For years Hollywood has been called a “dream factory.” During the 1970s, feminist film critics, like Laura Mulvey, developed the theory of the “male gaze,” suggesting basically that many Hollywood films traditionally objectified women as subjects of male pleasure and desire. From the framing choices, angles, shot selection, lighting, costumes, makeup and editing, all determined mostly by sexist male filmmakers, women weren’t presented as multi-dimensional characters but crafted merely as beautiful images of lustful desire. Typically, female characters were shot with emphasis placed on their appealing facial expressions, eyes, lips, smiles, their luscious flowing hair, legs, and shapely body curves, breasts and back sides. To whatever level viewers accept this theory, it suggests a demeaning view of female characters through a one-dimensional emphasis and visual perspective.
In addition, over the years, I’ve developed a personal theory in teaching film, which I call the “female dependency complex.” This theory concerns the combined casting choices, the age differences between romantic leads, and the roles many actresses were manipulated into by the scripts of these films.
So many of the classic films I have taught, like “Casablanca,” “North by Northwest,” “An American in Paris,” and “Rear Window,“ feature lead actresses who were significantly younger than their male counterparts. They seemingly suggest that young women were looking for father figures as their ideal mate or spouse, and thus further continuing a dependent relationship in romance. With minimal career ambitions, that existed when they were their daddy’s little girls. For instance, in “Rear Window,” Stewart was 46-years-old, while Kelly was just 25. Rarely in films made before the 1970s were there female characters seeking romance with men their age or even slightly younger.
This week’s gem is director Billy Wilder’s incredibly charming “Love in the Afternoon,” a 1957 romantic comedy is about a May-December romance between worldly American businessman and playboy Frank Flannagan (played by a 56-year-old Gary Cooper) and a lovestruck cello-playing, conservatory student named Ariane (played by a 28-year-old Audrey Hepburn). This tale is set in the eternally charming city of Paris. It was based on a novel “Ariane” by Claude Anet and was initially slated for a 53-year-old Cary Grant.
Nevertheless, despite this age discrepancy, with exquisite charm, Wilder’s film pays homage to the sophisticated European styled romantic comedies of filmmaker Ernst Lubitsch, who Wilder worked within the 1930s. Furthermore, Wilder cast a Lubitsch favorite, Maurice Chevalier, as Ariane’s detective father, Claude Chevasse. The film also marked the first collaboration with Wilder and screenwriter I.A.L. Diamond, who would work with Wilder eleven more times in the next three decades.
From the film’s opening scenes of Parisian streets, the charming Chevalier’s voice-over narration explains, “This is Paris. In Paris, people eat better. People make love…well perhaps not better, but certainly more often.” Chevasse is a private investigator who helps his exclusive clientele discretely uncover extra-marital liaisons in some of the fanciest hotels.
When the somewhat precocious Ariane overhears one her father’s jealous clients reveal his plans to shoot his wife’s handsome lover in the Hotel Ritz, Ariane plans to warn the potential victim by showing up before their 10 p.m. planned rendezvous. Ariane’s fellow conservatory student Michel tries to dissuade her and suggests she call the police. But the police tell her this situation is all too common in Paris with jealous husbands.
So, Ariane saves the playboy Flannagan, pretending to be Frank’s amore when the jealous gunman appears. The thankful Flannagan is so charmed by her efforts that he invites her back the next day for a romantic early dinner at 4 p.m., on his last day in Paris. Thus, it begins a wonderful several months of passion, as Ariane explains, “Actually, I don’t much care for young men. Never did. I find them conceited, clumsy and very unimaginative.” But Ariane never tells Frank her name.
Between their afternoon meetings, Ariane researches through her father’s files and uncovers Frank’s many romantic conquests and begins thinking that she may be taking advantage of. When she notices Frank frequently using a dictaphone for business purposes, she decides one afternoon to record a list of her past lovers for Frank to see. Ultimately because Frank develops strong feelings for her, the recording makes him insanely jealous, to the point he hires Chevasse to find out more about his love, unaware that he’s Ariane’s father.
Wilder’s cinematographer, William C. Mellor, who previously shot two Elizabeth Taylor classics “Place in the Sun” and “Giant,” captures the delicate simplicity of this romance in the elegant black and white tones, making the older Cooper, dressed in white diner jacket and black tie, charmingly mysterious in shadows. At the same time, the radiant and adorable Hepburn is bathed in beautiful rays of light. This delightful romance was one of several films of the 1950s that made Hepburn a superstar.