Romantic comedy roles

Last night, we watched 1940’s The Philadelphia Story (starring Katharine Hepburn, James Stewart and Cary Grant), the latest in a long line of old romantic comedies that we’ve greatly enjoyed–mostly, much, much more than modern romantic comedies. And it set me thinking again as to why that might be–what is it about those old films that is so enjoyable, compared to, say, the Bridget Jones or Pretty Woman or Love Actually style of thing. Of course, in the greatest of the old romantic comedies, the wit is sparkling, the script bounces along, the whole thing has an air of lightness, of glamour, of fairytale, of romance, in fact: it’s like bathing in champagne. By comparison, much of the new stuff (with a few notably beautiful and enjoyable exceptions, which, interestingly, are set in the past–Shakespeare in Love and Pride and Prejudice, for example or else nostalgic for the past–like Kate and Leopold, for example) , is coarse, screechy, dull and unbelievable, in a way that the old stuff, despite its air of champagne glamour, was not. But going deeper than that, I think it’s also because of the way men and women are portrayed.

Much of what I’m going to say might well seem counter-intuitive. For it seems to me that the old, pre 1960’s films–coming out of a time when male and female roles were supposedly more defined and rigid–allow much more scope of humanity to both men and women than the more modern ones do. Female characters are frequently independent, spirited and intelligent–a million miles away from the submissive doormat or the purring sex kitten or the giggling eternal teenager. From Katharine Hepburn’s independent, intellectual characters to Audrey Hepburn’s gamine yet adept worldly innocents, from Bette Davis’ formidable characters to Grace Kelly’s vulnerable yet steely roles to Mae West’s determined sensuality, women are portrayed as human beings in their own right, with their own income, ideas, and plans. Male characters are never macho, like so many male characters now–even the most ‘he-man’ of them, like Clark Gable’s Rhett Butler, are not what we would consider these days to be testoterone-fuelled types. You have elegant, urbane characters like those Cary Grant played; vulnerable, clever, dangerous ones like James Stewart’s; gentle but strong ones like Gregory Peck’s, and so on. Furthermore, men and women are often seen sparring with each other, in a game of equals, not a dominating power-play. They respect each other’s minds as well as covet each other’s bodies! And they like each other–or if they do not do so at the start, they grow to do so by the end, as well as love each other. And you also get the feeling that though love between men and women is the most lovely thing there is, still, these people have existed as individuals before, not crippled by their lack of romance–their strong individuality is only enhanced and enriched by romance, not destroyed or leached by it.
Now, when supposedly we’re much freer, film characters in romantic comedies seem to me much more sexually typecast. Men are often portrayed either as predatory macho types, or as inept losers, while women are either predatory and rapacious, or foolish giggling gerties, or abrasive repel-all-boarders sorts. Intelligence and free spirit are hardly ever present, in male or female characters; and there’s a desperation about finding love, a desire to completely subsume your prickly individuality in someone else’s haven, that would have looked odd in an old movie. Much more graphic sex is on display than in the old films, of course, but often to curiously unsexy effect: film-makers have forgotten that suggestiveness and the interplay of wit , beauty and intelligence is a great deal more sexy than the meat-shop display of bodies. Sexiness is an integral part of romance; and sexiness is absent from most modern romantic comedies. That perhaps started in the 60’s, when the sex kitten became the preferred female stereotype for many film-makers; but though then it may have been daring, now it’s merely ho-hum, even dull.
It seems to me that many modern film-makers do recognise the problem, and try hard to replicate the pleasure of the old films by gesturing in their direction, or at least the direction of their archetypes: for instance, in Bridget Jones’ diary, the two men on offer are clumsily rendered approximations of the strong silent type and the attractive bounder type. Sadly, though, Colin Firth’s character comes across to me as Mr Log, about as responsive as a block of wood; and Hugh Grant’s character, while perhaps closer, in lightness, to an old-style romantic male character, is unbelievable too, mostly because of the fact he’s attracted to Renee Zellweger’s character at all! What a boring, immature little cipher she is, not one ounce the wit or presence or indepedence of the Hepburns or a Davis or a Kelly et al! There are some actors around now who I think could actually play a romantic comedy of wit and sexiness really well–George Clooney, for instance, our new Cary Grant–but they’re never given the opportunity to do so . Instead, they’re given dogs like Intolerable Cruelty, which plays up to every single dumb stereotype in the book. It’s a real pity.

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ctd
ctd
2022 years ago

I think its mostly the script. For example, Bringing Up Baby is a great movie, but the story is pretty much ‘bumbler loses tiger and has to find it’. Not much of a storyline – but the script is so funny, witty and the rest, that you don’t really even notice it. Not much happens in The Philidelphia Story either.

Lack of cynicism is also a part – but I don’t know if you can overcome that. Look at how Notting Hill or 4 Weddings get criticised for not being realistic, or sentimental or situated in a middle class dream world that doesn’t exist. But they are nonetheless much more realistic than the world in which Cary Grant operated. But in those days no one cared – you wanted a movie to take you to some fantasy land. These days, people (well, critics) wont accept that (which leads onto the ‘real life gritty childrens literature vs the worlds of enid blyton argument . . ).

Perhaps I am showing my age, but I feel When Harry Met Sally is the film most like these early comedies – none of the characters are perfect, the script is witty, nothing much really happens and its all about love in the end. Still, there isnt the glamour that you find in the older films (although imagine it with George Clooney instead of Billy C).

Of course, its a bit much complaining that we no longer have actors like Ms Hepburn or Cary Grant or Jimmy Stewart. Even in the 1940s and 50s there was no one else like them. We no longer have any Rembrandts either.

dan
dan
2022 years ago

The other idea is to look at old romantic comedies which have been remade. I adored Sabrina in the original, but found the remake boring. There is something about the kind of wit of the older films – I think it is that they have a style about them. Modern films often seem commercial and overdone and mass produced.

Peter Murphy
2022 years ago

Not just the script but also the number of scriptwriters. One Gore Vidal on a rusty old typewriter often beats out 10 Allan Smithees on word processors.

Tony.T
2022 years ago

Regarding re-makes, I think it was Michael Caine who asked what’s the point of redoing classic films; they were fine first time round. Why not remake the dogs and try to do a better job? I find it extremely hard to excuse the nonsense that was Gus Van Sant’s shot-for-shot remake of Psycho. Except for colour.

Another thing, do you think it’s a case of past actors, who started out on stage to hone their crafts, just simply being better actors than the screen drones today who generally look good, but merely need to know which way to look, and when?

There are even actors today who have it stipulated in their contracts that they are not allowed to be filmed going from one mood to another. In otherwords, they must be permitted time to adjust from, for instance, happy to sad, off-screen. Take Cloris Leachman in the final scene of The Last Picture Show. That is not the kind of emotional swing you see enough of in films today.

Then there’s the “sampling” of old films. Modern film-makers seem to think it’s fine for films to be constructed around a series of nods to older ones so they can self-indulgently wank on; “That’s from Rear Window, that bit’s from 2001, this one’s from L’Atalante and this, this is from 2000 Maniacs.”

It’s all become very tiresome. WE know what came before, stop reminding us of your own shortcomings and just tell us a good story.

Greg Chinery
Greg Chinery
2022 years ago

It’s a chick thing too. I find most romantic comedies boring, particularly the older 40s and 50s stuff. But spending 90-120 mins of my time wondering whether the protagonists are going to get married/sleep together/break up is basically a yawn for me.

I want action, thrills and spills, intrigue, politics, conspiracy, and maybe, just maybe, a love interest – providing it’s not too time consuming.

My wife, on the other hand, enjoys romance. QED.

derrida derider
derrida derider
2022 years ago

There’s a selection bias here – the old movies you get to see these days are the good ones. There were probably plenty of stinkers around then too, but you have to be watching TV at 2am to get to see any of them.

And light romance has always been a chick thing, just as action movies were/are a guy thing. Vive la difference.

Nicholas Gruen
2022 years ago

Great post. Compare the popular music of the two periods and I think there’s a similar contrast.

James Russell
2022 years ago

you have to be watching TV at 2am to get to see any of them

Actually what you really need is cable TV, particularly American cable. If you watch TV at 2am on local free-to-air, you’ll get infomercials…

sophie
sophie
2022 years ago

Oh, I don’tthink it’s strictly divided into guys love action, women love romance–I love both provided they’re good. (that goes for every genre–there’s only one genre I don’t like, at all, and that’s Anything With Steven Seagal)It’s the stinkers I don’t like! there’s only two major categories of films in my opinion (as of books)–the good ones and the boring ones. And of course that’s subjective. For instance, I love The Terminator but I hate Mission Impossible 2; I love An Affair to Remember but I hate Bridget Jones’ Diary. You watch different films in different moods, too–sometimes you want something full on, action-packed, thrilling, other times something mysterious and elusive, other times funny, or romantic, or haunting..or whatever. It’s the same with books. I don’t justread one type of book but everything that’s going and that doesn’t bore me.
BTW my husband loves watching a good romantic comedy too, as do our two very blase teenage boys.
I think it’s absolutely true the script counts for a great deal (a most cheering thought for a writer!)And also it istrue to say that the good films survive–time’s already done its sifting, as with any other art form. What if any modern romantic comedies do people think will survive to be shown at 2 am or at Showtime Greats?

Rob
Rob
2022 years ago

I agree with Sophie that it’s not just a boy/girl thing. But who goes to whose side of the net? I mean, I’m very happy watching light romantics with my wife – or by myself if she’s not there – but when it comes to war or science fiction stuff she goes elsewhere. I persuaded her to watch ‘Deep Impact’ but that’s as far as she was prepared to go in SF. I never could get her to watch ‘Bladerunner’.

Mind you, she watched the film noir season with me on ABC a year or so ago and enjoyed the films as much as I did. Now those were GREAT films! ‘Out of the Past’ is a Hollywood gem to rival the great comedies like ‘Bringing Up Baby’ and ‘I Was a Male War Bride’. And what about the Val Lewton ‘horror’ films? ‘I Walked With a Zombie’ is one of the greatest exercises in imaginative scary stuff ever, even if it had a dog of a title. And it was shot on a shoestring budget; got all its effects from lighting, scripting and great production and direction. Learn from that, James Cameron & George Lucas! [Actually I quite like the title.]

Don Wigan
Don Wigan
2022 years ago

“One Gore Vidal on a rusty old typewriter often beats out 10 Allan Smithees on word processors.”

An interesting observation. Gore Vidal’s novel “Myra Breckinbridge” made some of the same points Sophie and others have made. If I remember, it was that, in the 30s movies reached their apex, and most subsequent efforts paled into insignificance.

I always thought that this was a satire on the over-romanticisation of movie buffs (like our own Bill Collins used to be). Now, I’m not so sure. Certainly romantic comedy today is at best mediocre. The best efforts have really been the historical ones, as you noted.

Even if you have latent anglophilia, which I seem to have in comedy, the situation is no better. Where are the Norman Wisdoms and Charlie Drakes of yesteryear? Of course, they were probably murdered by those cheapskate Carry On movies. I once heard Norman say (about 30+ years back) that he’d never make another movie because nobody was interested in good scripts any more.

It’s no better with drama (not to be confused with action-thrillers which still attract through special effects). They lasted a bit longer than comedies. “In The Heat of The Night” was made in the 60s, and there have been further interesting gems such as The Godfather series, Mississippi Burning and Schindler’s Book. Again the best seem to be based on historic events.

One is almost tempted to agree with Norman, until we remember the real Hollywood of the 30s. The tycoons hired the best writers in the world and then virtually failed to use them, or rewrote all their scripts. If they could treat their writers so badly, how could they produce masterpieces?

Tony.T
2022 years ago

Myra Breckinbridge might have been a finely honed satire as a book, but was a total balls-up of a fillum.

And even though Hollywood treated great authors poorly, at least Raymond Chandler and William Faulkner managed a couple of pearlers.

Mark Bahnisch
Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

A long time Cary Grant/Jimmie Stewart fan myself, I watched Rear Window on Friday night. I was horrified to learn there’d been a remake.

Gaby
Gaby
2022 years ago

Hi Sophie,

I’m a big romantic comedy fan so I found this post particularly delightful.

And yes I’m male, despite the name.

I think that a lot of the malaise felt about current cinema is due to the poor quality of the scripts, unquesionably. Gore Vidal, who writes very knowledgeably about film, argues this very forcefully.

To pick up another thread from the discussion, the formulaic nature of scripts contributes to their lack of quality. I’m sure the number of Tom Cruise’s trademark smirks or chuckles or Julia Roberts’s broad smiles or throaty laughs are carefully contracted for, and then inteleaved, in a film.

A poor script will be noticed most acutely in a romantic comedy. The essence of romantic comedy is really seduction (understood in a very broad sense), or, in other words, the trials and tribulations ultimately leading to the declaration of love, as this is usually implicit in the genre.

Note, not the shag but the thrill of the mutual peregrinations to it. Save me from sex as more Hollywood choreography!

And I fail to see how seduction can be erotic to the cinemtic “voyeur” without corporeal characters and subtle and sparkling dialogue?

I think the French did romantic comedy particularly well in the 70’s-80’s. Films like “Pourquoi Pas” and “Get Out Your Handkerchiefs”.

Two personal favourites were “L’Amour en Douce”, which was the first time I saw Emanuelle Beart, and which I think also starred Daniel Auteuil. The other is Bertrand Blier’s “Tenue du Soiree”.

I’m struggling to think of any recent movies of this genre other than “Harry & Sally”, “4 Weddings”, “Notting Hill” and “About a Boy”. Which have I forgotten?

Mark Bahnisch
Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

Sophie – wouldn’t bathing in champagne leave one rather sticky afterwards? Can’t say I’ve ever tried it…

sophie
sophie
2022 years ago

well, Mark you’re probably right but it’s not intended literally–it’s a metaphor and as light and fairytalish as a good romantic comedy!
Gaby, I think that the formulaic nature of much modern scripts is indeed a problem–esp since they don’t actually believe in their formula but are just going through the motions. For instance, a fairytale is formulaic, but it works because the very formula ‘Once upon a time’ etc sets up an expectatation in you, that you are entering a certain kind of imaginative territory, and you can relax into it, expecting a delicious treat, a holiday from reality, fun, magic, whatever. When people treat that kind of formula with respect and love, it works really well–when they treat it (and by extension the audience) with crass disrespect and lack of understanding (Eg ‘subverting’ for the damn sake of it, without understanding what it is they’re subverting)and simply pump out a formula without any love or sense of fun then it falls on its bum and the audiences stay away.
You’re absolutely right about seduction being at the heart of successful romantic comedy. And though some film-makers seem to think modern audiences are too blase to believe in seduction and its pleasures–its deferred pleasures as well as its present ones–I think that’s absolutely untrue. People still want to be seduced into a good story!

Gaby
Gaby
2022 years ago

Mark, Mark….surely most of the best things in life leave one sticky….

Sophie, I think there is a distinction between “form” and “formulaic”. Romantic comedies certainly have a form, like fairy tales, and at times this form can be successfully subverted in a manner which still entertains (like some of the French films I referred to). I’m thinking of things like an initial antipathy between the protagonists, missed paths, misunderstandings that frustrate desire etc. These are then usually resolved happily.

The “formulaic” aspects that I object to are those that have probably been “tested” in focus groups or inserted because they “worked” in previous films, whether in homage or as outright plagiarism. Too many current films have that feel of modules cobbled together from such elements, including smirks and smiles.

Two relatively recent (last 20 years) romantic comedies that I have enjoyed were “Tequila Sunrise” and “The Fabulous Baker Boys”.

Too blase for seduction? But that is just lunacy! Romantic comedy without seduction, deferral, frustration, revelation and resolution….well that would be porn, wouldn’t it?

Stan
Stan
2022 years ago

Sophie

I am a friend of Gaby’s (see previous post). I was taken aback to note that Gaby neglected to mention one of the genuinely inspired modern romantic comedies, namely “The Sure Thing”. It was Gaby who introduced me to this minor miracle.

I would add to this list another John Cusack gem entitled “Say anything”. I mention these two films because they each illustrate an important ingredient in a successful romantic comedy (the revelation of self) and because they are a study in contrasts.

Great romantic comedies are character driven. The dramatic and comedic tension is created through a process of unravelling (or more precisely through a process of revelation of self). Obviously for this to work both the self revealed and the act of revelation must ring true. Nothing a deftly written script, competent casting and imaginative direction can’t achieve.

The Sure Thing is almost unique amongst modern comedies in that it subverts the usual form and depicts not the revelation of self to ones romantic quarry, but rather the revelation of self to self.

Say Anything works so beautifully because every awkward gesture, every unintended revelation and mistimed announcement rings so painfully true.

I agree with Gaby in that every genre is a form. Forms are only reduced to becoming formulaic by the corporate need to remove risk, revelation and self from the process. These are of course the sine qua non of romance.