We all know that love is not just for the young. While plenty of people experience romantic passion well after the age of 50, Hollywood tends to favor films about people in their 20s and 30s. A 2020 study conducted by the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media found that women over 50 are relegated to supporting roles in most major films. No women over 50 were cast as leads in 2019’s top movies — and when they did appear, they were portrayed as stubborn, unattractive, or grumpy. The same study found women make up only 25 percent of characters over 50, compared with 75 percent of men. This means there’s definitely a dearth of movies with mature love stories.
But don’t let these dispiriting numbers fool you. Just because there are fewer swoon-worthy romances starring mature women doesn’t mean they don’t exist. Here are eight of the best — allow yourself to be swept off your feet by the magic of these movies.
The Notebook (2004)
If you only glance at the movie poster for The Notebook, you might assume it’s about a whirlwind 1940s romance between 20-something stars Rachel McAdams (who plays Allie) and Ryan Gosling (who plays Noah). But the story is more nuanced than that. In the film, an older couple (played by James Garner and Gena Rowlands) portray Allie and Noah in the present day, many years after their first meeting. She’s losing her memory and no longer recognizes him, so he reads her the story of their relationship from the notebook that she wrote in as a younger woman. (Hence, the title.) Despite the pain of Allie’s confusion over Noah’s identity, the narration of their love story gives her brief moments of clarity, during which she remembers everything — and he lives for these moments. “That’s my sweetheart in there,” he tells his children when they beg him to leave Allie to her dementia and come home with them. “I’m not leaving her.”
Love Actually (2003)
Love Actually is a British Christmas film with a large and likable ensemble cast rounding out ten competing storylines. All of them intertwine and detail love in some form or other. Their plots are mostly cheerful — except for one, which is a whole lot more melancholy. Karen (Emma Thompson) and Harry (Alan Rickman) are a long-time married couple who seem reasonably content… until Karen finds a gold necklace Harry has purchased and assumes it will be her Christmas present. When he gives her a Joni Mitchell CD instead, she realizes the necklace was intended for someone else (he’s entertaining an affair with his secretary). While this plotline is heart-breaking, it’s also the most realistic and moving one in the film: Karen is a woman who must acknowledge that her marriage isn’t what she thought it was, stand up to her husband, and make a hard decision about what she deserves.
Something’s Gotta Give (2003)
You can never go wrong with Nancy Meyers, who writes rom-coms that are cozy and feminine in equal measure (The Holiday, The Parent Trap, Father of the Bride). This one stars Jack Nicholson as Harry and Diane Keaton as Erica, a 60-something and 50-something who fall for each other. Harry is a lothario who only dates younger women (he at one point compliments the “sweet, uncomplicated satisfaction” of May-December mingling). When the story begins, Harry is dating Marin (Amanda Peet) but soon begins to form a deeper connection with her mother Erica. However, Erica is too close to Harry’s age! Can he handle a wise woman who knows her worth? See this one for the laughs — like when Harry has a heart attack during, shall we say, a more “intimate” moment — and stay for one of the first modern films that dared to portray actors in their 60s as romantically desirable leads.
Sideways follows two men in their 40s — depressed divorcé Miles (Paul Giamatti) and soon-to-be-married Jack (Thomas Haden Church), who take a road trip through the vineyards of Santa Barbara wine country together in the week leading up to Jack’s wedding. While Jack is looking to enjoy his last taste of freedom, Miles cares only about sipping the perfect Pinot Noir. As they travel up the coast of California, the men meet two women (also in their 40s) who surprise them — Miles falls for Maya (Virginia Madsen) and Jack contemplates leaving his young bride-to-be for Stephanie (Sandra Oh). Hilarity ensues when mid-life crises hit both male leads hard (in one memorable scene, Miles receives some disappointing professional news, enters a winery where a server refuses him a full glass of wine, and ends up chugging from a spit bucket) but mainly the film is a slow-burner about getting out of a rut and finding the guts to start over.
Destination Wedding (2018)
Ah, the dreaded destination wedding — where you’re expected to spend your hard-earned cash to fly to some exotic locale and watch other people tie the knot. That’s the basis of Destination Wedding, a film starring Keanu Reeves and Winona Ryder as two wedding guests who find themselves reluctantly lumped together in Paso Robles (yes, it’s another California wine country movie). Neither character is a fan of the bride, the groom, or love in general; he’s a bitter kill-joy who doesn’t believe in true romance and she’s still heartbroken over her ex, who just happens to be the guy getting married. As the weekend’s events force them together time and again, the surly pair go from constant verbal sparring to getting intimate outdoors after they’re almost attacked by a mountain lion.
Away From Her (2006)
Not all love stories have happy endings, and not every film on our list is a comedy. In fact, Away From Her is as far from a rom-com as you can get: it’s a poignant tale of a retired couple whose marriage is tested when the wife begins to develop Alzheimer’s and moves into a nursing home. Julie Christie stars as Fiona, who voluntarily enters the facility rather than burden her husband Grant (Gordon Pinsent). But once they’re separated due to a “no visitors” policy, Fiona quickly loses her memories of her husband. When he’s finally allowed to see her again, Grant discovers she’s developed a close relationship with another nursing home resident instead. The film observes the quiet but devastating creep of this memory-loss disease while simultaneously asking profound questions about fidelity, commitment, and what is important after 45 years of marriage.
The Bridges of Madison County (1995)
Just as not all love stories have happy endings, not all romances must be complete. Some of the most memorable relationships are only brief — but passionate — affairs. Meryl Streep was 46 when she starred in The Bridges of Madison County opposite Clint Eastwood, who also directed the movie (he was 65 at the time). Eastwood plays world-traveling National Geographic photographer Robert, who meets housewife Francesca on an assignment in Iowa and falls in love. They spend only four days together, but it’s enough for Francesca to acknowledge her unfulfilling marriage and think longingly about leaving it all behind to run away with Robert. Despite what they feel for one another, they decide not to pursue a life together. Francesca has children in addition to a marriage, and where younger characters might have run off into the unrepentant sunset together, these two understand that sometimes personal happiness must be sacrificed in the name of duty. But they’ll always have the memories.
On Golden Pond (1981)
Henry Fonda and Katharine Hepburn both won Academy Awards for their performances in On Golden Pond, and they portray the eldest fictional couple on our list. The actors were 76 and 74 (respectively) at the time of filming, and this ended up being Fonda’s final movie. The narrative begins with the arrival of a long-married couple at the lakeside cottage where they’ve spent many joyful summers. Fonda plays Norman, a curmudgeonly professor who has an estranged relationship with their daughter Chelsea — portrayed by real-life daughter Jane Fonda — and Hepburn plays Ethel, a character who has infinite tenderness for her husband and knows him better than anyone. When their daughter shows up at the lake with her fiancé and his young son, the family struggles to set old differences aside — until an unexpected bond blooms between Norman and the boy. It’s worth watching to see two iconic actors at the top of their game; these performances are the reason this relationship feels so believable, so lived in. Hepburn even did her own stunts, insisting on diving into the freezing lake without the aid of a wetsuit because she wanted authenticity. There’s less lust and drama here (aside from one relatively harmless boating accident) but it’s a convincing depiction of what real partnership looks like.
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