In the last decade’s Academy Award-winning best pictures with at least some romantic element, the Sioux are decimated and disenfranchised, a seafood tycoon loses the love of his life, a limbless and burned war survivor’s sad story is related, the Titanic sinks young lovers to the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean, Shakespeare loses the love of his life and an infatuated suburban family man is shot to death.
These were the fates in, respectively, “Dances With Wolves” (1990), “Forrest Gump” (1994), “The English Patient” (1996), “Titanic” (1997), “Shakespeare in Love” (1998) and “American Beauty” (1999). In fact, throughout the history of the Oscars, the nominees and eventual winners that are fundamentally love stories or incorporate romantic elements also often culminate in tragedy — contrary to the adage that says Hollywood loves happy endings.
The most famous Oscar-winning romances in history depict lovers who are parted, particularly “Gone With the Wind” (1939), “Casablanca” (1943), “Hamlet” (1948), “From Here to Eternity” (1953) and “West Side Story” (1961).
“I always remember sad movies longer than happy movies,” says Andrew Sarris, longtime New York film critic and author of the influential survey of directors “The American Cinema.” “Most movies still have happy endings, but most Oscar movies don’t have them.”
“The obvious assumption of the filmmaker to the audience and the audience to the filmmaker is that people want to leave the theater in a good mood,” says James Robert Parish, a historian and author of more than 100 books on entertainment. “That cliche feeds on itself. But the other notion is that Oscar-worthy movies need to be about something deeper, something with meaning.”
“The tragic ending speaks for seriousness rather than frivolity, and Oscar people just love that,” says Leonard Maltin, “Entertainment Tonight” mainstay and author of the perennial source “Leonard Maltin’s Movie & Video Guide.” “But if you think about it, what better inspiration for making a moving and possibly enduring love story than ‘Romeo and Juliet,’ which has the ultimate unhappy ending. There’s a real pedigree of tragedy through Hollywood history, storytelling history.”
Often the ultimate romantic parting in a picture is part of a more complex whole, the result of other events, “a loss that’s accepted for a greater good” in the words of Robert Nelson Jacobs, author of the Oscar-nominated screenplay of “Chocolat,” easily the most happily romantic movie –“diabetically happy,” Sarris says — of this season.
“Take ‘Casablanca,’ says Jacobs. “The ending is bittersweet and uplifting, and only deepens in emotional impact, because the Bogart and Henreid characters have their duties to the war effort and Bergman has her duty to her husband. When great sacrifice is made for a larger good, it has enormous impact.”
“To me, ‘Casablanca’ has a good ending,” says Emanuel Levy, author of “Oscar Fever: The History and Politics of the Academy Awards” and contributing Variety critic. “The couple escapes and Bogart has a new friendship. How do you define romance? Look at the end of ‘Terms of Endearment.’ The Debra Winger character dies, but Shirley MacLaine begins a new romance with Jack Nicholson.
“The Oscars are to some extent the record of achievement of Hollywood movies, and I’m more and more intrigued by Hollywood movies to reconcile the contrary myths inherent in American culture and that would include the ideology of movie romances.”
Levy uses the example of “The Philadelphia Story” (1940), which won James Stewart his Oscar, and co-starred Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn as a divorced couple. Her character, Tracy Lord, is also being wooed by a socialite, George, played by John Howard, and clearly Stewart’s reporter, Macaulay Connor, is infatuated with her. Macaulay offers to marry her after George calls off their wedding.
“This is a very famous Hollywood movie, but a very peculiar movie about a woman in love with three men,” Levy says. “It was an audacious movie for 1940. The ending is a reconciliation with her husband, which comes at the very, very end. But she matures as a woman. Clearly through the movie she was still in love with Cary Grant, but both are high-strung and eccentric and not compatible. The movie seems to say that a marriage based on romantic love is a myth.”
The film that beat out “Philadelphia Story” for best picture was “Rebecca,” Alfred Hitchcock’s Hollywood debut. It ends after Joan Fontaine’s vulnerable young bride is oppressed by the household family and staff’s memory of her predecessor, and after the family mansion, Manderley, burns to the ground.
“Is ‘Rebecca’ a romantic melodrama or another suspense thriller?” Levy asks, rhetorically.
It’s primarily about her angst, and everything goes up in a conflagration. In the end, she’s released from her oppression through a tragedy.
Sarris takes an impromptu check through the remaining picture winners of the ’40s, romance or not, to see if Oscar preferred an unhappy ending in wartime and peacetime.
“‘How Green Was My Valley’ (1941) — tragic,” he begins. “‘Mrs. Miniver’ (1942) ends with Teresa Wright’s funeral service. In ‘Casablanca’ Ingrid Bergman goes off — not with the man she loves. ‘Going My Way’ (1944) — very happy. … ‘The Lost Weekend’ (1945) ends hopefully and ‘Gentlemen’s Agreement” (1947) ends in success in that prejudice is revealed. ‘Hamlet’ (1948) isn’t happy in the least and ‘All the King’s Men” (1949) ends with the man’s assassination.”
If “Rebecca” is deemed to end unhappily, the decade count is six unhappies and four happies, or split 50-50 if the Hitchcock picture is considered happy, with multiple unhappies before and after the war. Romance or not, Oscar pictures appear to go for tragedy.