In anticipation of Valentine’s Day (yeah, guys, it’s next Friday; write it down), the Internet and a variety of show-biz magazines have been bubbling over with their choices for the “best romantic movies,” and some of them are laughably strange.
“Forgetting Sarah Marshall”? “Lost in Translation”? “Big Night”? “Love, Actually”? “Friends With Benefits”?
Are they kidding?
Despite some airs of romantic desire in each film, and whatever else you may think of them in terms of quality, none of these movies fit my definition of “romance.”
As old-fashioned as this may sound, to me romance involves meeting someone, finding yourself attracted to him or her, dating, having actual conversations, getting to know him or her, becoming closer, getting serious, declaring exclusivity. And at some point, expressing love and fidelity.
Not, as Hollywood would have it, meeting, having sex and then, maybe, pursuing a relationship. Maybe. And saying “I love you” seems to be the most difficult thing, spoken hesitantly, if at all.
Since the “freedom” of the 1960s, ’70s and then even more aggressively since the ’80s, Hollywood has increasingly confused “romance” with “sex.”
Sorry, they aren’t the same thing. Romance is in the wooing, the courting, not in the bedding.
But you wouldn’t know it to watch movies and TV shows these days. Perhaps because, in Hollywoodland, a long-lasting relationship might get you lunch the next day.
This is especially true of so-called “rom-coms.” I mourn the dearth of comedies about finding love in favor of comedies about finding a sex partner — graphic, profane, scatological, raunchy and otherwise R-rated. Or for that matter, PG-13-rated.
Note to Hollywood: Just because you can show everything these days doesn’t mean you should.
Anyway, I’m going to offer some suggestions for romantic-movie viewing, and I’m purposely avoiding the obvious. Not that there’s anything wrong with going back to “Sleepless in Seattle” or “Pretty in Pink” or “The Princess Bride” or “Gone With the Wind” or any version of “Cyrano de Bergerac.”
But the 10 (well, 11, actually) suggestions here — listed alphabetically and not necessarily the “best” — are all personal favorites about finding true and lasting love. And to me, each one of these uniquely accomplishes the kind of cinematic romance that sweeps you away to another time and place and leaves you feeling fulfilled, even when tragedy enters the equation.
And with any luck there’s something here you can discover or rediscover and enjoy with someone you care for.
“The Best Years of Our Lives” (1946, b/w). Three World War II veterans meet as they return home on the same flight, each damaged in a different way. The film is about readjusting to civilian life but at its heart there are three romances: Dana Andrews, reeling from a faithless marriage, is attracted to a younger woman (Teresa Wright); Fredric March has trouble reconnecting with his loving wife (Myrna Loy); and Harold Russell, having lost his forearms in battle, tries to spare his fiancé (Cathy O’Donnell) the difficult road ahead. All three sets of relationships are compelling and heartfelt as they realistically unfold.
“The Big Country” (1958). Set against a typical Western land-feud plot, this rich, beautifully photographed film is anything but typical in the character of Gregory Peck’s sea captain who heads west to marry a prideful, materialistic young woman (Carroll Baker) but finds himself attracted to a neighbor, down-to-earth Jean Simmons. A man of high moral character, Peck is content to keep his accomplishments close to the vest and settle conflicts peacefully, even as his fiancée takes it as cowardice. But, of course, these are the qualities admired by Simmons.
“Heartland” (1980, PG). A widow (Conchata Ferrell) with a young daughter becomes housekeeper to a taciturn Scotsman (Rip Torn) in 1910 Wyoming, and their tenuous relationship in this harsh wilderness leads to marriage. But love takes a little longer. Beautifully nuanced performances and sensitive direction by Richard Pearce drive this true story, based on the diaries of a pioneer woman. A low-budget effort that puts artificial Hollywood contrivances to shame.
“Holiday” (1938, b/w). Hard-working Johnny (Cary Grant) is engaged to Julia (Doris Nolan), unaware she is from a wealthy, snobbish high-society family. Then he meets her eccentric sister Linda (Katharine Hepburn) and an obvious attraction results. Of course, they fight it, even as the sisters’ domineering father attempts to bring Johnny into the family business. We know where it’s headed but getting there is all the fun. Witty, smart and frequently hilarious screwball comedy, with sparkling performances and chemistry to spare between the stars.
“Miss Potter” (2006, PG). The Victorian author, watercolorist and decidedly unconventional Beatrix Potter (Renee Zellweger), whose “Peter Rabbit” stories become a surprise sensation, is romanced in a reticent way by her gentlemanly publisher, Norman Warne (Ewan McGregor). This biographical comedy-drama is a touching true story artfully realized by filmmaker Chris Noonan (“Babe”).
“Notorious” (1946, b/w). In addition to Katharine Hepburn, Cary Grant also had great chemistry with Ingrid Bergman in this Alfred Hitchcock classic. Both are spies in Brazil after World War II trying to infiltrate a gang of relocated Nazis headed by Claude Rains. A complicated romance develops but is interrupted by duty, and Grant’s conflicted loyalties drive him to distraction when Bergman is ordered to get close to Rains and winds up marrying him. Some find Hitchcock’s “To Catch a Thief” his most romantic effort but one scene in this film clinches it for me: Grant and Bergman kiss in a stop-and-go manner while she’s on the phone, a ploy by Hitchcock to circumvent a Production Code rule about lengthy kisses. The result is, arguably, the most lushly romantic movie moment ever.
“Shadowlands” (1993, PG). Author C.S. Lewis, a confirmed bachelor in middle age, meets a sassy American woman and the seeds of an unlikely bond are planted. Anthony Hopkins gives one of his best performances as the repressed British writer who finds his life disrupted by an American woman who refuses to bow to custom, wonderfully played by Debra Winger. This is a real-life romance that is slow to build, at first with comic encounters, then with feelings that deepen as tragedy rears up and faith is shaken. Directed by Richard Attenborough but more like a Merchant-Ivory endeavor.
“The Shop Around the Corner”/“You’ve Got Mail” (1940, b/w; 1998, PG). “Shop” is set in Budapest, and James Stewart and Margaret Sullavan are bickering co-workers unaware they are also anonymous love-letter correspondents. “Mail” has Meg Ryan as a small bookstore owner in Manhattan whose business is upended by a Barnes & Noble-type chain store owned by Tom Hanks, even as they unwittingly exchange anonymous emails. Both films are funny and ingratiating, and with the latter, writer-director Nora Ephron manages to update a classic while still hitting all the right notes.
“Tender Mercies” (1983, PG). Robert Duvall won an Oscar for his achingly real performance as a former country-singing star and recovering alcoholic who finds unexpected love with the widow (Tess Harper, also excellent), who runs a small Texas motel where he’s hit bottom. He becomes her handyman and a gradual, tentative romance develops. Refreshingly honest in its explorations of human emotions without so much as a false note under the sure hand of Australian filmmaker Bruce Beresford. Screenwriter Horton Foote also won an Oscar.
“What’s Up, Doc?” (1972, G). Hysterical screwball comedy about a search for stolen jewels and government documents when four lookalike traveling bags are mixed up. But at its heart this is an offbeat romance as a quirky professional student (Barbra Streisand) attaches herself to a staid, professorial musicologist (Ryan O’Neal) during a grant competition in a San Francisco hotel. It’s love at first sight for her but he’s engaged (to rigid Madeline Kahn), distracted and so strait-laced that he doesn’t quite know what’s happening to him. The comedy will keep you laughing but the romance is buoyant and infectious.
So happy Valentine’s Day.
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