Whether doomed by circumstance or fatal attraction, star-crossed romance is in the air
Don’t jump off that cliff, stop guzzling the absinthe, and for heaven’s sake, cut it out with that vituperative blogging. If you’re suffering the aftereffects of a romance that, in rueful hindsight, seemed doomed from the start, do what the Elizabethans did: Go to your local theater.
For just as 16th-century brooders checked out William Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” for a dose of shock empathy, so this year’s moviegoers could discover their own romantic plights writ large on the silver screen. 2005 was indeed Hollywood’s year of the doomed romance.
Even summer behemoths like “The Interpreter” (he’s an FBI agent; she’s a guerrilla) and “Star Wars: Episode III — Revenge of the Sith” (she’s the good queen, he’s bad to the bone) didn’t escape the specter of star-crossed attraction. By the time fall rolled around the theme pretty much took root with “The Constant Gardener,” which centered on a withdrawn British diplomat, Justin Quayle (Ralph Fiennes), and his wife Tessa (Rachel Weisz), a firebrand muckraker.
In “Gardener’s” wake, love in the time of melancholia would surface again in “Shopgirl” and “Walk the Line,” as well as in the upcoming “Brokeback Mountain,” “Match Point,” “Memoirs of a Geisha” and “The New World,” in which a high-born Indian princess and a renegade English adventurer flirt with the notion of a harmonic convergence despite two cultures at cross-purposes.
But love conquers all, at least when movie magic is cooking.
Director Fernando Meirelles — more than a little concerned when reading “The Constant Gardener” script — realized he’d have to sell the audience on a romance between a middle-aged Casper Milquetoast and the left-wing political version of a hot babe.
“What’s the reason this guy would be taken by her?” Meirelles recalls feeling at the time. Luckily, biology rode to the rescue: “The first time they met it’s a physical connection,” he explains. “For him she’s a pretty girl to take to bed. There’s no love, there’s nothing. It’s just a little adventure.”
At that point, Meirelles had a movie romance that simply ended badly. But before he was done editing the film, he had changed the love story from one that was merely unhappy, to one that clung unhappily to tragedy’s skirts.
“We tried six different ways to begin the story,” Meirelles says. “Our first cut was in chronological order. And it was so boring! So we started the film showing she was going to die. So when you see her first meeting Justin in the lecture hall (later in the movie), you know she’s going to die in a couple of years – it changes everything you feel about her.”
The romantic comedy, “Shopgirl,” written by Steve Martin from his own short novel, adopts a different stance. In place of thrills, we get a tonally minor-key realism, in which an affair between a middle-aged, wealthy entrepreneur, Ray Porter (Martin), and a young department-store clerk,
Mirabelle (Claire Danes), stays casual for the guy, but gets serious for the girl. Again, sex opens the show.
“I often wonder about men or women who are searching for somebody,” Martin says, “but until they meet that person what do they do in the meantime?”
In “Shopgirl,” men, at least, go for what’s out there.
“That was a very important part of the story,” the writer-star asserts. “He was on the prowl in a nice, gentle way. He set out to meet a girl that he fancies.”
But however things may end, the course of a star-crossed love affair progresses with the blind leading the blind. Who is honest about their motives — who even knows their motives? Interestingly, Martin leaves the door ajar when it comes to Porter’s own attitudes. For a character he created and plays, he is only willing to hazard a guess — a good guess, no doubt — as to motives:
“I think that he always knew it was temporary and never went back on that belief.”
Hence the melancholy that permeates “Shopgirl.”
“The entire purpose of the story is to tell a romance that is doomed,” Martin says coolly. “In many romantic comedies — it’s a solid tradition — the couple falls in love, but you really don’t know what happens next. ‘Shopgirl’ deals with what happens.”
Woody Allen’s “Match Point” takes an altogether grimmer view in unmasking the what-happens-next. Set within the upper-class confines of London and the English countryside, Allen’s film follows the relentless social climbing of an Irish tennis player, Chris Wilton (Jonathan Rhys Meyers), who gives up his middling career as a tour professional to go girl-hunting as an instructor at a posh club. He snags his prey in the person of snooty-but-nice Chloe Hewitt (Emily Mortimer), but develops a less calculated obsession for the girlfriend of Chloe’s brother, an American actress named Nola Rice (Scarlett Johansson).
Allen, deliberately or not, is working a nice reversal on the Hollywood fixation with the dangerous siren. Most evocatively captured by the film noirs and crime thrillers of the 1940s and early 1950s, these women flaunted their sexuality to lure a man to his doom. As written, some of the films were willing to sketch out some sort of material gain as these dangerous broads’ motives, but as directed they presented us with motiveless monsters.
In “Match Point,” Nola is a siren all right (Johansson at her hottest). But she’s an almost innocent siren, ignited by romantic fires that are as intense as Chris’s, but less polluted.
Not that pure hearts and idealized love will get you much farther, at least not in 2005. Although it doesn’t brashly kill off one of its lovers in its opening reels, “Constant Gardener” fashion, “Brokeback Mountain” — the adaptation of Annie Proulx’s story directed by Ang Lee — is suffused with melancholy and foreboding from its opening frames. When young cowboys Jack (Jake Gyllenhaal) and Ennis (Heath Ledger) first meet up outside the trailer office of a bilious rancher, you sense not just the attraction between these soon-to-be lovers, but, even more, that things probably aren’t going to work out so well.
Pulitzer Prize winner Larry McMurtry, who penned the screenplay with frequent writing partner Diana Ossana, says the feeling was inevitable, seeing as where the action was set.
“We were working with the built-in melancholy of the north plains,” he says. “The fact that Jack and Ennis are where they are — with the beautiful landscape on the one hand and these horrible, grubby little towns on the other — is part of what makes them what they are.”
What they are is, among other things, two gay men in love, never a pretty picture in Hollywood where gay love tends to be either tragic (1967’s “Reflections in a Golden Eye”) or farcical (1996’s “The Birdcage”).
Jack and Ennis are victims, though, less of hidebound Hollywood bias than of a realistic dramatic setting. These young men meet in 1963 in Wyoming and never leave either there or Texas for the next 16 or 17 years. They are, in that sense, doomed by circumstance rather than by anything inherent in their sexual preferences.
“We thought it was a story of doomed love,” McMurtry says, “but we were occupied with what happened day by day.”
Ossana, while rejecting the idea that she and McMurtry set off to mirror tragedies past, does say that the story of “Brokeback Mountain” inevitably moves towards an emotional grandeur, one maybe as wide and open as those sad northern plains.
“We’ve been hearing references of this film to ‘Gone With the Wind’ and ‘Titanic,'” she says. “We don’t see those references as relevant at all, just because this one is so much more subtle and not melodramatic. It’s much more ‘Romeo and Juliet’ than those.”
“Romeo and Juliet” also provides the model between the historic figures of Pocahontas (Q’orianka Kilcher) and English explorer John Smith (Colin Ferrell) in “The New World,” Terrence Malick’s interpretation of the Jamestown saga in the early 1600s. Historians might differ with the way the relationship between these two plays out in “The New World” (Pocahontas was between 10 and 11 years old when she encountered Smith, and eventually married Virginia tobacco pioneer John Rolfe), but the film’s producer Sarah Green isn’t interested in providing a history lesson.
“We focus on (Pocahontas and Smith) and how everything they do personally affects the
larger world,” says Green, who adds that an intimate relationship between the two is not inconceivable. “She was of age (for that time). And yes, she was royalty and he was a commoner, but all great love stories are of two people being held apart and who shouldn’t be together.”
Believe it or not, you can go through the hell of a troubled love and still come out breathing — even happy — on the other side. The Johnny Cash saga “Walk the Line” is not just a music biopic. It’s also the love story between Cash (Joaquin Phoenix), a troubled man who suffered from drug and alcohol addiction, and June Carter (Reese Witherspoon), a star member of country music’s leading family of performers.
“John was a boy from the swamps and June was a princess,” says director and co-writer James Mangold. “There was a huge divide between them in terms of life experience when their paths crossed. John had much more in common with the boys he toured with than he did with June, who had literally grown up with a microphone in front of her.”
Everything is set, then, for tragic consequences. Except that, as nearly anyone with a radio or TV set has known forever, everything turned out happy.
Nevertheless, Mangold pick-axed the rocks in the lovers’ road, convinced that it was the love story that would make the film go.
“Whenever you come upon a story like that, you can always draw parallels with some of the great previous love stories because it makes people think of the great ones,” he says. “All great love stories have to have severe obstacles to the love or else it’s not a love story; it’s just love.”
Just love? Some people pine for it for years. Take, for prominent example, the beautiful Sayuri, the title character of “Memoirs of a Geisha.” As an abused, indentured servant, she’s treated kindly by a handsome businessman named the Chairman (Ken Watanabe). Growing up into a gorgeous geisha, she forever keeps an eye out for her loved one, overcoming obstacle after obstacle until she finds him again and encounters — obstacle after obstacle. This is definitely Marlene Dietrich territory, the sort traversed by the unhappy and loveless women (Dietrich and Anna May Wong) of Josef Von Sternberg’s sad romantic masterpiece “Shanghai Express” (1932).
Producer Douglas Wick’s memory also harkens to classic movies, though Dietrich isn’t the star he has in mind. “One of the things that the bigscreen does best — as you’re sitting in your little theater chair looking up at some giant face — is dramatize giant longing for some object of desire,” he says. “Going back to our favorite Charlie Chaplin movies, where the Tramp’s face is pressed up against the glass looking into some enticing world that is apart and above his current station, we saw an opportunity with ‘Geisha’ to tell the story of Sayuri’s longing.”
Big screen, big stars — or at least an actress who flickers in starlight.
“The actor has to have a kind of translucent face, where the emotions in the close-ups are transmitted directly to the audience,” Wick says. “We were mindful of how much was required from whomever played Sayuri. That’s why Ziyi Zhang was such an opportunity for us; like many of the great old Hollywood stars, just in the close-up of her face she tells you her inner life.”
Maybe 2005 wasn’t such an exceptional year for romantic empathy after all. As Wick’s remarks hint, all our bigscreen dreams are reflections not just of ourselves, but of movies and actors past. To contradict Shakespeare, the fault lies not in ourselves, but in the stars.