Isn't It Romantic?
Cupid may be a plump little cherub fluttering above the heads of unsuspecting lovers, but his arrows really sting! Romance movies have always traded in the sweet agony of love, nostalgia for days gone by and the longing of lovers for each other despite seemingly insurmountable obstacles. These aren’t frothy rom-coms we’re talking about but character-driven crucibles fueled by grand ideas, featuring worlds in collision and emotions capable of transcending time and space. These are movies you can sink into, becoming lost in the moments, buffeted by the passions and often moved to tears.
“A Matter of Life and Death” (1946)
There’s nothing more romantic than Technicolor. Its vivid, surrealistic tones immediately take us to another reality where everything is slightly more perfect than the real world. In this case, that world is England in the final days of World War II. David Niven plays Peter Carter, an RAF pilot who falls in love with an emergency radio operator named June (Kim Hunter) as his burning plane careens toward certain death. Never have two people fallen for each other so quickly and in such a desperate, hopeless situation. When he miraculously survives and is reunited with June their love is threatened by a mysterious figure who informs Peter that his survival was due to a clerical error in heaven and he must leave her. Now deeply in love with the woman who comforted him in the moments before the crash, Peter defiantly refuses to be taken from her. Were this “Ghost” or “Heaven Can Wait” the gulf separating these two would be death itself, but here the plot is thickened by June’s (and our) growing suspicion that this is all a creation of Peter’s traumatized imagination. Is this fantasy or reality? True love or distorted affection? Everything culminates in a heavenly trial where Peter’s soul must make his case for love while his body undergoes surgery back on earth. By cleverly presenting heaven in black and white and earth in glorious Technicolor, this life-affirming romance demonstrates its commitment to the idea of fighting for that one special love here and now.
“The Way We Were” (1973)
In the 1970s a new generation of filmmakers excelled at turning tried-and-true Hollywood genres on their heads. Old Hollywood romances relied on the formula that opposites attract and ultimately all works out in the end. In this modern revamp the lovers are not idealized Hollywood types, but two very flawed humans, desperately trying to make love work, in spite of who they are. Working class, Jewish, and politically outspoken Katie Morosky (Barbara Streisand) falls desperately for privileged, waspy and decidedly apolitical Hubbell Gardner (Robert Redford). His perfect looks and disarming smile play brilliantly against her offbeat charm and brutal honestly in one of the great stories of lovers as underdogs. Marvin Hamlisch’s lush score cues the tears and we watch helplessly as these opposites attract, repel and reunite over a story that spans three decades. It is this longing for what could be and the nostalgia for those fleeting moments when everything clicks that make “The Way We Were” a classic worth revisiting.
“Robin & Marian” (1976)
Everybody knows that Robin Hood and Maid Marian retired to Sherwood Forest upon good King Richard’s return and lived happily ever after. James Goldman, author of The Lion in Winter, suggests a thornier end to the romance. He transports us 20 years on, finding Robin Hood (played by a proudly bald, virile and fiftyish Sean Connery) returning from the crusades to find that evil prince John is on the throne, the Sherriff of Nottingham controls Sherwood and Maid Marian has become a nun! Will Marian (a radiant Audrey Hepburn) give up the veil and fall back in love with Robin? Will the merry men reunite behind Robin to fight the Sheriff (Robert Shaw) one last time? Will it all finally end happily ever after? Well, two out of three isn’t bad. Suffice to say the ending turns unexpectedly, several times, and even the tough guys in the audience may be blinking away tears. After all, where is romance without longing and loss? “Robin and Marian” answers that question with wit, grace and autumnal elegance.
“Valley Girl” (1983)
“I never knew Nicholas Cage was hot!” said my daughter after she discovered this wonder tale of star-crossed lovers set in the City of Angels. Instead of Romeo and Juliet we have Randy and Julie, played by Cage and Debora Foreman. She’s a San Fernando girl from the totally tubular galleria culture and he’s a rebellious punk rocker from Hollywood Boulevard. Julie has an infectious charm that suggests more depth than her girlfriends seem to recognize. Without ever hearing her say it, we know she yearns for more and watch breathlessly as she is swept into Randy’s neon-lit world accompanied by music from The Plimsouls, Modern English and the Psychedelic Furs. “Valley Girl” quickly abandons its Romeo and Juliet set up and takes on a wholly fresh life of its own, showing us a world where parents don’t oppose relationships but try to understand—with equally disastrous results. Like all great romances, there are bittersweet moments as characters’ choices provoke peer pressure and cultural misunderstandings that alter their lives forever. But don’t worry; this is no tragedy and the movie’s sweet heart rules the day, reminding us that sometimes in order to find true love we have to step out of our world and into another’s.