Posted by Susan Doll on February 14, 2011
Today is Valentine’s Day, and I feel compelled to offer something related to the holiday, like so many other bloggers and sites are doing. However, instead of gearing my article toward couples by listing the best classic screwball comedies, contemporary romantic comedies, or other genres that exploit romance, relationships, and love, I turned to the other end of the romantic spectrum. My article is dedicated to singles, the recently divorced, and the unlucky in love, who will appreciate this list of favorite movies about failed relationships, heartbreak, and heartache.
My list includes movies in which the boy and the girl do not end up in “the clinch,” that slang word used by industry personnel during the Golden Age to refer to the last shot of a film in which the heroic protagonist and leading lady embrace, kiss, hug, or look longingly into each other’s eyes. The clinch signifies a happy ending, suggesting that order had been restored and society and its institutions are intact. Because viewers are accustomed to seeing the clinch, particularly in classic films, those movies that do not conclude this way are all the more tragic, memorable, or meaningful.
My list is dominated by films in which the relationship fails because of the characters’ personal flaws, mistakes, hubris, or pride—not because one dies and leaves the other behind. Death doesn’t necessarily defeat love, but human frailty can. Again, this point of view is atypical of Hollywood’s treatment of romance and marriage, particularly during the era of the Production Code, which mandated that marriage was a sacred institution and should never be cast in a negative light. For that reason, my list is heavily weighted toward films released after the Golden Age, though I stayed clear of recent Hollywood titles already familiar to most, including Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, The English Patient, 500 Days of Summer, and The Break Up. Finally, while I was tempted to include the horror flick My Bloody Valentine, I opted for well-crafted movies that most can appreciate, no matter their current relationship status.
Wuthering Heights (1939). Emile Bronte’s gothic romance has been filmed many times, but this Golden Age version directed by William Wyler offers potent star turns by Merle Oberon and Laurence Olivier as star-crossed lovers Cathy and Heathcliff. Set in the early nineteenth century, the story follows headstrong Cathy and ill-bred Heathcliff from their childhood on the moors to maturity, when she becomes enamored with the wealthy lifestyle of a neighbor and marries him. Heathcliff’s revenge is to leave the moors and return a refined gentleman, attracting the affections of Cathy’s sister-in-law. Cathy and Heathcliff brood, obsess, and taunt each other until she dies of fever, leaving him a haunted man. Wyler and cinematographer Gregg Toland visualized the English moors as dark, shadowy, and windswept—creating the archetypal look for this legendary part of Britain. Remote, rocky, and stormy, the moors are a visual representation of Cathy and Heathcliff’s tormented romance.
Now, Voyager (1942). Bette Davis stars as Charlotte Vale, a dowdy spinster who sheds her mousy look along with her repression with the help of a psychiatrist. When the new Charlotte travels to South America, she enjoys a shipboard romance with married man Jerry, played by Paul Henreid. Considering the restrictions of the Production Code regarding adultery, it’s a given that Jerry and Charlotte can never be together, let alone consummate their love. Jerry’s wife and Charlotte’s mother are both domineering matriarchs who have psychologically damaged their children. Charlotte volunteers to help Jerry’s troubled daughter—her motherly love for the child presented as an acceptable substitute for the romantic love she feels for Jerry. She gladly agrees to this arrangement, assuring Jerry that she does not need to be anyone’s wife, declaring in the film’s most famous line, “Don’t let’s ask for the moon. We have the stars.”
The strict dictates of the Code, which mandate that Charlotte and Jerry will never engage in a physical affair, gives the film its most romantic motif. When the couple is alone, Jerry puts two cigarettes in his mouth, then passes one to Charlotte. The gesture takes on such an intimate connotation that it is downright erotic. It at once suggests the limits of their relationship while implying the depth of their longing.
Some Came Running (1958). Vincente Minnelli’s melodrama of James Jones’s novel stars Frank Sinatra as war veteran Dave Hirsh, who is profoundly dissatisfied with the materialism and false values of postwar America. Given a choice between the hypocrisies of polite society and the degenerate company of riff-raff, he chooses the latter, much to his middle-class brother’s chagrin. Though he is better suited to college English teacher Gwen French, he marries Ginnie, a floozie with a heart of gold who loves him unconditionally. Shirley MacLaine plays Ginnie, a broadly drawn character given poignancy through MacLaine’s performance. Ginnie wants Dave, who wants Gwen, who wants to change Dave—and no one gets what they want. An aura of futility and doom hangs over the film, which is made concrete through a nihilistic character played by Dean Martin. As a gambler who accepts that the game of life is rigged, Martin plays the character as too cool for the room.
Considering the opposing forces in the film—proper society vs. gamblers and drinkers, moral vs. immoral, conformity vs. nonconformity, educated college professor vs. bar girl—a clash of epic proportions is inevitable. Minnelli was a stylist whose use of color and set design made him an accomplished director of musicals. The climactic sequence of Some Came Running takes place in a cheap carnival, where Minnelli’s trademark use of primary colors, particularly red, creates a garish setting for the act of violence that seals the ill fates of the characters.
Splendor in the Grass (1961). In this steamy melodrama from Elia Kazan, Natalie Wood stars as Deanie Loomis , the best of her roles in which she played a young woman too vulnerable for the emotional baggage that comes with a passionate love affair. Splendor in the Grass is the highpoint of this phase of her career, which also included This Property Is Condemned, Inside Daisy Clover and All the Fine Young Cannibals. Wood and costar Warren Beatty play flapper-era teenagers of the Jazz Age who struggle with the intensity of first love and the sexual urges that come with it. Just as the era comes to screeching halt with the stock market crash, so does Deanie explode from her repressed desires, resulting in a nervous breakdown, while Beatty’s character, Bud, burns out in college.
Fans of the film live for the final scene, which perfectly conveys the bittersweet experience of two lovers who realize the relationship is over while feelings still linger. Bud and Deanie meet again after much water has gone under the bridge. Bud marries a waitress he met in college before dropping out, and they live in poverty on a ranch on the outskirts of town. Deanie is engaged to a nice young man she met at the facility where she recovered from her breakdown. When the star-crossed lovers meet, the atmosphere is thick with unstated regret and longing. They cannot go back but they know they will never feel that level of intense passion again. The title is from a William Wordsworth poem: “. . . nothing can bring back the hour of splendor in the grass . . . .”
The Way We Were (1973). Sidney Pollack directed this widely popular romantic drama with the equally famous theme song. Barbra Streisand and Robert Redford play opposites who love each other but are ill-suited as a couple. The film follows their radically different characters from college in the 1930s through courtship during WWII and then marriage in the postwar era. She’s a working class idealist involved in social causes; he’s an upper-crust pragmatist who prefers the path of least resistance. Their romance unfolds against American socio-political history of the 1930s and 1940s, from the Spanish Civil War through the investigations by the House on UnAmerican Activities Committee. The film presupposes that viewers know that history; there is little exposition devoted to explaining it. As I was thinking about this film, I realized how times have changed. The Way We Were was typical of its era in that it was a romantic drama with two major stars directed by a Hollywood veteran who knew his way around the classic narrative style. In retrospect, the historical references, charismatic performances, and craftsmanship stand out in comparison to today’s mainstream films, which are aimed at a young demographic raised on snarky cynicism and unmoved by history.
One of Pollack’s talents was his ability to get terrific performances from movie stars while taking full advantage of their larger-than-life charisma and physical appearances. Redford collaborated on half dozen films with Pollack, and the pair sometimes used the star’s all-American good looks to create flawed characters who trade on their handsome features. Redford lets his physical appearance and charisma do most of the work to create the character of Hubbell Gardiner for whom things come too easily. Streisand plays a working-class girl who is not naturally attractive and not unaccustomed to winning the handsome prince—like most of us. In the end, she can’t keep him and remain true to herself—like most of us. In the coda to the film, they run into each other years later. Both actors underplay the poignant reunion, making it more effective and moving. In the film’s most memorable shot, Streisand brushes the hair from Redford’s forehead—the only sign of her lingering feelings.
Shampoo (1975), which was cowritten and coproduced by Warren Beatty, is another film set against the backdrop of history. This comedy of manners focuses on sex, politics, and power among the rich and jaded of Hollywood. It’s set against the backdrop of Election Day, 1968, when Richard Nixon was elected president. Beatty stars as his alter-ego George, a womanizing beautician who wants to open his own hair shop. It’s almost impossible not to see the real-life Beatty in the fictional George, who beds many women in his attempt to get backing for his shop, but he ends up sadder and not much wiser. The film has been interpreted as pointed commentary on the end of 1960s idealism and the return to conservative politics, which signaled the beginning of the self-absorbed “Me Generation.”
Beatty engaged in self-reflexive casting by signing ex-girlfriend Julie Christie to play George’s ex-lover Jackie—which gives their scenes together a personal subtext. Christie left Beatty largely because of his philandering, like Jackie left George over his affairs with his clients. After years apart, Jackie and George accidentally meet, and it is clear he carries a torch for her, though she is the willing mistress of Lester, a wealthy businessman. Rejecting love as an impractical ideal, Jackie ultimately chooses the financial security of her life with Lester over her affection for George. In the last scene, he stands on one of the hills overlooking Hollywood, watching Jackie—and his chances for happiness—drive away with Lester.
Annie Hall (1977). Woody Allen goes a step further than Beatty by casting former girlfriend Diane Keaton in the title role of this remarkably smart comedy that offers a fictionalized version of their real-life relationship. Allen deftly combines autobiography, personal observation, and cultural references for a funny but perceptive analysis of modern relationships. Self-reflexive but unpretentious, the humor masks the complexity of the narrative structure and the smartness of the dialogue. Despite the autobiographical element, the storyline chronicles the arc of a relationship from beginning to post-breakup, making it a universal experience. After their breakup, Allen’s character, Alvy Singer, flies to California to rekindle the relationship, but Annie rebuffs him. Just as the real-life Allen revisited his relationship with Keaton via Annie Hall, so the fictional Alvy reworks his relationship with Annie into a play. In a heartbreaking twist, Alvy gives his play a happy ending, which Allen cannot bring himself to do in Annie Hall. For Alvy Singer, art provides a fantasy version of real life to escape its disappointments; for Woody Allen, art reflects real life to put it into perspective.
Trouble in Mind (1985) and Choose Me (1984). I have a soft spot for director Alan Rudolph, largely because of these two eccentric films. I paired them together as one entry because both thrive on a moody, noir-like atmosphere and a nocturnal fantasy world where the jazz is always smooth and the characters melancholy. Choose Me is the most appropriate for Valentine’s Day because it underscores the mystery that is romantic love. Keith Carradine plays Mickey, a pathological liar who romances both sex therapist Nancy Love (Genevieve Bujold) and bar owner Eve (Lesley Ann Warren). Other characters weave in and out of the story in a passionate dance of sex and love, only to find that the first is short-lived and the latter fleeting.
Trouble In Mind is less successful than Choose Me, but I prefer it because Kris Kristofferson is irresistible as a doomed former detective just out of prison who falls for a naïve young girl, while his former girlfriend (Bujold, again) watches on the sidelines. Set in the fictional Rain City, the highly stylized film harkens back to the hard-boiled noirs of the 1940 while suggesting some grim future dominated by mobsters and corruption. The film uses the language of movies and what we know about them, particularly westerns and film noir, to communicate narrative and suggest character.
War of the Roses (1989). Michael Douglas, Kathleen Turner, and Danny DeVito reunited for a third time to make this dark, disturbing comedy about the pitfalls of marriage. War of the Roses is the opposite of their romantic fantasies Romancing the Stone and The Jewel of the Nile—a move that took fans by surprise. Douglas and Turner play a materialistic, consumer-driven couple, Oliver and Barbara Rose, whose picture-perfect marriage has deteriorated beyond repair. In the throes of divorce, their battleground—literally—becomes their house, which Oliver bought but Barbara decorated to perfection. Both live in the house to establish ownership during the divorce proceedings, which leads to threats, spiteful maneuvers, sabotage, and physical violence between husband and wife. DeVito also directed the film, and to suggest that Oliver and Barbara have become crazed in their revenge, he depicts the concluding sequence of mass destruction with expressionist techniques. Dutch camera angles, dark shadows, and a confining set design amplify the chaos of the ruined house and also convey the warped minds of the Roses. The film begins as a sweet romantic comedy that plays off the chemistry between Turner and Douglas, but soon the main characters turn unsympathetic, an escalating bitterness wipes out any trace of romance, and the final scene will shock fans of the genre. Rent this movie on date night only if you want to get rid of the person you are dating.
In the Mood for Love (2000). While several films by Chinese director Wong Kar-Wai could easily fit this list, including Happy Together and 2046, I chose In the Mood for Love, because the melancholy in this romantic melodrama is almost tangible. Set in Hong Kong in the early 1960s, the story involves a relationship-that-never-was between Chow Mo-Wan (Tony Leung) and Mrs. Chan, (Maggie Cheung), who are neighbors in the same housing complex. One day, they discover that their spouses are having an affair with one another. Devastated, they spend evenings together rehearsing ways to confront their spouses and reenacting scenarios that might help them figure out how the affair began. They forge a deep but painful bond, though they will never act on it because they have vowed never to behave like their partners. Restrained by fidelity and morality, they can never express their feelings.
Wong is famous for using mise-en-scene to suggest the plight of the characters. In Mood, Mo-Wan and Mrs. Chan rarely inhabit the same shot to underscore their decision not to be together. Likewise, the set design of narrow, turning corridors helps to obscure one of the two characters behind a corner or door, or they are visually separated by frames or shadows. The unfaithful spouses, whose infidelity drives the two protagonists together, remain mostly off camera, their faces unseen. An oversaturated color palette symbolizes the heightened feelings of the characters, who cannot openly reveal them, while also infusing the frames’ negative spaces with vibrant color. One of the most romantic touches is the use of slow-motion shots of cigarette smoke, with the wisps of the smoke slowly dissipating into nothing—not unlike the promise of romance.
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