Where Did Movie Romance Go?
NEAL CONAN, host:
It's Valentine's Day and we're going to remember some of the most romantic moments Hollywood ever put to screen.
(Soundbite of film, "An Affair to Remember")
Ms. DEBORAH KERR (Actress): (As Terry McKay) Don't worry, darling. If you can think I can walk, anything can happen. Don't you think?
Mr. CARY GRANT (Actor): (As Nickie Ferrante) Yes, darling, yes.
CONAN: Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr solving at long last that misunderstanding that kept them apart for the last third of "An Affair to Remember." You remember the meeting at the top of the Empire State - anyway, can Hollywood actually make a romantic comedy anymore that is, well, romantic?
James Bowman believes that Hollywood is producing romantic comedies that somehow fall short of those glorious films, and he's with us today in Studio 3A. He's the film critic for the American Spectator, as well as the author of the book, "Honor: A History." Nice to have you on the program today.
Mr. JAMES BOWMAN (Film Critic, American Spectator): Thanks for having me.
CONAN: And the romantic comedy is a Hollywood staple. I think it goes back to right after that first film of the locomotive coming into the theater, the next thing they produced was a romantic comedy.
Mr. BOWMAN: Pretty much.
CONAN: So what have you got against Meg Ryan?
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. BOWMAN: Well, I've got nothing against Meg Ryan, or anybody else in particular in Hollywood. I'm simply saying it's reflecting the culture that we now have with regard to love and sex, which is basically the hook-up culture; the idea that sex is a kind of recreational thing that we're all expected to engage in once we reach a certain age and that it happens with multiple partners, most likely.
We have to try them out before we find one we want to stick with for a while, and even then we don't stick with them forever.
CONAN: One of the examples you draw, could be drawn, was the difference between "The Shop Around the Corner," the wonderful James Stewart comedy, and then the remake of it, "You've Got Mail."
Mr. BOWMAN: Yes. It's one of several that look back to a sort of a more interesting, a more moving, a more good sort of romantic comedy, and consciously tries to model itself on that. But it doesn't. It falls afoul, as I say, of the culture, which doesn't take account of the extent to which those old comedies depended on the idea that there was only one person that you could fall in love with.
It's important to understand that this is, you know, this is our mythology, our traditional mythology about love. It goes back to the Middle Ages. We in the West were the ones who invented the idea of romantic love. It doesn't - you don't find it in other cultures. And it has to do with, well, lots of things. It has to do with the position of women in the West, which is quite different from what it was in other cultures.
And it begins with the troubadours of the 12th century, who invented this idea of dying for love. You know, my lady will love me, or I shall die. And that, suitably modified and qualified and developed over the centuries, is still where we were up until the quite recent times.
CONAN: We're speaking with James Bowman, the film critic for the American Spectator. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
And it's important in your thesis that this choice of a life mate, that it is the choice of a life mate, that it has consequence, that that's the thing that puts tension into the idea of the romantic comedy and makes it important for the lover to arrive before the bride says I do at the altar.
Mr. BOWMAN: That's right. The important thing to understand about it is that it's always - the romantic comedy is always very close to the romantic tragedy; and part of what makes it a comedy is it skirts that tragedy, it comes very close. In all of Shakespeare's romantic comedies, for instance, that sense of the thing almost not working out, of the tragedy almost not avoided, is what gives the lovers - the joy of the lovers' union at the end the kick that you need to have.
It's almost missed, this one person in the whole universe that is the one you love and that is the one you can love. And if you miss it, then a life of nothing but misery can follow.
CONAN: Can possibly ensue.
Mr. BOWMAN: Yeah.
CONAN: And as you look at it, you describe "Romeo and Juliet" quite correctly. Throw in a couple of doors slamming and a different ending, you've got a comedy.
Mr. BOWMAN: Exactly, yes. And by the same token, if you look at "As You Like It" or "Twelfth Night" or any of the comedies, they're very close to being tragedies and very nearly do end in tragedy.
CONAN: Yet the American attitude towards relationships, indeed divorce, this grew up with Hollywood. "The Gay Divorcee," the film that Fred Astaire made in the Depression years, trips to Reno to, you know - this was of course a staple of Hollywood, too.
Mr. BOWMAN: Yes it was, and in a lot of ways divorce was also a product of the romantic idea. That, you know, if true love came at last, even though you were married, forget it. You know, you had a right to follow your heart.
CONAN: And obligation, indeed.
Mr. BOWMAN: Indeed. And so that notion of romance as releasing you from all the ordinary obligations of life and of marriage was an outgrowth of that older idea of romance.
CONAN: And how does it manifest itself in today's - some of the romantic comedies that have been coming out this year or the past couple of years?
Mr. BOWMAN: Well, the example that I used in my piece was it was the Diane Keaton comedy called "Because I Said So," which just came out. And indeed, the previous one she did, which was…
CONAN: The Jack Nicholson one. Not "As Good as It Gets," the other one.
Mr. BOWMAN: The other one, that's right.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. BOWMAN: "Something's Got to Give." That's the one.
CONAN: Yes, there you go.
Mr. BOWMAN: In both, the heroine - in the early one, it's Diane Keaton. In this one, it's her daughter but also Diane Keaton - tries out more than one lover. It's sort of taken for granted that, you know, that the one, the right one, may reveal himself. But at the same time, that doesn't stop you from enjoying yourself with another one when the time comes, or when the right one - you know, it's always a question of boy meets girl, boy loses girl.
Well, when boy loses girl, there's another boy around to fill in the gap in the meantime.
CONAN: And that in your mind destroys the dramatic tension that made these films work initially.
Mr. BOWMAN: Well, it tells the audience that there's really not very much at stake. If she misses this one, there'll be another one along. And that's what is essential to the idea of romantic comedy or, indeed, to romance in general. You've got to have a sense that this is a momentous decision. It's a momentous coupling of two people.
They come together because they're the only people in the whole universe that are right for each other - that without that meeting, without that union between the two of them, both will be devastated for the rest of their lives. And the modern comedy doesn't go through.
I mean, we know the extent to which that's an overstatement, it's a mythologization of love, blah, blah, blah. But the romantic comedy depends on pretending that that is true, that this can be the only one for me. And they don't bother with that anymore because it's too remote from our ordinary experiences.
CONAN: Yet these films - and we just have a minute left - but some of these films are very successful. Explain the career, then, of Hugh Grant.
Mr. BOWMAN: Well, I - what else is there? You know, what happens is that the romantic comedy turns into a sex farce. And, you know, that has its own charms, I suppose. We laugh at it; we can still enjoy it. But what we don't have is a romantic comedy of the traditional type.
CONAN: James Bowman, thanks very much for being with us today. We appreciate your time.
Mr. BOWMAN: Thanks a lot for having me.
CONAN: James Bowman is the film critic for the American Spectator, author of the book "Honor: A History," also resident scholar at the Ethics and Public Policy Center here in Washington, D.C. And I think his shoes are wet from slogging through the snow to get to our studio. We thank him for making the effort to join us today.
This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.
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