No matter the decade, no matter that a war, the Depression or a plague raged in the world outside, Oscar’s always had his love to keep him warm. Whether it’s Heathcliff pining for Cathy, Stanley Kowalski bellowing for Stellaaaaaaa, Hugh Grant stammering his love for Andie MacDowell or Mickey Mouse going crackers over Minnie, at the movies the yearning for romance is forever.
The impulse to make public the very private has been at the heart of American films since that mustachioed and corseted couple shocked nickelodeon audiences with “The Kiss.”
“Wings,” an unblushing celebration of wartime buddy love, was the first best picture Oscar in 1927, but diehard stats lovers know that in the same year, the Oscar for a “unique and artistic picture” went to F.W. Murnau’s transcendent masterpiece “Sunrise,” whose essence was the power of deep, redemptive love.
In the 70-odd years since “Sunrise,” the screen has overflowed with every kind of romantic love, escalating over the decades from the pleasantly forgettable to … anything goes. Each of the next memory-jogging films has a connection to an Oscar, whether it’s the luck of one nomination or the triumph of multiple victories.
Among them there’s no discernible pattern, no road map, no formula. They come from bestsellers, classics or an original story; many of them are tragic, some of them epic, some intimate, but in every case, these couples in their time spoke to us.
Top of the heap, in shimmering cinema terms, are the iconic lovers against whom all are measured: Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman in “Casablanca,” Montgomery Clift and Elizabeth Taylor in “A Place in the Sun.” Then there is epic love, junior grade, like Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet in “Titanic,” and epic love for adults: Jeremy Irons and Meryl Streep in “The French Lieutenant’s Woman.” There’s unlikely love, both successful — Geoffrey Rush and Lynne Redgrave in “Shine,” and unsuccessful — and a lousy idea to begin with: Dustin Hoffman and Anne Bancroft in “The Graduate.”
We’ve seen forbidden lovers, rampant — Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr in “From Here to Eternity” — and decorous: Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard in “Brief Encounter,” Judi Dench and Billy Connolly in “Mrs. Brown.” We’ve seen triangular love affairs, both civilized, as Glenda Jackson warily shared Peter Finch with Murray Head in “Sunday Bloody Sunday,” and dangerous, with Jack Nicholson down on the Oriental with Anjelica Huston and even more perilously in bed with Kathleen Turner in “Prizzi’s Honor.”
We’ve watched love painfully regained between Cicely Tyson and Paul Winfield in “Sounder” and lovingly reciprocated by Katharine Hepburn and Henry Fonda in “On Golden Pond” (one of the few films to suggest that love has no expiration date); one-sided love, between Albert Brooks and Holly Hunter in “Broadcast News,” and love utterly ignored, the adoring Tom Courtenay and the oblivious Albert Finney in “The Dresser.”
Social barriers were dismantled in the romances between Carole Lombard and William Powell in “My Man Godfrey,” and between Audrey Hepburn and Rex Harrison in “My Fair Lady.” Acute and painful first love was the province of James Dean and Natalie Wood (and Sal Mineo) in “Rebel Without a Cause,” and of Warren Beatty and Natalie Wood in “Splendor in the Grass.”
Difficult but by no means impossible love triumphed between Harold Russell and Cathy O’Donnell in “The Best Years of Our Lives,” and Daniel Day-Lewis and Fiona Shaw in “My Left Foot.” Heading the parade of not-quite-wedding-cake couples were Joe E. Brown and Tony Curtis in “Some Like It Hot”; hot on those high heels were Al Pacino and Chris Sarandon in “Dog Day Afternoon” and Stephen Rea and Jaye Davidson in “The Crying Game.”
If any pattern emerges among all these loving couplings, it’s that there’s no time like the past for a successful romance. Does the present seems dingy, threatening or uncertain? Slip through the screen’s portal to a more gallant past — or at least a more remote one; half the audience is there already, having read the book. These period pictures span 60 years of movie-making: “Gone With the Wind,” “Wuthering Heights,” “The African Queen,” “Camelot,” “Dr. Zhivago,” “Julia,” “The Way We Were,” “Reds,” “The French Lieutenant’s Woman,” “Out of Africa,” “The English Patient,” “A Room With a View,” “The Age of Innocence,” “Titanic,” “Shakespeare in Love,” “Chocolat.”
Yet a film is always seen through the prism of its time, so that, in the shadow of each era’s epic romances, there were others that channeled the zeitgeist, whether it was the influences of Freud in the 1940s, or homosexual and transgender identity by century’s end. These films hinted that romance was a little more complicated for young lovers, wherever they were.
Even a cushy old classic like “Grand Hotel,” set in Berlin, dripping stars and with doomed lovers Greta Garbo and John Barrymore, suggested a world at the edge of World War II, with inflation in the air and those in power merciless to those with none. Comedies like “My Man Godfrey” and “It Happened One Night,” with their madcap heiresses, were played out in the very uncomic world of the Depression.
There would be, alas, no going back to the elegant lovers of “Notorious” after the streetwise pair in “On the Waterfront.” For some, the toxic old Hollywood of “Sunset Boulevard” was indelible; it lingered in the air like a warning to the wide-eyed Hollywood hopefuls of “Singin’ in the Rain.”
Film noir’s lovers, lurking in “The Maltese Falcon,” or “Double Indemnity,” changed the rules yet again: There wasn’t one among them to be trusted, or forgotten. In romantic comedies, the bickering, straying lovers of “Two for the Road” seemed a lot closer to the bone than the cutely bickering ones of “Barefoot in the Park.”
Sexuality had its seismic shift at the Oscars with the one-two punch of “Midnight Cowboy” and “Last Tango in Paris,” leaving naivete behind for good. Pushed by the relatively unfettered indies, onscreen romance began to reflect the smorgasbord of appetites of its audiences in such films as “Leaving Las Vegas,” “L.A. Confidential,” “Gods and Monsters,” “The Talented Mr. Ripley” and “Boys Don’t Cry.”
Each of these films had an effect; cumulatively they nudged American films into the “real” world, and our idea of onscreen romance with them.
Yet truthfully, even with the screen’s embrace of a more realistic pansexuality, there’s been no dimming of our faith in love. How else do you explain this year’s ultra-safe success, “Chocolat,” a romantic throwback with perfect pitch, a decidedly fairy-tale flavor to its 1950s setting, and Juliette Binoche, everyone’s fairy-tale heroine?
– Sheila Benson was the Los Angeles Times’ film critic from 1981-91. She now writes and reviews nationally from Seattle.