Let’s also note that the opposite situation—rich older woman keeping attractive younger man—is a source of tragedy in Wilder’s own Sunset Boulevard, narrated as a flashback by the corpse of the young man (William Holden) and detailing the decline into madness of the older woman (Gloria Swanson). In that 1950 film Wilder successfully mixed the satiric, the comic and the grotesque into a heady cocktail. But in Afternoon, with Wilder in a smirking mood and Cooper, a limited actor even at his best, it’s never credible that Hepburn should be sexually or romantically interested in someone old enough to be her grandfather.
The fact that Audrey Hepburn’s screen persona was that of a childlike gamine (a persona she never entirely shed) only accentuates the actors’ age difference. Compare Hepburn to Grace Kelly, another “classy” actress of the period who also played opposite older leading men: Cooper in High Noon (1952), James Stewart in Rear Window (1954), Cary Grant in To Catch a Thief (1955). With Kelly, we don’t think “yuck,” we think “lucky them.”
Kelly projects a different kind of female strength than Audrey. She’s so capable and self-assured, it’s something of a surprise when she needs help after breaking into the murderer’s apartment in Rear Window. Audrey seems a bit helpless; she surprises us when she does prove capable of taking care of herself. Even her sophistication and promiscuity in Breakfast at Tiffany’s seems like a bit of play-acting, at least at first.
Audrey Hepburn eventually transitioned into more mature roles, after herself playing opposite the apparently ageless Cary Grant in the 1963 Charade (did Grant have a portrait of himself going to hell in some attic?). You can see the girl/woman split as late as 1967: In Wait Until Dark, she’s a blind woman victimized by drug-dealing thugs, bringing out the audience’s protectiveness even as she displays her own brand of strength. That same year, in the underappreciated, time-fractured Two for the Road, her age-appropriate co-star is Albert Finney, and she shows her character’s growth and changes, from schoolgirlish ingénue to unhappily married wife and mother.
But back in the 1950s, the younger woman-older man dynamic was still going strong. In Grace Kelly’s final film, she played Katharine Hepburn’s Philadelphia Story role in the musicalized version, High Society (1956). Kelly is tempted by young Frank Sinatra, but chooses his crooning predecessor Bing Crosby. Back in 1940, Kate had been tempted by James Stewart but chose—Cary Grant.
Actually, the younger woman-older man thing is still going strong, although at least we notice the disparity more today when leading men in their 50s and 60s play opposite actresses in their 20s and 30s. It’s also been supplemented by the Apatow Effect, where schlubby guys somehow land hot chicks (Knocked Up, Forgetting Sarah Marshall), or women are pretty much ignored altogether (Pineapple Express, I Love You, Man). And we wonder why some actresses go nuts, do drugs and have eating disorders? It’s a wonder they all don’t.