Though I nowhere detected any intention that we do so, if you want food for thought about our culture's continuing double standard with regard to male and female sexuality, go see Gary Winick's Tadpole, the story of a fortyish single woman who has an affair with a 15-year-old boy. Cinema has seen such March-July sexual pairings before. Jennifer O'Neill beds high-school sophomore Gary Grimes in Summer of '42, Jacqueline Bisset sleeps with teenager Rob Lowe in Class, and Laura Dern gets frisky with junior-high schooler Lukas Haas in Rambling Rose. These unions are never condemned with more than docile tut-tuts and are treated routinely with either syrupy romanticism or leers and naughty giggles. But can any American filmgoer imagine a comparable reaction if the genders of the principals were reversed?
Written by Heather McGowan and Niels Mueller, Tadpole is the story of Oscar Grubman (Aaron Stanford), a particularly cerebral prep-school sophomore obsessed with Voltaire and his stepmother, Eve (Sigourney Weaver). Oscar's father, Stanley (John Ritter), is a history professor, and the boy's divorced mother has returned to her native France. Oscar's boarding school roommate Charlie (Robert Iler) has the usual sexual preoccupation and fantasy life about the girls at his school. Oscar, in contrast, disdains his female classmates as foolish and immature. He's interested in older women, he declares.
Primarily, he eventually confesses, he's interested in Eve, a cardiovascular research physician. And here the picture makes its first of several missteps. The script never establishes the nature of Eve's attraction for Oscar. Weaver is a beautiful woman, of course, but Tadpole suggests that Oscar feels some deeper, more spiritual connection. Yet, the screenplay leaves Eve as a no-nonsense, rather literal woman of science, while Oscar clearly has the soul of an intellectual searcher, a future artist or poet or philosopher. The film does illustrate that Stanley has drifted into a pattern of taking Eve for granted in a way he shouldn't and showing her less affection than he should. But the reasons for this are never clarified, and at any rate the potentials for Oedipal rivalry are left unexplored. Eve is vulnerable because of her husband's mysterious and mild neglect, but Oscar is never motivated by feelings that he's a better man than his father. In fact, the father-son dimension to this story, central though it would seem to be, is left so blank that when Oscar eventually states his love for Stanley, we possess no evidence for judging whether he's telling the truth.
In the film's major narrative development, though, Oscar's sexual initiation comes not with Eve but with her best friend, Diane (Bebe Neuwirth), who seduces the boy one night when he's drunk. Winick plays this development for laughs (many of which, I will readily concede, he gets). Diane is plenty attractive, but Oscar has eyes only for Eve and is desperate to keep his liaison with Diane a secret. Diane, meanwhile, is anxious for everybody to know, Stanley and Eve included. At a lunch with a table full of other professional women her age, Diane practically passes Oscar around like a box of chocolates.
And therein we come again to that double standard. People would be outraged if a 15-year-old high-school girl were treated so lasciviously by middle-age men. Perhaps at a conscious level Tadpole tries to evade this concern by its evocations of all things French. In France, we are assured, intergenerational sex is not taboo. Oscar has a French mother. He and Diane frequently speak to each other in French. And much of the music in the film is French. More elusively, the picture has a French "feel." The sexual content of the movie is played only for light comedy, often with desired results. The sex is consensual, and though Oscar is embarrassed by his relationship with Diane, he is not presented as in any way violated. But, of course, we are told that director Roman Polanski's relationship with a teenage girl was also consensual, and he is barred from returning to America without facing felony indictment. He lives in France.
In the end, Tadpole is perhaps too trifling to merit my concerns about double standard. It is frothy at best, aiming to stimulate mirth and not cogitation. But in seeing it I thought again of a recent episode of Law and Order: SVU where a male stripper is handcuffed by four of his clients who proceed to have sex with him despite his protests. TV producer Dick Wolf's certain point was that even people (read women!) who perform as strippers and salacious dancers have a right to say no to unwanted sex. Still, few viewers, I suspect, found themselves overly concerned with the fate of the male stripper; few, I suspect, found his violation all that great. I know because, as the inevitable product of the culture in which I live, I fought against that reaction myself. But Law and Order at least addressed the double standard directly, where Tadpole ignores it entirely.
- Singles, anyone? Teenager Oscar (Aaron Stanford) works out his sexual tension in Gary Winick's Tadpole.