Why 2009 Is the Year of the Cougar

Sandra Bullock has fallen in love with so many men, she could give Elizabeth Taylor a run for her money. Let us count the ways: There was the time she was an FBI agent posing undercover as a beauty-pageant contestant and ended up under the covers with her partner (Miss Congeniality). Or when she tried to quit her job as a lawyer, only to be seduced by her nasty British boss (Two Weeks Notice). Or when she worked as a subway fare collector who rescued an unconscious man who had amnesia, pretended to be his fiancée and actually decided she'd rather marry his brother (While You Were Sleeping). Whoa. Falling in love like that can really wear you down, and Bullock certainly has the years to show for it. She's up to her same bag of tricks in the new romantic comedy The Proposal, in which she plays a bitchy Canadian book editor who pretends to be engaged to her assistant so that she can get a work visa to stay in America. There's a new wrinkle this time, though, and we're not talking about Sandra's face. Her love interest in the film is Ryan Reynolds. In real life, he's 32. Bullock is (care to guess?) 44 years young. But shh—don't tell anyone. The plot doesn't even mention the age difference, the studio wouldn't talk about it in an interview and Bullock even gets naked for the first time on the big screen, as if to say, "Look at me, I've still got sex appeal." (Story continued below...)

Hollywood used to put women over the age of 40 in the retirement home, while old dudes like Sean Connery kept seducing ever-younger babes like Catherine Zeta-Jones. That started changing when HBO let not-so-young actresses steal the TV spotlight in shows like Sex and the City, and major and cable networks followed by casting Sally Field, Glenn Close and Kyra Sedgwick in dramas, among others. Now we're about to enter the summer of the cougar at the multiplex. You might even say that the older women are outnumbering the younger ones at the movies, and they're getting all the action from leading men so young that they'd probably rather hang out with Zac Efron than Ashton Kutcher. (Then again, who wouldn't?) In Cheri, Michelle Pfeiffer (51) returns to the big screen and jumps into the sack with a guy about half her age, Rupert Friend (27). In My Life in Ruins, Nia Vardalos (46) romances the Greek actor Alexis Georgoulis (34), and there's not a word of dialogue in the screenplay about her robbing the cradle. In Julie & Julia, Meryl Streep (who turns 60 on June 22) plays real-life kitchen cougar Julia Child. Mr. Julia Child is played by Stanley Tucci, 11 years younger than his leading lady; the real Paul Child was older than his wife. And we're not even counting The Rebound, Catherine Zeta-Jones's (39) September movie about dating a 25-year-old guy, the Courteney Cox TV show Cougartown or the Bachelor-like reality dating show The Cougar.

Demi Moore and Katie Couric aren't to blame for all this, and Hollywood insiders are pleading innocence, claiming that they aren't necessarily trying to hop on the cougar bandwagon. "The simple truth is, I like the script very much," says Stephen Frears, director of Cheri. "I keep being told about this phenomenon. We live much more respectable lives in England."

But as plastic surgery and Botox have gone mainstream, women are able to look younger, making some of these romances seem marginally believable. Vardalos says she didn't even realize her costar's age difference until the night before she started shooting. "I just started laughing," she says. "We recently baptized our daughter, and our priest used holy water. Aha! This is why Greek women never age; we're dipped in olive oil at birth."

Another reason why we're seeing more onscreen romances between older women and younger guys is probably more subtle. It's widely acknowledged that Hollywood has a hard time these days churning out stars—blame special effects or TMZ destroying careers by making all actors into overnight celebrities—but even so, there really isn't an actress in her 20s who can open a movie. Just ask Jessica Alba, Lindsay Lohan, Jessica Biel, Natalie Portman or Jessica Simpson. Someone like Sandra Bullock is still a brand in Hollywood, and even if she's had a recent string of flops, there's still hope she can sell out theaters.

But that raises the question: are cougars really what women want to be? Last year was a landmark one for women at the U.S. box office—Sex and the City: The Movie had the biggest opening ever for a chick flick, and Twilight boasted the best weekend numbers for a film directed by a woman. But Hollywood still seems confused about what kinds of material to market to women. The trailer for Cox's Cougartown, in which she portrays a sex-starved housewife, is so tone-deaf that the show will probably be canceled faster than Joey. Most real women in their 40s are likely too busy focusing on their careers, their families or both to be chasing after men who are only slightly older than the phenomenon of Internet dating.

Ultimately, the cougar may seem like a frightening creature, but with a second look, it becomes clear that it's more a media-driven fad, a fantasy that worked with Samantha and Smith on SATC—but even that didn't last. Nor did Gabrielle Solis and her boy-toy gardener on Desperate Housewives. Nor the archetypal cougar and her prey: Mrs. Robinson (played by Anne Bancroft, who was really only six years older than her costar Dustin Hoffman). Here's to you, Hollywood, for trying something old and something new. But by next year at this time, the cougar will probably be extinct.