I am fascinated by True Detective, the HBO series that does a masterful job of character development. But I wish it had been a bit braver in its choice of female leads.
The show is a dark crime procedural centered around two troubled and diametrically different cops. The quirkier character, played by a surprisingly talented Matthew McConaughey (I’m sorry, but I’m still recovering from his awful performance in my fave movie Contact) is the character a lot of people are talking about. But, for me, the far more interesting character is the one played by Woody Harrelson.
Harrelson’s character is the “normal” one to the casual observer. He’s married and has two daughters. McConaughey’s is a loner who talks about weird stuff. But it’s actually Harrelson’s character who has far deeper psychological issues. McConaughey knows himself, his drinking, the difficulties he presents to people trying to relate to him. Harrelson has no such insight.
He is a narcissist who has learned to parrot all the right lines without meaning any of them. He talks a lot about how a man needs a family but treats his own with reckless, entitled abandon. When his wife first suspects (rightly) that he is cheating on her, he weasels out of any meaningful conversation in one of the most masterfully written scenes of whiny self-pity and manipulation I’ve ever seen. (All I’m saying is that someone in that writer’s room has been in a relationship with a narcissist).
So why am I disappointed? Well, for being such a powerfully-written show which takes such an unflinching look at the human condition, it has fallen into one of the silliest if most ubiquitous traps in TV and film. Woody Harrelson, who plays the troubled, thirty-something detective, is 52 years old. Michelle Monahan, who plays his wife, is 37 (you might remember her as the innocent co-worker in North Country, which starred Charlize Theron).. Alexandra Daddario, his mistress, is 28 years old, nearly half his age. The last time I saw her was in the Percy Jackson teen movies. Like… last year.
These age disparities are not addressed, because, in Hollywood, Harrelson and Monahan are supposed to look like peers. Except they’re not. Harrelson is being afforded the privilege of playing a character 15 years younger. If Monahan was given that same chance, she’d have a role as a college student instead of a staid mother of two (a role she could probably pull off). But that just doesn’t happen in Hollywood.
Why? Is it as simple as the fact that movies and TV shows are written, directed, cast, green lit and funded by men? And that watching the 52-year-old (still hot, by the way) Harrelson bag the thirty-something-year-old cutie makes them feel more virile somehow?
It’s sad really. Watch the love interests of all your favorite middle-aged men – Tom Cruise, Harrison Ford, George Clooney – and do the math on the age difference. It’s never less than 15 years and it’s often close to 30. For example, when Up In The Air was touted as a movie which depicted a mature female lead, no one mentioned that Vera Farmiga, who held her own so beautifully with Clooney, is actually twelve years younger. This is nothing new, of course. When Mrs. Robinson was trying to seduce the Dustin Hoffman character in The Graduate, Anne Bancroft, the actress who played her, was only six years older than Hoffman, not a whole generation. This tendency to cast men as younger than they really are while not giving women the same break is an age-old Hollywood tradition.
I know this is supposed to feed the male fantasy that they’ll be scoring with co-eds even after they’re gray. But it’s kind of silly. It’s far sexier to see a man who can hold his own against a woman who has lived a little. While Monahan does a fine job, there a certain doe-eyed quality to her that doesn’t give her character the weary depth she could have had if played by Harrelson’s peer in age. As a viewer you sense that Monahan’s character, with her perky boobs and pre-pubescent boy legs (fully and gratuitously on display, by the way) plays an essentially decorative role and that her inner journey doesn’t matter. But what levels of reproach and rage might an Emma Thompson or a Julianne Moore or a Helen Hunt have brought to the role? We’ll never know. And if it surprises you to hear that those are the actresses who would be far more age-appropriate to Harrelson than Monahan, then maybe Hollywood has convinced you that men can only look impressive around women 20 years their junior.
Watch True Detective for its masterful look at the dark sides of men’s souls. Just don’t expect them to deal with their fear of aging in it.