23 April 2018
The romantic movie is a very popular movie genre. In this essay, I will select a number of popular Hollywood romantic movies and talk about some interesting aspects about them.
Five lists of selected movies:
Since the primary target audience of Hollywood movies has, arguably, most of the time been North American moviegoers, I will be selecting movies based on their North American popularity. Also, I will only be selecting live action movies.
1. Romantic movies among the first 200 movies on the “All Time Box Office Chart of Domestic Grosses (Adjusted for Ticket Price Inflation)” as posted on Boxofficemojo.com:
Gone with the Wind; Titanic; Doctor Zhivago; Avatar; The Graduate; Forrest Gump; Grease; Love Story; My Fair Lady; Beauty and the Beast (2017); West Side Story; Ghost; Duel in the Sun; An Officer and a Gentleman; Pretty Woman; My Big Fat Greek Wedding; Funny Girl; The Twilight Saga: Eclipse; The Twilight Saga: New Moon.
2. Romantic movies among the 77 movies that received the score of A+ in audience exit polls conducted by CinemaScore:
The Princess Bride; When Harry Met Sally; Forrest Gump; Titanic; Diary of a Mad Black Woman; Love, Simon.
3. Romantic movies among movies voted “Favorite Favorite Movie” and “Favorite Movie” in People’s Choice Awards:
Gone with the Wind; Grease; Forrest Gump; Titanic; Twilight; The Twilight Saga: Eclipse.
4. Top 10 movies receiving most votes on the AMC (American Movie Classics) “50 Greatest Romantic Movies”:
The Notebook; Titanic; Gone with the Wind; Sleepless in Seattle; You’ve Got Mail; Pride and Prejudice (2005); Pretty Woman; Twilight; Casablanca; Dirty Dancing.
5. Top 10 movies receiving most votes on American Film Institute’s “100 Greatest Love Stories of All Time”:
Casablanca; Gone with the Wind; West Side Story; Roman Holiday; An Affair to Remember; The Way We Were; Doctor Zhivago; It’s a Wonderful Life; Love Story; City Lights.
So, a total of 35 romantic movies have been selected. Out of these 35 movies, Gone with the Wind and Titanic are each on the Lists 4 times.
(Click titles to open)
Based on box office alone, out of the 19 top grossing romantic movies, the following 4 stars each starred in 2 movies:
Omar Sharif, Richard Gere, Kristen Stewart, Robert Pattinson.
Counting all 36 romantic movies, 4 stars each starred in 3 movies, and 7 stars each starred in 2 movies:
3 movies: Tom Hanks, Kristen Stewart, Robert Pattinson, Meg Ryan.
2 movies: Omar Sharif, Robin Wright, Audrey Hepburn, Patrick Swayze,
Gregory Peck, Richard Gere, Barbra Streisand.
Sad Ending vs. Happy Ending:
Among the 5 lists under the Section “Selection of Movies” above, Lists 1, 4, and 5 have ranks. It is interesting to find that sad endings, meaning that the lovers are not together at the end of the movies, were featured in the top 3 movies on each of these 3 lists.
However, counting all 35 romantic movies, only 13 movies had sad endings, and 22 movies had happy endings. So, it can be said that while a sad ending was not a norm for romantic movies, the most memorable romantic movies did have sad endings.
Having epic backdrops means having at least one of the following elements as a story backdrop: i) big events such as war, revolution, or disaster; or ii) a time span over decades.
On each of the 3 lists that have ranks, the top ranked movies all had epic backdrops.
a. List 1: The top 4 movies all had epic backdrops.
b. List 4: The top 3 movies all had epic backdrops.
c. List 5: The top 3 movies all had epic backdrops.
Running Times of the Movies:
On each of the 3 lists that have ranks, the top ranked movies often had a running time exceeding 2 hours 40 minutes (referred to below as “long movies”).
a. List 1: The top 4 movies were long movies.
b. List 4: 2 of the top 3 movies were long movies.
c. List 5: 2 of the top 3 movies were long movies.
Obstacles to the Lovers Being Together:
For romantic movies, the most intriguing element, arguably, is “What are the obstacles making it difficult for the lovers to be together?” Before I go into each of the 35 selected movies, I would like to point out that the most frequently used obstacles were:
a. Death----used in 9 out of 35 movies.
b. Opposition by a family member or family members----used in 9 out of 35 movies.
Gone with the Wind:
The highest grossing romantic movie of all time, though made in 1939, employed a timeless design as the main obstacle, i.e., two people were not mutually in love at the same time. Vivien Leigh was always trying to win the love of a man who did not truly love her. At first, the man was Leslie Howard. When she finally realized that Howard had only truly loved another woman, she changed to trying to win the love of Clark Gable. However, by that time, Gable did not love her anymore. Surprisingly, out of the 35 movies, only one other movie, Forrest Gump, employed this design to be the main obstacle.
At the beginning, the obstacles were Kate Winslet’s mother, an engagement recognized by society, and the difference in class. When the lovers had overcome these, the final separation force was death. The uniqueness about this movie was that, for the bulk of 57 minutes of continuous screen time, the moviegoers saw the lovers overcoming one life-threatening hurdle after another. The intensity and the minute details of the ubiquitous, brutal, physical separation forces were unprecedented on screen.
At the beginning, it was Omar Sharif’s and Julie Christie’s faithfulness to their respective spouses that kept the lovers from surrendering to their feelings. Then, the civil war took over as a separation force. Then, it was Sharif’s love of Russia that separated him from accompanying Christie to Mongolia. In the end, as he was trying to reunite with her, death separated them.
The obstacles were threefold. Firstly, the lovers were of different species, i.e., human and non-human. Secondly, Sam Worthington was a spy sent to sabotage Zoe Saldana’s clan, and such betrayal was potentially a great separation force. Thirdly, there were evil humans who wanted to destroy Saldana’s clan.
The age-old parental objection was at force again, but for a not so age-old reason. This time, it had nothing to do with differences in class or wealth, but Dustin Hoffman had an affair with his girlfriend’s mother, Anne Bancroft, and Bancroft tried her utmost to separate Hoffman and her daughter.
As mentioned above, the main obstacle was that two people were not mutually in love. Robin Wright, being a victim of child sexual abuse, did not seek love. In contrast, Tom Hanks loved her dearly, and was clueless why Wright just came in and out of his life time and again. Eventually, death separated them forever.
There was an interesting obstacle here. Because of another obstacle, i.e., peer disapproval, Olivia Newton-John and John Travolta loved the person they wished their partner would become. In the end, to be together, they actually changed into the person their partner had wished for.
This movie used a timely illness, i.e., cancer, to be the main obstacle. By the end of the 60’s, cancer had just become a household fear, and losing a 25 years old, beautiful leading lady to cancer was such a shocking thing to be portrayed in a movie. The scene in which Ali MacGraw, dying in her hospital room, asks Ryan O’Neal to lie down beside her and hold her in her sick bed was one of the most heartbreaking scenes in cinema. The other obstacles in the movie were parental opposition and difference in class. The parental opposition was quite severe as O’Neal’s father cut his son off financially because he married MacGraw.
My Fair Lady:
This is a very interesting case. In the movie, Audrey Hepburn and Rex Harrison were never in love with anyone. Yet this movie is number 12 on American Film Institute’s “100 Greatest Love Stories of All Time” and number 34 on votes received on the AMC “50 Greatest Romantic Movies”. My speculation is that moviegoers liked seeing these two characters, portrayed by these two stars, together on screen so much that they wanted them to be romantically involved and remembered this movie as very romantic.
Beauty and the Beast (2017):
As in Avatar, a main obstacle was that the lovers were of different species, human and non-human. It seems that this obstacle has been quite popular for the last 10 years, as discussed below when we get to the Twilight movies.
West Side Story:
This movie introduced a timely element, rivalry between white and Latino gangs, as a backdrop. The main obstacles, however, were the age-old opposition by family members and the hurdle that one’s lover had killed one’s sibling.
This was one of the milestone romantic movies. The main obstacle, death, was not that unique. However, it was the theme of “love needs to be expressly communicated” that really struck a chord in the moviegoers. At the beginning, Demi Moore complained that Patrick Swayze only replied “Ditto” to her saying “I love you”, which was not the same as replying “I love you”. Suddenly, Swayze was murdered and found out that his ghost could not communicate with Moore and he had to go through a psychic to reach out to Moore. In the end, before the lovers departed, Swayze, having had learned his lesson the hard way, finally was able to say, “I love you” to Moore, and Moore sweetly, appreciatively, and smilingly replied, “Ditto”. To many moviegoers, that was as romantic as it could get.
Duel in the Sun:
This was an extreme case of love-hate relationship. Gregory Peck’s obsession that Jennifer Jones should only belong to him was the main obstacle. It drove him to hurting people that Jones cared for, evoking the love-hate imbalance in Jones that finally led to the two lovers killing each other.
An Officer and a Gentleman:
The fear of getting hooked into marriage was an important obstacle. Richard Gere was at times biased by the worry that young women in the town often dreamt of marrying a navy pilot to get away from their boring lives. Debra Winger’s covering up of her friend’s conspiracy to achieve the above mentioned dream also constituted an obstacle.
This time, Julia Roberts declared outright that she wanted marriage or no relationship at all. That was the main obstacle and it turned a down to earth relationship into a Cinderella romance. It is interesting to note that the theme of marriage was so strong in both this movie and An Officer and a Gentleman, and both movies had Richard Gere as the leading man.
My Big Fat Greek Wedding:
Differences in race and culture were the prime reasons behind the obstacle of parental objection. Another obstacle was the repression of independence over tradition.
Pride was the main obstacle. Omar Sharif did not want to be supported by Barbra Streisand financially, to the extent that he broke the law and went to prison, resulting in the two agreeing to separate even after he had gotten out of jail.
The Twilight Saga: Eclipse:
(In terms of box office, this third instalment was the highest grossing out of the 5 Twilight movies, and therefore is being discussed here first.) As mentioned above, in the last 10 years, the obstacle of lovers being of different species were quite trendy in romantic movies. Here, the non-human species was a vampire. And that obstacle was combined with another obstacle, i.e., the reluctance to get married too young, into a more complex obstacle. Kristen Stewart wanted Robert Pattinson to turn her into a vampire, but Pattinson would only do that after they would have gotten married, and Stewart frowned on getting married too young. There was another obstacle, the romantic pursuit of another man. However, this obstacle was overcome in a very fresh way. Stewart acknowledged that she was in love with two men at the same time, but Pattinson had no problem with that as he knew that Stewart loved him more than the other man. That was such a wonderful and romantic way to solve the age-old problem of a love triangle.
The Twilight Saga: New Moon:
This was the second instalment of the Twilight movies. In it, the main obstacle was that Robert Pattinson separated himself from Kristen Stewart for fearing that his vampire family might physically harm her. Towards the end of the movie, another obstacle was added. Kristen Stewart would be killed if she was not going to be turned into a vampire.
As this was the first instalment of the Twilight movies, the main obstacle to overcome was that Kristen Stewart had to be comfortable with the fact that Robert Pattinson was a vampire. After that, the obstacle came from other families of vampires wanting to hunt her down.
The Princess Bride:
This movie started off with an interesting obstacle. Cary Elwes left Robin Wright because he wanted to grow into a man worthy of marrying her. Then, many obstacles were added, including jealousy of others, a planned marriage to another man, pirates, torture, and even death. In the end, all obstacles were overcome.
When Harry Met Sally:
This was another one of the milestone romantic movies. It employed a very fresh obstacle, i.e., the belief that two good friends could not be lovers. The moviegoers watched Meg Ryan and Billy Crystal going through the whole movie testing this belief. Fortunately, the movie ended with the two throwing this belief out.
Diary of a Mad Black Woman:
The obstacle was quite interesting. Kimberly Elise wanted to help her ex-husband recover from not being able to walk. However, in the process, she also wanted to get even with his years of abuse. This was important to her even if it would put her new love for Shemar Moore at risk.
This was another one of the milestone romantic movies. It employed all kinds of obstacles: class difference, parental opposition, war, pre-existing engagement, dementia, and death as separating forces. It seldom left the lovers alone for long without throwing obstacles against them. Surprisingly enough, it was the only one out of the 35 movies that employed dementia of one of the lovers as an obstacle. It also was the only one that featured the lovers dying together in their sleep as a sad but romantic ending, seemingly giving the message that their love was so strong that they could share anything.
Sleepless in Seattle:
This movie employed a fresh structure as the key issue was not that there were obstacles to the lovers being together. The moviegoers watched the whole movie, waiting for Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks to get to officially meet each other. Instead of seeing the lovers going through an actual journey of love, the moviegoers got an abundance of dialog about the craving for love, enhancing the feeling that this was a very romantic movie.
You’ve Got Mail:
The stars were Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks again. The design this time was letting the moviegoers wait for two unknown lovers on line (pen pals by email), who actually knew each other in real life, to physically fall in love face to face. The movie was filled with manifestations of love as the on line exchanges were read aloud by the stars. This was another technique to enhance the feeling that this was a very romantic movie.
Pride and Prejudice (2005):
Two main obstacles had already been identified in the title, i.e., pride and prejudice. In addition, there were the obstacles of difference in class, opposition by a family member, and misunderstanding. This Jane Austen classic had been adapted to the cinema and TV screens several times. My speculation is that the chemistry between Keira Knightley and Matthew Macfadyen must have something to do with this version being regarded by many moviegoers as very romantic.
Apart from the obstacles of war, a pre-existing marriage, and the misinformation that one’s spouse was dead, what made this screen classic special was the virtue of sacrifice that Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman exercised over their desire to be together. Their knowledge of mutual love was enough for them to avoid future regret, as exemplified in the dialog, “If you don't get in that plane you'll regret it. Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but soon and for the rest of your life.” Sometimes, moviegoers like to see idols performing feats on screen that the moviegoers themselves are not bold enough to do in real life. That may be one of the reasons why this movie have been loved by so many moviegoers.
Parental objection and the jealousy of a former lover were the obstacles. To make Patrick Swayze and Jennifer Grey more likeable, sacrifice again came into play, as Swayze suffered to protect both Grey and his dancing partner, while Grey reciprocated Swayze’s sacrifice.
The obstacles were the difference in class, Audrey Hepburn’s duty as a princess, and the secret that Gregory Peck kept from her that he was to expose her activities to the press. Like Titanic, the lovers here were together for only a very short time, just about 24 hours. Sacrifice came into play again, as both Peck and his photographer friend refrained from releasing Hepburn’s photos to the public, and Hepburn would not drag Peck into a relationship destined for turmoil. It was an elegant love story as neither Hepburn nor Peck demanded anything from each other, and both knew instinctively and wholeheartedly exactly what to do to end the relationship.
An Affair to Remember:
At the beginning, the obstacles were that both Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr had pre-existing relationships, and they were also unsure if they could start new careers. Then, the obstacle came in the form of an accident, rendering Kerr unable to walk and reluctant to let Grant know the truth.
The Way We Were:
The obstacle here was very interesting. Two people were really incompatible and even though they stayed together, the relationship could not persevere. Barbra Streisand hoped that Robert Redford would become a certain type of person, while he got frustrated not being able to turn into her ideal. This movie seemed to promote the concept that the memory of two incompatible people together could be more romantic than the two people actually staying together.
It’s a Wonderful Life:
The obstacle here was very unique. James Stewart wanted to commit suicide and that would separate him from his wife Donna Reed. The moviegoers loved seeing them together so much that they would really dread to see them apart. So, even though the main plot of the movie was not about winning or losing a relationship of love, many moviegoers considered the movie a fantastic love story.
This was the oldest of the 35 movies and it dated back to 1931. However, the obstacles employed were already quite unique. The loss of memory of the millionaire, Virginia Cherrill’s blindness preventing her from knowing Charlie Chaplin’s identity, and Chaplin’s fear of being not worthy of Cherrill were all very effective obstacles.
This was the most recent of the 35 movies, as it was only released this year. It took Sleepless in Seattle’s design of letting two lovers meet at the end of the movie to the next level. Here, both the protagonist and the moviegoers did not know who the protagonist’s lover (pen pal by email) was until near the end of the movie. This movie had incorporated the genre of mystery movie into the genre of romantic movie.
The Free Spirited Female Protagonist:
After going through each of the 35 movies, another trend has surfaced. 26 of the 35 movies featured a female protagonist who was free spirited or strong-willed. Vivien Leigh in Gone with the Wind could even be very scheming, and Robin Wright in Forrest Gump could even be reckless which eventually led to her death. This trend did not seem to be bound by era, as it was valid in 1939 (Gone with the Wind) as well as 2017 (Beauty and the Beast).
Some Interesting Changes in Obstacles through Different Eras:
Among the 35 movies, the ones dated 1960 or before did not use objection by a family member as an obstacle.
The era 1961-1970 saw the most frequent use of objection by a family member and death as obstacles. Three times, both obstacles were used in combination in the same movie.
Since 2006, neither objection by a family member nor death was used as an obstacle.
Since 2006, the obstacle of human vs. non-human was used on 5 out of 6 movies, and the remaining movie (Love, Simon) used a freshly designed obstacle. My speculation is that, going forward, we will see even more innovative obstacles.
I hope the above is useful in helping you to enjoy Hollywood romantic movies more. If you like romantic movies and you have not seen some of the 35 movies listed, it may be worth your while to see some of them.
Thank you for reading.