Bruce Fretts
March 15, 2000 AT 05:00 AM EST

”American Beauty” revives the Lolita syndrome in Hollywood

It seems only fitting that the front-runner to win Best Picture at this year’s Oscars, ”American Beauty,” revolves around a middle-aged man (Kevin Spacey) lusting after an underage girl (Mena Suvari). Not so long ago, such a salacious scenario was taboo: Adrian Lyne’s 1997 adaptation of Vladimir Nabokov’s ”Lolita” barely received U.S. theatrical distribution.

Now we’re turning into a nation of Humbert Humberts. Granted, men of a certain age have privately drooled over much younger women for eons. But only recently has it become socially acceptable — even hip. (As usual, Woody Allen was ahead of his time, both with ”Manhattan” and Soon-Yi.)

Consider the following pop-cultural phenomena:

*Britney Spears exploits her midpubescent sexuality by wearing a schoolgirl’s uniform in her first video. Her album goes on to sell millions of copies — and not just to her fellow adolescent females.

*Michelle Williams, one of the stars of the WB’s teen soap ”Dawson’s Creek,” bares her youthful flesh on the cover of the men’s rag Maxim, in Off Broadway’s ”Killer Joe,” and in HBO’s lesbian opus ”If These Walls Could Talk 2” (the cable network’s highest-rated movie in three years).

*Katie Holmes, Williams’ ”Creek” costar, throws herself at paunchy college professor Michael Douglas in ”Wonder Boys,” telling him, ”I’m not the downy innocent I seem.” Yeah, like a gorgeous young brunette would fall for an ancient coot like Douglas in real life… oh wait, never mind.

*Jessica Biel of the WB’s ”7th Heaven” sullies her squeaky-clean image by apppearing topless in Bob Guccione Jr.’s guy mag Gear (we always knew Junior was a chip off the old Penthouse block). ”Jessica Biel” immediately becomes one of the most searched-for names on the Internet.

*James Woods explains to ”Access Hollywood” why aging men date very young women with a canine analogy: When you buy a pet, you want a cute little puppy, not a tired old dog. (Woods later claims he was joking.)

How do you account for the sudden legitimacy of such lechery? Two words: Monica Lewinsky. If the President can get off scot-free after having an affair (to use the term very loosely) with an intern who’s only a few years older than his own teenage daughter, then anything goes, right?

If ”American Beauty” does win the Oscar, don’t be shocked if George W. Bush attacks Hollywood as a haven for Clinton-Gore era immorality. A pot-smoking boomer who pursues a sexual liaison with a decades-younger woman? Sounds like a perfect candidate for Best Picture — or President.

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