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The mother of all insults! Actresses play mothers to co-stars just a few years younger

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Recently, I spent a rainy day binge-watching Amazon’s Little Fires Everywhere. It’s a tangled tale of mothers and daughters disastrously misunderstanding one another.

Reese Witherspoon plays a smug mother in a perfect town, clashing with Kerry Washington’s single mother, Mia.

Yet aside from the dramatic storylines, one of the most satisfying things about it was that both Witherspoon and Washington are well into their 40s, convincingly old enough to have given birth to their teenage on-screen children.

Looking, by turns, bare-faced, puffy and exhausted, you believe that they’ve been through the maternal mill. But in the world of Hollywood, that’s a rarity.

1 YEAR GAP: Angelina Jolie (left) as mother to Colin Farrell’s character (right), Olympias and Alexander in Alexander The Great, 2004

Instead, depressingly often, producers require on-screen mothers — and even grandmothers — to look so poutingly desirable, lithely foxy and laughingly years away from their menopause, that the ‘generation gap’ between them and their ‘children’ is shrinking at lightning speed.

Take Marvel’s latest offering due to hit cinemas, Black Widow. In it, 50-year-old Rachel Weisz plays mother to Scarlett Johansson — who is nearly 36. That’s just a 15-year age gap.

OK, it’s a superhero film, and maybe Avengers reproduce earlier than is legal, or hatch from eggs. Or maybe there’s a plot twist yet to be revealed. But out here in the real world, we women take notice.

11 YEAR GAP: In Little Miss Sunshine, Toni Collette was 33 when she played Paul Dano’s mother. He was 22 but at least he was supposed to be a teen

12 YEAR GAP: When they wanted a mother for Jason Momoa in the blockbuster Aquaman — he being a fairly addled-looking 39 at the time — they cast Nicole Kidman, 51

And there’s plenty of opportunity for us to do so. How could you not roll your eyes when Winona Ryder, just five years older than Zachary Quinto’s Spock, played his mother in the hit Star Trek reboot?

In the film Wild, Laura Dern is supposed to be Reese Witherspoon’s mother — yet is only nine years older than her. In the publicity photos they could be sisters.

They looked more convincing by far as school-gate friends in the TV series Big Little Lies.

And in Mean Girls, Amy Poehler, then 33, played 25-year-old Rachel McAdams’ mother — only a seven-year difference, which is positively creepy.

8 YEAR GAP: Playing the ‘cool mum’ in Mean Girls Amy Poehler was 33, only eight years older than her ‘daughter’ Rachel McAdams (pictured together)

Of course, actresses make great efforts to look young for as long as possible, and everyone pretends that 60 is the new 40.

But casting directors could brave up and cast female actors who could reasonably be the biological mothers of their screen kids. Fathers are no problem: the actors’ casting website, Spotlight, is full of gorgeous silver foxes of the Clooney sort, who get realistically cast as parents. But women? No, we’re simply not allowed to grow old on screen until it’s time to be a Maggie Smith dowager.

15 YEAR GAP: In Black Widow Rachel Weisz plays mother to Scarlett Johansson — who is nearly 36

12 YEAR GAP: Sarah Greene, 36, plays Connell’s mother (played by Paul Mescal. 24) Lorraine in Normal People

And when the supposed offspring is a man (men are ageless, right?) it gets even madder. Angelina Jolie was only a year older than Colin Farrell when she played his mum in Alexander, and Sally Field was cast as Tom Hanks’ mother in Forrest Gump, though she would have needed to have him when she was nine. When they wanted a mother for Jason Momoa in the blockbuster Aquaman — he being a fairly addled-looking 39 at the time — they cast Nicole Kidman, 51.

When teenage characters are being played by adults there’s some excuse for the real age gap being ridiculously short. In Little Miss Sunshine, Toni Collette was 33 when she played Paul Dano’s mother. He was 22 but at least he was supposed to be a teen. 

And it’s understandable if the point of the film is that the mother thinks she’s hotter than her daughter. So the eight-year gap between Anne Bancroft and Katharine Ross in The Graduate is excusable.

9 YEAR GAP: Laura Dern (left) play’s Reese Witherspoon’s character’s mother in Wild

It isn’t just showbiz. Recently, I was surprised by a wave of agreement when, teasingly, I wrote that women in broadcasting too — even sometimes in hard news and even in radio — felt that they were expected to look young, with flicky girlish hair and careful make-up, or else be faded out after 45 or so.

Whereas men are not expected to be hunks and babes for ever. They can look like Churchill or old Steptoe and still have their skill and intelligence appreciated. Many women do survive on air over 50, but with effort.

It is frustrating for actresses in their 50s and 60s. But they can at least look ahead to their 70s and hope that they stay brave and nutty enough to be like Cher — who, at 71, in a glittery outfit from her own wardrobe, played Meryl Streep’s mother in Mamma Mia!. Streep is — gulp! — just three years younger.

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