"I don't believe that love goes on forever and that there's one person for anybody. . . . I don't believe in any of that. I don't believe in marriage, I don't believe in eternal love, I don't believe in any of the stuff that will probably be the ending of all my movies."
--Filmmaker Amy Heckerling, on the PBS series "American Cinema"
Valentine's Day may be staring us in the face, but it's a little hard to get jazzed about love these days.
In Hollywood, at least. Who cares how grand love is if moviegoers don't want to hear about it?
None of the major studios' crop of romantic comedies last year--"I Love Trouble," "It Could Happen to You," "Only You," "Speechless," "Reality Bites" and "I.Q." prominent among them--were box-office successes in America; a couple were flat-out flops. The only runaway success was a quirky, modestly budgeted British import, "Four Weddings and a Funeral."
Of course, some of these just weren't particularly good films, but that's not always a consideration when dealing with blockbusters. Some filmmakers are reporting that Hollywood is getting cold feet when it comes to commitments--to making romantic comedies. In fact, two major studios, Warner Bros. and Universal, have nary a romantic comedy to be found on their 1995 schedules.
"When you're in a marketing meeting, you think, 'For gosh sake, don't promote it like it's a romantic comedy,' " says Steve Martin, who has nonetheless written a couple of romantic comedies ("Roxanne," "L.A. Story") and appeared in several more. "If you say, 'Do you want to see a romantic comedy?,' people just say, 'No.' "
Can audiences relate to the idea of happily-ever-after in an era of AIDS, spiraling divorce rates and widespread confusion over gender roles in courtship? Can we enjoy watching ostensibly unmarried characters get sexy with one another while Newt Gingrich bangs the family values gong on Capitol Hill?
Well, sure, say some. Even in a climate where audiences go wild for the glib decapitation of "Pulp Fiction" and the digestive discomforts of "Dumb and Dumber," there are still going to be a fair share of softies.
"No matter how cynical or even cruel society becomes, there are always lovers," declares director Norman Jewison ("Moonstruck," "Only You").
"The romance is what I love best, the innocence," says writer-producer Nancy Meyers ("Father of the Bride," "Baby Boom"). "That certain naivete in the world they live in, which is one that I'd like in the world I live in--the way in which life turns out, I find completely appealing. It's one of the best of American movie genres. I'm completely in love with the genre. Take 'The Awful Truth,' 'His Girl Friday,' 'Twentieth Century'--as a girl, I got a view of love through those movies.
"As opposed to my daughter, who wants to see 'Pulp Fiction.' "
That omniscient group known as "They" like to say that they don't make 'em like they used to. Filmmakers today question if that's possible--or desirable.
"It's driven everybody crazy when we've tried to do a screwball comedy or our version of a landmark Preston Sturges or Billy Wilder film that we all hold dear," says writer-director James L. Brooks ("Broadcast News"), currently at work on a romantic comedy. "We have to accept that they're just masterworks that we admire, and it's hard to be a master."
Director Chris Columbus ("Mrs. Doubtfire"), currently working on the romantic comedy "Nine Months," says that audiences could simply be a little tired of experiencing movie deja vu.
"There have been a number of unsuccessful romantic comedies in the past few years, because it's tough to go into a film knowing what the ending will be," he says. "No matter how hard you try to make it different, that lack of surprise hurts a film. Predictability is an enormous problem."
A basic evergreen plot line accompanies just about every romantic comedy: Two people meet and initially can't stand one another until something happens and they can't stand being without one another. Everything else is window dressing.
Frank Capra's 1934 Oscar-winning classic "It Happened One Night," starring Clark Gable as a reporter tailing a runaway heiress (Claudette Colbert), is generally considered to have created the mold from which all that followed it was crafted; it ushered in the era of the screwball comedy, the golden age of romantic comedies.
Screwballs of the '30s were also noted for luxuriating in glamour (even though most of the rich folks on-screen were more miserable than the good-hearted, working-class people with whom they fell in love), which provided Depression-era filmgoers with a vicarious chance to wallow in money. Love conquered all, and even the root of all evil couldn't change that.
"In the '30s, people thought, 'I would love to marry a rich guy or heiress, marry up,' " says director Garry Marshall ("Pretty Woman"). "But it seems like because of the news, we have proven to people that those in the fanciest houses are the most miserable. There's a lot of horror going on there. So folks aren't in such a hurry to get there."
Crackling writing and sizzling chemistry were the order of the day in the early screwballs; social realism was not high on the list of goals for filmmakers. The few divorces depicted--in 1937's "The Awful Truth" and the 1940 Cary Grant movies "His Girl Friday" (with Rosalind Russell) and "The Philadelphia Story" (with Katharine Hepburn)--ended in reconciliation.
Otherwise, it was fluff but sharply written fluff. Preston Sturges' "The Palm Beach Story" (1942) offers a loving couple who stage a divorce to earn some easy money, which of course turns out to be anything but easy. Howard Hawks' "Bringing Up Baby" (1938) found Katharine Hepburn giving Cary Grant all manner of grief but him loving her for it anyway.
George Cukor's "Holiday" (1938) has Grant infiltrating Hepburn's stuffed-shirt society, while the director's "Adam's Rib" (1949) found Hepburn and Spencer Tracy as married attorneys trying opposite sides of the same court case. Sturges' "The Lady Eve" (1941) found gold-digger Barbara Stanwyck training her high beams on wealthy doofus Henry Fonda.
Brad Hall, co-writer and producer of the upcoming "Bye Bye Love," calls himself a huge Sturges fan, but adds that much of the sparkle of those early comedies can't successfully be recaptured.
"The world has changed, especially in the way the romance is played out," he says. "The roles have changed. These movies were breaking social boundaries that no longer exist. A lot of these movies have powerful women as a source of comedy. That's no longer comedy; that's life. Women competing with men is just not funny in the same way; women have come such a long way."
In the '50s, aggressively naive Rock Hudson and Doris Day vehicles such as "Pillow Talk" found their counterpoint in the edgier, smarter Wilder films like "Some Like It Hot," considered by many to be the most perfect romantic comedy ever made; "Sabrina," currently being remade with Harrison Ford, and "The Apartment." However, the '60s and early '70s saw a marked reduction in the number of memorable romantic comedies. A few--like "The Graduate," "Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice" and "Harold and Maude"--were more concerned with investigating long-standing social values that were increasingly found empty and irrelevant.
It wasn't until Woody Allen came along, most memorably with "Annie Hall" and "Manhattan," that the genre was reborn, this time chock full of neurotic characters, jittery about romance in the changing face of society. In some of Allen's stories, the guy didn't even end up with the girl at movie's end. Allen's films were cited as direct influences for the wildly popular "When Harry Met Sally. . ." and the current "Miami Rhapsody."
"He's an inspiration for anyone," David Frankel, who wrote and made his directorial debut with "Rhapsody," admits.
"I asked myself, 'How come no one makes movies like those early romantic comedies of Woody?' I'm wading into an area he's monopolized for a long time."
In the '80s and early '90s, the genre splintered. There were more tales of modern men and women, slightly less neurotic than Allen's protagonists yet juggling careers and fears of commitment all the same ("Broadcast News," "Crossing Delancey"), gender-bending romantic comedies ("Tootsie," "Victor/Victoria"), countless teen flicks (most notably "The Sure Thing" and "Say Anything . . . ") and feel-good audience pleasers ("Moonstruck," "Pretty Woman," "Look Who's Talking").
In the past two years, only two romantic comedies have clicked big with American audiences. "Sleepless in Seattle" was a throwback--literally keeping the couple apart until the movie's very last scene--while "Four Weddings and a Funeral" contemporized the genre in a fashion while working within its traditional framework.
Gary Foster, producer of "Sleepless," cited his film's old-fashioned nature as a major reason for its success.
"The sense of nostalgia was important, and timing was everything," he says. "People wanted more traditional material. Audience segment was a big factor--it was big with the over-50 crowd. There was no foul language, no nudity, it was safe and sweet, old-time movie making."
"It was the purest romantic comedy of recent times," says Meyers. "It existed in a world of innocence--she falls in love with a man's voice. She goes to look at him but doesn't talk. That fantasy quality was close to what it was in the old days. It requires a certain kind of acting and writing and directing, which is hard to pull off."
Still, for the most part, many of those interviewed agreed with Martin when he said, "You can't go back."
"I'd love to say, 'I made a great screwball comedy.' But nobody has. No matter how much you want to get back to making those old movies, you're dealing with a level of predictability. If you know what's going to happen by Page 5, it's not going to work."
While most interviewed conceded that point, they had differing opinions on why it was true. Some considered the fantasy element embraced by audiences during the Depression essential; others claimed it doesn't wash with a more cynical generation.
"I think a romance should be a story which levitates a little bit from reality," says Jewison. "With 'Moonstruck,' I was looking for something kind of magical and poetic. When people are in love, they're a little mad, a little crazy. They do strange things."
But Jewison admits that some audiences may have found it "difficult to throw yourself into 'Only You' because of the current cynicism of society. Yet if you give yourself to film, and allow yourself to believe in these ridiculous situations--the comedy part of romantic comedies is often the fact that the situation is bizarre. It's something that stretches credibility. That's what's funny about it."
"Audiences want to see people break rules for love, to challenge the fates for love," says Hall. "To say, 'Screw it, I'm in love and I want to do this anyway.' If the love is so intense, then your fantasy can be small. But I don't think you want to get into the realm of really out-there stuff."
But no amount of fantasy or realism will work if the actors playing the loving couple can't get sparks flying.
"The romantic comedy puts bigger a priority on the actor, because it's much more concerned about character than it is story," says Brooks. "You go back to those classic movies, and those actors were extraordinary."
Martin adds: "In some Hollywood romantic comedies, you can never quite get involved. You always see two big stars and sometimes they don't shed their personas. You can tell they're not really in love with each other."
Writer-director Lawrence Kasdan ("The Big Chill," "The Accidental Tourist," this summer's "French Kiss" with Kevin Kline and Meg Ryan), on the other hand, believes that an acting couple's chemistry is "an after-the-fact determination. When a movie works, people say they had great chemistry. When it doesn't, they say there's no chemistry. But this is one of the hardest forms to get a decent screenplay for. When you see a bad one, it's always the script. You may say a couple has no chemistry, but it's probably that the two stars had nothing to play, or weren't surrounded by interesting characters, or were in a situation that no one could relate to."
Frankel says that it can be hard to sell the studios on a more subtly clever script. "They get things that are less sophisticated more easily. I can write in a script, 'He trips over a rake and clomps himself in the head,' and they'll think, 'OK, that will be funny. All we need to do is get a goofy actor.' But if I write something subtle, they may not get it because it doesn't look like a joke on the page. And if you don't immediately get it, why should you invest millions of dollars on it?"
There is one subject most of Hollywood seems to agree on: the rousing success of "Four Weddings and a Funeral," last year's modestly budgeted British film starring Hugh Grant and Andie MacDowell as a couple who keep running into one another at a series of weddings, but never seem to pursue one another after their brief trysts. It has grossed $165 million worldwide, won Grant a Golden Globe recently for Best Actor, and earned director Mike Newell a nomination for the Directors Guild of America award.
There is disagreement, however, on why the movie worked.
Frankel: "The characters are very flawed, he has a hard time committing, she has a checkered sexual history, they make wrong choices before they end up together. And still they have a storybook ending. It's one level removed from everyday experience."
Kasdan: "For me, what was charming about it was not so much the romance between (the two stars), but the circle of (Grant's character's) friends. There's an effervescence, an ebullience of the familiarity with each other that carries the movie."
Hall: "Hugh Grant is really the perfect actor for romantic comedies. Anything he does is invariably charming. Even his (Golden Globe) acceptance speech was a romantic comedy."
Director Newell admits that the romantic comedy may not be the hottest genre right now.
"There's all sorts of stuff that mitigates against your success. For one, there's not a lot of street credit attached to a movie like this. (Quentin) Tarantino is packed with street credit. But a story of two unstressed people falling in love with one another doesn't have much to do with the tide of our times.
"I didn't even think of it as a romantic comedy at first, just a comedy. The audience turned it into that."
Newell said he focused on sharply defining Grant's character.
"That was all created in rewrites," he says. "We gave him this set of fears and inadequacies that people would respond to. We made a man who lived in the '90s, not in the golden age of romantic comedies. We could be tougher with the woman character, and softer with the man."
As the nature of romance in the '90s seems to become more complicated, Hollywood is trying to keep up.
"Right now, the screenplays I've been getting, all seem to have a similar theme," says Marshall. "A woman or a man is married to the wrong person, they get out of it and meet the right person. They don't say how they came to be married to the wrong person, and how that happened is what's interesting to me.
"I'm also finding that it's the more conservative '90s with Quayle and Newt. A lot are about husbands and wives who consider doing something, breaking up, then say, no, let's stick together."
Columbus wants to rebel against the idea of the nuclear family espoused by Republicans. He recalls battling with the studio over "Mrs. Doubtfire," which though it has the form and structure of a romantic comedy, in fact isn't one.
"We wanted to go against the Dan Quayle theory of family values. We were given so much heat from the studio at the beginning. They wanted the family to get back together. But to put a mother and father who have separated back together in the home is unrealistic, because so many people are getting divorced."
"Nine Months," Columbus' upcoming film, also declines to depict a perfect nuclear family--the couple (Hugh Grant and Julianne Moore) don't get married until she's eight months pregnant.
"When I make pictures, I don't think of the pulse of America. It's turning into a conservative place, but I like to make films that don't feel that conservative."
Hall's film, "Bye Bye Love," looks at the effects of divorce on families, as it follows three friends dealing with their children, their ex-wives and their dates. Its depiction of the emotionally wrenching nature of divorce is heartfelt, yet, in the end, it grants its characters happy denouements.
"At the first testing of the movie, the ending was much more ambiguous, and the audience really needed something uplifting," Hall says. "It was like they laughed at all the jokes and then we tell them, 'Oh, and by the way, it's horribly bleak.' Audiences know the form in their bones, they know that romantic comedies end in an uplifting way."
Even grimmer than divorce is the AIDS epidemic, which seems a highly unlikely topic for a romantic comedy to tackle.
"We had a gay couple in 'Four Weddings,' and for the funeral, it's no accident that the gay character dies of a heart attack, which is not what gay people are famous for dying of right now," says Newell. "AIDS couldn't help but make the death more distressing."
"There has been a sense that you can't show bedhopping, no one will have sex in a movie without a close-up on a condom," says Frankel, "but this insidiousness of fear will turn these movies into public service messages. This doesn't have to interfere with the comedic process. Any painful reality is something that is good to laugh at."
Brooks has seen proof. "I read a script with the funniest scene, where a guy gets tested for AIDS. It's hysterical. The guy who wrote it has been tested eight times, one time because he was afraid something happened during one of the other tests. He took a taboo and found a way to write a funny scene that captures that truth."
There is at least one constant in romance, Marshall says.
"One thing I've never seen change is the hurt at the end of a relationship," he says. "It hurts when it doesn't work out. That's why we keep doing these movies, because it helps ease the hurt. You see what to do about it, how to get over it, realize it's not the end of the world."
He points to exit polls conducted for his film "Exit to Eden" as proof that, even in an unsentimental time, people remain hungry for love. "We were investigating alternative lifestyles, S&M;, dominant/submissive relationships. When we asked, 'What did you like the best?,' on so many cards, they said, 'When he said, "Will you marry me?" ' "
"There are periods when there aren't many romantic comedies made," Jewison says. "The studios are saying they're a little soft right now. But there'll eventually be another 'Moonstruck.'
"The studios are not going to eliminate romance."