By: Greg Mitchell
Do many, if not most, of the nation’s film critics suffer from one blind eye when it comes to cinematic depictions of adult/youth sex? I’m certainly no prude (trust me), but on several occasions in recent years, I have come out of movies pondering why, from the reviews, I had no idea that the film would express such forgiving views of an adult having sexual relations with a teen, often criminally underage. Or, if the film did paint a complex picture, why did the reviewers react so lamely?
This all goes back to Kubrick’s Lolita and before, but these con-
cerns were refreshed for me most recently by watching The History Boys (male teacher goosing high school students) and Notes on a Scandal (female teacher sleeps with 15-year-old student). Apparently the current real-life sex scandals involving high school teachers are titillating filmmakers everywhere.
Thank God, at least, that Jake Gyllenhaal has outgrown his teen years and was clearly an adult in Brokeback Mountain. Before that, he was the reigning sex object of older women: Catherine Keener in Lovely & Amazing (he was 17 in that movie) and Jennifer Aniston in The Good Girl (at least he was a college dropout in that). They were pretty good movies, on the whole, although I remember coming out of Lovely & Amazing and telling my wife, “I can’t believe they made Keener so sympathetic ? if that had been a man and girl, they would have crucified him.”
Reviewers, on the whole, did not complain, with one saying that Keener’s “inability to hide her pleasure” made her an even warmer character. This was the typical response. Ah, for the good old days, when Robert DeNiro did not try to sleep with young Jodie Foster in Taxi Driver, but only tried to save her from prostitution.
In mid-January, I wrote a column for E&P Online on The History Boys, which I re-named “The Dead Pervert’s Society.” My feeling was that the movie portrays the chief teacher heroically, while merely tut-tutting over his serial groping of the students ? yet few newspaper critics called the film out on this.
A few days later, I saw Notes on a Scandal, in which Cate Blanchett services and then sleeps with a callow student. It’s treated more sternly than in The History Boys ? she loses her job, and even goes to jail. But clearly, the older teacher (played by Judi Dench) is the true monster, and in the final scene, Cate’s husband seems to welcome her home. Carina Chocano in the Los Angeles Times actually wrote of the woman and boy, “If nothing else, their scenes together should put an end to arguments about May-December romances only working one way around.” Stephen Hunter of The Washington Post called Cate’s “weakness” for the boy “the least of the sins” the film documents. And so on.
My History Boys column generated a good deal of mail. A couple of reviewers pointed out that they had ripped that film’s treatment of its old perv, while admitting that this made them a distinct minority. One well-known critic for a major paper insisted he was blameless, claiming he had criticized the teacher’s actions in his review. So I looked it up, and sure enough: He did do that, but in listing five things wrong with the film, he failed to mention at all its lax treatment of the teacher’s fondling.
A reader named Judith Coyne wrote: “I agree that the beloved teacher’s groping of his students has been oddly passed over by reviewers. … When you add in the younger teacher’s more serious infatuation with a student, you end up with two out of three of the teacher characters with active designs on the students. … What is surprising is how many cultural journalists have left all of this out of their discussion.”
Stephen Whitty, a reviewer for The Star-Ledger in Newark, N.J., recalls that his piece “pointed out that the teacher’s perversion was being treated as a mild eccentricity. I heard from readers who were glad to see that point raised, but it was a lonely one. Interestingly, the abuse in Notes on a Scandal ? which, by the way, is a fine film ? seems to have gotten even less attention, perhaps because the offender was female (and attractive). Movies that look at the situation from that distaff side (The Good Girl, Tadpole) not only are more forgiving, they often edge into outright comedy.”
Stephen Holden, reviewing The History Boys, noted in The New York Times ? without expressing any disapproval ? that the film “sympathizes” with the groper, “not as a predator but as a lonely dreamer whose ineffectual gropes are not much different from pats on the back.” His students “not only tolerate his fumbling advances but also accept them with good humor as expressions of devotion.” Film critics obviously joined in that tolerance and good humor.