In The Horse Whisperer, Kristin Scott Thomas's New York-based magazine editor Annie MacLean has it all. OK, so the glossy Cover which she helms features Paula Yates on the front page (oh dear...), but she looks gorgeous in Calvin Klein and has a beautiful home, an attractive but archetypally sullen 14-year-old daughter Grace, who is going through her horse-loving stage; and, to cap it all, she's married to Sam Neill. But She Is Not Happy. Only when she meets Robert Redford's sun-dried Montana rancher, Tom Booker, who is attempting to cure Grace's traumatised horse after a dreadful riding accident, does Annie regain the ability to love, teetering on the brink of adultery with the sixtysomething.
In spite of The Horse Whisperer's sweeping cinematography and Redford's hallmark focus on the nuances of family dynamics, it is the implausible May to September coupling that draws the attention. It is the latest in a trend fast getting out of hand. For while actresses of a certain age bemoan the lack of roles, the elder statesmen are cashing in on cinematic affairs with a younger generation. Yet when the roles are reversed (as with Julie Christie and Jonny Lee Miller in Afterglow), the relationship is presented as off-kilter and forced. The boy was all at sea with the still-bewitching Christie.
Male stars, it seems, even in their dotage, still desperately want to be regarded as sexually appealing and to feel assured that younger women will fall at their feet. Think of Helen Hunt in As Good As It Gets ending up with Jack Nicholson's middle-aged obsessive-compulsive, as if that's all the poor girl could attract despite her transparent goodness. And in the forthcoming A Perfect Murder, 25-year-old Gwyneth Paltrow is trophy wife to Michael Douglas's creepily amoral ageing industrialist. Ugh.
Consider, too, the Six Days, Seven Nights-related press interest in Anne Heche's coming-out as a lesbian, and whether she was therefore convincing as Harrison Ford's love interest. Surely the more pertinent question was whether any apparent sexual reluctance from Ms Heche was caused by Harrison's age - and whether, when she was sprawled on the sand with the paunch-ridden Harrison, it wasn't so much From Here to Eternity on her mind but the thought that if Harrison weren't so good-looking, it could well have been Oliver Reed she was stuck on an island with. That the film- makers too felt slightly queasy about a fiftysomething action hero is evident in a scene where the stars banter about his age.
True, younger women are often attracted to mature men. After all, one of HoIlywood's most celebrated star liaisons, that of Bogart and Bacall, featured an age gap of 30 years. And whether in novel or film format, where would Jane Eyre be without her Mr Rochester? It's worth questioning, too, whether the much documented cultural crisis in masculinity has resulted in a dearth of actors in their thirties and forties with the gravitas to match the self-assurance of thirty-plus female actresses and the roles that they are playing. The broad-shouldered "manliness" of Hollywood's traditional heroic male figures is a world away from the boyishess of contemporary A-list stars such as Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Cruise and Mel Gibson - who waited until last year's Ransom to play his first truly adult role.
But the current fad seems to have been thought up by men. Wouldn't Harrison Ford be sexier in a suit spouting Cary Grant-style witticisms? And I hate to spoil Robert Redford's day, but the after-film talk in the ladies' was about why anyone would want to trade in Sam Neill for an older model...