Without an obstacle, there is no love story. It is the human condition to feel desire for what we can’t have, and most of us enjoy passionate longing once in a while, if only vicariously. A cynic once said, “Marriage is the aftermath of love.” That may not be they way we want the story to end, but a good romance always has to keep the lovers apart in some way. Alas, once (or if) they are united, their relationship stops being so romantic.
West Side Story
If you are one of the few who have never seen this film, see it. If you have seen it, see it again. The stage musical, based on the tragedy Romeo and Juliet, remains remarkably faithful to Shakespeare’s tale of doomed young lovers, while transposing the story to a setting of gang rivalry in New York in the 1950s. What brings this 1961 film to unparalleled heights of romantic beauty are the brilliant music and lyrics by Leonard Bernstein and the young Stephen Sondheim. Despite some questionable casting decisions (Natalie Wood as a Puerto Rican, her singing parts dubbed by the talented Marni Nixon, who also sang for Audrey Hepburn in My Fair Lady), this movie remains one of the best film versions of a Broadway production ever made, and its tale is one of the most romantic stories ever told.
David Lean, who is widely considered one of the most talented directors of all time, is best remembered for his large, sweeping dramas, such as Lawrence of Arabia, The Bridge on the River Kwai, and Doctor Zhivago (see below). But his more modestly imagined black-and-white dramas from earlier in his career are exquisite. Brief Encounter (1945) is unusual not only because of its intensely sensitive and forgiving portrayal of adulterous impulses, but also because of its effective use of ordinary “middle-aged” (i.e., believable) actors to dramatize this story of the temptations of vivid passion vs. the contentment of abiding marital love.
Another David Lean masterpiece, this story also revolves around the conflict between adulterous passion and marital love. But in contrast to the modest setting of Brief Encounter, this 1965 film takes place during the Russian Revolution, unforgettably portrayed in all its tumultuous, idealistic, corrupt, and violent glory. The major arc, however, involves the contentedly married Zhivago’s lifelong passion for his mistress, Lara, making for a splendid counterpoint to the film’s depiction of the uncertainty of everything else we depend on.
Once again, the romantic momentum of this 1990 movie is fueled by the theme of an impossible love, but this time it is death that separates the pair. Early in the story, the man is shot and killed in a mugging, and the plot then follows the attempt of his “ghost” to protect his wife from further danger. While mostly a drama, this film also benefits from a priceless comedic performance by Whoopi Goldberg as a reluctant medium who helps the two communicate. Like the plots of the other films, it is the obstacles facing the romantic partners—in this case their lost ability to inhabit the same dimension—that makes Ghost so poignantly romantic.
Don’t Look Now
This film is not very well known, but those who have seen it remember it well, especially for the love scene between Julie Christie and Donald Sutherland. Made in the early 70s by Nicholas Roeg (Walkabout), it is unlike the movies above in that it’s meant to be a supernatural mystery about “second sight.” Still, I think the film qualifies as a romance.
Based on a short story by Daphne DuMaurier, it concerns a couple’s loss of their young daughter in an accidental drowning, and the aftermath. A few months later, when the husband is invited to Venice to restore an old church, his wife joins him. Both have been grieving in an intense, isolated way, but when they first arrive abroad, a love scene ensues that is almost unique—particularly in films of that era, when sex scenes were mandatory and major actresses were all expected to bare their breasts. Most movies use a love scene as an excuse for a sex scene; in Don’t Look Now, the sex scene is used as an excuse for a love scene. The couple are shown making love in their hotel room after their long estrangement, but the shots of their lovemaking are intercut throughout with shots of them in the “afterglow,” not lying in each other’s arms but wordlessly getting dressed and preparing to go out for dinner. It portrays the couple’s tender sexual rapprochement (overcoming the ubiquitous obstacle) beautifully, but its brilliance lies in the way it illustrates the quiet intimacy of a married couple who are deeply comfortable and in tune with each other. Very few films even attempt to show passionate love in the context of marriage, and this one really stands out.
No list of great romantic movies would be complete without a nod to those two great soap operas (both mentioned yesterday), Now, Voyager (1942) and An Affair To Remember (1957). Both hinge, of course, on thwarted love, and both are particularly memorable for their reliance on good old-fashioned female self-sacrifice. Also recommended in this category is Back Street, so popular that they made three versions of it! I prefer the last (1961), starring Susan Hayward, the queen of female masochism. Warning: the quality of these films is more B than A, and your husband won’t like them. And if you haven’t seen it, look for the hilarious scene in Sleepless in Seattle about men’s vs. women’s responses to An Affair to Remember. Nora Ephron’s film, from 1993, is one of funniest romantic comedies of all time—and well worth seeing if you’d rather laugh than cry about love.