WHEN DID MOVIE HUNKS TURN INTO YOUNG PUPS?

THE INDISCRIMINATE passions of youth don’t worry about age. When you’re 8 years old, you don’t have to worry about it unless you have a strange preoccupation with the Charmin baby. I had no qualms admiring someone 10, 20, 50 years my senior, since film preserved the gentlemanly earnestness of Gregory Peck, the rippling acrobatics of Gene Kelly and the exotic savoir-faire of Alain Delon.

The youngest objects of my affections had to be the stars of “The Hardy Boys,” but their sophistication paled in comparison to the wry Starbuck and earnest Apollo. Come on, while the Hardys were investigating petty larceny after school, the two space pilots were protecting the last of their kind aboard the Battlestar Galactica.

Now I’m getting to the age where I can’t have crushes on movie stars without checking their IDs first. When I worry about MPAA ratings, it’s whether the leading man I’m eyeing on the screen would be able to get into an R-rated movie. Worse, now that Hollywood promotes ever younger stars, idol pederasty is harder and harder to avoid.

I first realized this when I caught myself assessing Joaquin Phoenix with a less than critical eye. In mediocre films like “The Yards” and “8mm” and bigger pictures such as “Gladiator” and “Quills,” he has acquitted himself admirably. I especially noted his leaner look in “Quills” as opposed to the Ridley Scott epic (for which he gained weight to look dissipated).

Now, truth be told, I regard celebrities in a mainly platonic fashion. The last spark of lust I remember was watching a memorable pan-and-scan cameo of Brad Pitt in “Thelma & Louise.” Ah, that was a moment in cinematography.

So, where was I? Right, Phoenix. Why I started to get intrigued by him just when he’s playing a priest should have been a sign from above. Out of curiosity, I looked up his age, then immediately sat down in front of my television watching reruns of “Scooby-Doo” to cleanse myself. Come to think of it, I was probably watching Scooby-Doo cartoons when Phoenix was born on Oct. 28, 1974.

The other day, I was looking forward to the March 16 release of “Enemy at the Gates,” starring Jude Law as a sniper and Joseph Fiennes as a Russian military officer at least, until I found out that Law turned 28 this past Dec. 29. As for Fiennes, fortunately, I prefer brother Ralph at a sober 38 over Joseph at a callow 30.

Was no one safe for the lusting? I checked out more names, all OK: Denzel Washington, Robert Downey Jr., Cuba Gooding Jr. and Jet Li (but only when he speaks Chinese; his voice squeaks like an adolescent when he tries English). The other day, the trailer for “Blow” with a blond Johnny Depp came up. He was looking good (almost as good as his transvestite role in “Before Night Falls”), and I started panicking. Fortunately, Depp also looks young for his age he’ll be 38 on June 9.

Now, considering my track record on infatuations, why would a few years matter? I personally don’t object to a woman with a significantly younger man, and my last boyfriend was three years younger, so why not lower the age of admission into my fantasy life?

Alas, there’s no reasoning when it comes to matters of the mind. I already shut my eyes during the under-25 make-out scenes. When I see up-and-coming heartthrobs like Freddie Prinze Jr. (I used to sing the theme song to his dad’s television show, “Chico and the Man”) being groomed as romantic comedy stars, I have to resist the urge to chastise them, “Now you go back to that summer camp and be hacked up by masked psychopaths where you belong!”

The movies are bad enough. I can barely watch television anymore, especially ever since Chris Noth left “Law & Order.” Jerry Orbach is starting to look more appealing than pretty boy Jesse L. Martin (who follows me by six months and two days), and I still miss the crotchety Steven Hill (79). The WB basically is a jailbait station, and even real people on the reality shows are too young for my liking. I’m now importing my idols, such as Robson Green (born 1964), the brooding genius of the British series “Touching Evil” fair play since my favorite female TV icon is Diana Rigg as Mrs. Emma Peel.

I haven’t even figured the algebraic equations of my former idols yet. For instance, if Laurence Olivier is a preserved 36 or 37 in his directorial debut on “Henry V,” I only have a few good years before his wooing of Rene Asherson as Princess Katharine sounds to me like the Leonardo Di Caprio phlegm courtship of Kate Winslet in “Titanic.”

My only hope is either to get more tolerant as I get older or keep going for the mature men. Too bad I never much cared for Sean Connery or Michael Douglas. Besides, I’m too old for them.

Events editor Vera H-C Chan has taken a vow of celebrity chastity.

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