June 26, 2005 1:22 PM

Great post, Mr. Hemric!

I don't have much to add, except that as someone who grew up in the '50s, I think it was very reassuring to a young person that adulthood and youth were clearly demarcated clearly different states. Much less inner confusion.

Posted by: ricpic on June 26, 2005 5:40 PM

More fascinatingness from Benjamin!

One of the famous age for-instances was Cary Grant and the woman who played his mother in "North by Northwest." Or I'm pretty sure it was, anyway -- reference books are far away at the moment. I seem to remember she may have been a few years younger than he was. Of course, he was Cary Grant, the man who aged better than anyone else in history.

Movies raise all kinds of interesting questions. On the one hand, they're very "real" (or were, before the advent of digitch) -- what was photographed was ... photographed. Much more real and immediate than theater, in any case. And audiences seemed to demand more in the way of representational-reality than they did of theater. At the same time, makeup, lighting, etc... But also our fantasies and feelings. We project onto the screen. We seem to want what's up there to correspond not just to how things really are but to how we feel. Simple for-instance: women onscreen. It's a drag, in many senses, that the gals onscreen are so much better-looking than the general run of gals. On the other hand, audiences seem to demand this -- and not just guys. So, despite the fact that photography is photography of something "real," we want that "reality"{ to embody certain of our fantasies and desires. Fun! If also sometimes perplexing.

So I wonder if a lot of the Mrs. Robinson thing has/had to do with expectations (and fantasies) about what women and men should look like, and how they feel about all this. A brand-new male college grad should (so far as the popular audience is concerned) look a little older and more together than real male college grads look. (Still bedraggled, scrawny and pimply in many cases.) And "the older woman" should maybe -- at least in 1967 -- look like Anne Bancroft did. Certainly worked for the audience at that time anyway.

I had a friend (who'd be about 85 today if she were alive, sigh) who once told me that when she grew up, you automatically assumed that the teeth of anyone older than 40 were fake.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on June 26, 2005 8:21 PM

A propos of we want that "reality" to embody certain of our fantasies and desires":
it works both ways; did in 58', too.
I'm thinking of the *Cat on a hot tin roof* and how 26 yr Taylor looks much older there than 33 yr Newman; you could easy reverse their ages, at least.

Posted by: Tatyana on June 26, 2005 9:01 PM

Thanks ricpic and MB!


I hadn't really thought about that, and I can see some truth to it -- although my guess is that at least a significant portion of young people in the 1950s didn't actually experience it as reassuring at the time, and that this may have been part of the reason for the era's youth "rebellion"?

My guess is that, for some reason, a good number of young people in the 1950s, unlike young people in previous generations, were probably impatient with the established clearly demarcated states, chaffed at them and found them stultifying. (My recollection of the stereotypical teenager in a TV sitcom at the time, for instance, is that he or she felt that he or she was already a "grownup" and wanted to be treated like one.) So it seems to me that it might be possible that the pluses of demarcated states become apparent only in retrospect -- when compared to the present state of affairs. But this is just an off the top of my head guess. (And I suppose a lot also depends on the temperament and personality of the individuals involved -- some liking it and some not.)

Also, it seems to me that in the business world demarcated states might have been used in the past by the "elders" to keep the young competition at bay. I suspect that, economically speaking, we may be better off with a looser, more ambiguous situation where "it doesn't matter how old you are, but what you can do that counts."

Speaking of TV sitcoms as a reflection of the country's more's: can you imagine Ralph Kramden, Ed Norton, Ward Cleaver, Ozzie Nelson and the Robert Young character on "Father Knows Best" roller skating, bike riding, wearing the clothes that teenagers wear (like those trousers that only go down to mid-calf), etc.?


I found that "article" I mentioned. (Actually it was just a short column of three captioned photos that I cut out from a magazine(?) called "Film Comment.") At the top of the column, it says "Short Subjects" and then "Sons & Mothers; a movie miracle; all photos: Museum of Modern Art/Film Stills Archive."

The first photo is of Cary Grant (age 54) and Jessie Royce Landis (54) in "North By Northwest."

The second photo is of Laurence Olivier (age 40) and Eileen Herlie (28) [yes, 28!] in "Hamlet."

The third photo is of Beulah Bondi (age 45) and Thomas Mitchell (45) in "Make Way for Tomorrow."

In the photo from "Hamlet," both Olivier and Herlie appear to be an indeterminate age. Looking at the photo and not knowing anything about it, Herlie could be Olivier's mother, his wife or his daughter.

In the "North by Northwest" photo, Jessie Royce Landis could be Grant's mother or his somewhat matronly dressed wife.

In the "Make Way for Tomorrow" photo, Bondi has what appears to be white hair and is dressed very grandmotherly. So she does look like she could be the mother of Mitchell who doesn't look like a spring chicken either.

I agree that movies reflect an idealized reality -- most of the time moviegoers don't seem to want to bother with average looking people in average looking homes or businesses, etc. But in terms of casting Dustin Hoffman for "the Graduate," I wonder if it might have been a case of it being difficult to find a good enough actor who was actually the right age? (By the way, one of the great things about the movie version of the "Sound of Music," in my opinion, is that Julie Andrews [as opposed to someone like Mary Martin who played the role on stage] really does seem the right age for the role -- and yet possessed the right combination of skills and experience to carry the role off successfully. They were probably really lucky that she was around!)

An interesting tidbit: I believe Lee J. Cobb (b. 1911) was only 38 years old when he played Willy Loman in the 1949 production of "Death of a Salesman" (albeit a play not a movie). I think about the time of Dustin Hoffman's Willy Loman I read an interview with Arthur Miller where he said the Lee J. Cobb was a "walrus of a man" and was "born old."

Posted by: Benjamin Hemric on June 27, 2005 4:18 PM

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