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Former White House intern Monica Lewinsky hugs President Clinton at the White House, November 6 1996 during a ceremony gathering the White House interns (REUTERS)
Former White House intern Monica Lewinsky hugs President Clinton at the White House, November 6 1996 during a ceremony gathering the White House interns (REUTERS)

Leah McLaren

Older man with an innocent younger woman? Fine, if you hold the sex Add to ...

Back when I was a wet-behind-the-ears summer intern, in the dark ages before Twitter or Facebook were invented, I remember overhearing two senior female colleagues discussing the story of the year: the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal.

"The real question is, what on earth would a bright young girl like that see in a fat old fart like him?" one woman said to her friend, who cackled in agreement.

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These women were in their forties. Possibly their fifties. Anyway, they seemed very old to me at the time. And not just old, but blind! I wanted to pop up, irate muppet-style, and shout at them over my cubicle wall. Are you kidding me? The man is Leader of the Free World, what's not hot about that?

A spate of recent movies exploring the time-honoured relationship between weak-willed older men and their nubile female counterparts has got me thinking once again of Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky - and all the other doomed May-December romances since.

It wasn't just the news of Larry King's retirement or Hugh Heffner's engagement to yet another blonde bunny. Three recent movies - the Coen Brothers' True Grit, Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu's Biutiful and Sofia Coppola's Somewhere - focus on the unexpected bond that forms between a hapless-but-charismatic older man and an innocent young woman. In two of these examples ( Somewhere and Biutiful), the man and woman are father and daughter, but in each case the relationship is non-sexual - a far cry from Clinton-and-Lewinsky's Oval Office cigar tricks.

But in each of these films, viewers (particularly female viewers of a certain age) would be forgiven for thinking, 'What on earth does she see in an old fart like him?'

The answer is as baffling as it is painfully obvious. Young women see the same thing in older men that older men see in young women: Possibility. Old men rule the world, young women want to understand it, and together they can uncover the mysteries of the universe and make beautiful cinematic love - so long as they don't ruin the whole thing by actually sleeping together. (Or so Hollywood tells us - I'll get there in a minute.)

In Somewhere, Johnny Marco, a drug-and-fame-addled movie star played by Stephen Dorff, finds his world shifted when his tween daughter (Elle Fanning) comes to stay with him, having been more or less abandoned by her mother. What follows is a nearly silent narrative in which the grown man sees all his vices and defence mechanisms circumvented by a girl who, unlike all the other fawning groupies and handlers in his life, appears to have no expectations of him apart from the most uncomplicated kind of love.

Midway through the film, she elects to cook eggs Benedict for her Dad and a grunting member of his entourage in their half-trashed suite at the Chateau Marmont. The scene, which injects a kind of wholesome earnestness into the hyper-sexed, emotionally-detached landscape of his life, is like watching a Norman Rockwell scene materialize in the middle of Helmut Newton photo - the incongruity of innocence colliding with experience.

In True Grit, the moral lessons are decidedly more clear. A plucky teenage heroine with a strict moral code shows a drunken bounty hunter (Jeff Bridges) a better way - and ultimately finds herself rescued in the process.

And then there is Biutiful, in which the father-daughter bond culminates in the movie's final scene - a heartbreaking portrait of familial intimacy and (you guessed it) human mortality.

And speaking of mortality, isn't that really the rub of it - this cinematic attraction between older men and sweet young things? Whether it's the dewy Natalie Portman captivating hearts in The Professional and Beautiful Girls or anything ever made by Woody Allen, the furtive death-cheat is surely the force that drives anxious old guys into the arms of their nubile saviours.

Mortality is certainly what motivates Michael Douglas's compulsively cheating character in Solitary Man. When asked by his ex-wife (Susan Sarandon) what he gets out of his obsessive skirt-chasing, he unapologetically snorts, "Plenty." But the narrative begs to differ. After a dirty weekend with the wrong teenager, he ends up with virtually nothing, his life on the line - for reasons other than imminent heart failure.

The cinematic message to older men is clear: Cultivate the company of much younger women, let them save you, but do not, under any circumstances, have sex with them.

Of course in real life, I won't need to remind you, things are a bit different. Older men sleep with much younger women all the time - because they want to and because they can. And because young women are happy to have them, especially if they happen to be charming, powerful or rich.

A dozen years after Clinton/Lewinsky, I am now old enough to understand why this state of affairs baffles and annoys my senior female colleagues. But I am also young enough to remember precisely why it happens.

The difference is a simple matter of perception. When an older woman looks at Bill Clinton she sees a fat, philandering husband, unable to control his worst impulses. But when a young woman looks at him she sees what Monica saw: the President.

 

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