Actor Dennis Quaid — who, however you remember him from his 1980s movie heyday, is now a rugged, ruddy-cheeked 65-year-old Esurance pitchman — recently announced his engagement to Laura Savoie, a comely Ph.D. student from the University of Texas who is all of 26. They have been dating since June.
The announcement of any kind of relationship between a wealthy, powerful man and a much younger, beautiful woman is both surprising and yet, at the same time, the oldest news of all. Reading about such pairings can feel simultaneously jarring and wearying.
May-December couples get media attention all the time: Alec and Hilaria Baldwin (a 26-year age gap); Jeff Goldblum and Emilie Livingston (a 30-year age gap); Patrick Stewart and Sunny Ozell (a 38-year age gap). Even Annette Bening and Warren Beatty have 20 years between them — though perhaps they seem a more equitable pairing now due to Bening’s prominence as an actress, which has increased since they began their relationship. (She was a best supporting actress Oscar nominee for "The Grifters" while shooting "Bugsy" with Beatty, though they have stated their relationship started after the movie wrapped.) If we were to list every recent May-December couple where the elder party is a famous man, the list would trail to the bottom of the page.
But the pairing of Quaid and Savoie sparked a particularly bemused reaction because of Quaid’s leading role in the 1998 remake of “The Parent Trap,” in which he introduces a much-younger love interest to his devilish twin daughters, who plot to break it up. As the New York Post reported, Elaine Hendrix, who portrayed said younger love interest, tweeted in response to the news: “Watch out for those twins.” (Hendrix, by the way, is now 48 — only a year older than Kimberly Buffington Quaid, with whom the actor finalized his divorce in 2018.)
You could say that, in the final analysis, what draws two adults to each other is nobody else’s business — but when such developments are featured as news because one of the principals went on an infotainment program to share his joy about his engagement as part of the promotion for his forthcoming movie, we are then all but invited to mull over the details, what it all means and how we feel about it.
And many of us find we’re whirling in that weird place between “Welp, you do you” and “Ugh, here we go again.” When the parallel between the plot of his 1998 post-addiction comeback vehicle and his now-real-life created the opportunity to examine — and gently mock — the absurdity of gender inequality when it comes to dating younger, who could resist? (I’ve been the young chickadee myself, having dated a man older than my father when I was in my early 20s.)
In “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes,” Lorelei Lee, played by Marilyn Monroe way back in 1953, uttered the classic line, “Don't you know that a man being rich is like a girl being pretty? You wouldn't marry a girl just because she's pretty, but my goodness, doesn't it help?” Well, yes, but the opportunity to acquire material wealth is more or less unbounded by age, but a woman's youth and beauty is a depreciating — and, as the thrice-married Quaid can attest — externally replaceable asset. Therein lies the inequality.
The difference in opportunity between men and women around dating and mating younger is so pronounced, sometimes all one can do is point it out and laugh. In the 1989 film “When Harry Met Sally,” which was written by Nora Ephron, Meg Ryan’s character Sally Albright bemoans to her friend Harry Burns, played by Billy Crystal, a dreaded future in which her prospects dry up at 40. “And it’s not the same for women,” she weeps angrily. “Charlie Chaplin had babies when he was 70.”
“Yeah,” says Harry, “but he was too old to pick ‘em up.”
A decade after the movie came out, famed newsman and serial groom Larry King and his seventh wife, Shawn Southwick — with whom there is a 26-year age difference — had their first of two children. King was 66. He was in storied company: Clint Eastwood, Anthony Quinn and Steve Martin are among the actors who have had children in their 60s with women two decades (or more) their junior.
Let’s not pretend for one second that women, however wealthy, successful or beautiful, enjoy the same wealth of opportunity to date younger and younger as they get older and more successful.
Lisa Bonet (who is 12 years older than husband Jason Momoa), Demi Moore (whose married and divorced the 16-years-younger Ashton Kutcher) and Susan Sarandon (who was partnered with the 12-years-younger actor Tim Robbins, and later dated Jonathan Bricklin, who is 30 years her junior) are outliers even in Hollywood, let alone in the real world. In a recent New York magazine piece about dating a younger man, author Sarah Miller noted “It’s considered an older man’s right to date younger women and also just an inevitable result of biology."
But, she added, for all that women who date younger men are venerated as cougars, there’s a simultaneous top note of desperation in this feline characterization. "The cougar is also sad, because to get what it wants, it must hunt. No one hunts the cougar.” (Miller’s boyfriend, her inspiration for the piece, is a mere nine years younger than she. And, she notes, contrary to stereotype, he made the first move.)
So, sure, it's none of our concern when an older man is lovestruck with some pretty young woman. But when it follows the same pattern — always an older man, always a young women — it's not about Dennis and Laura. It's about what we value in women, and when we stop valuing it. And that's all of our business.
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CORRECTION (Oct. 23, 2019 11:43 a.m. ET) An earlier version of this article incorrectly described Annette Bening as an Oscar winner in 1990. She was nominated for best supporting actress for "The Grifters" that year, but lost to Whoopi Goldberg for "Ghost."