My favourite Hollywood anecdote of all time -- though it’s probably not true -- is about what happened when Jennifer Jason Leigh auditioned for the role Julia Roberts eventually played in “Pretty Woman.”
Under the direction of Disney executive Jeffrey Katzenberg, all of the gritty drama of J.F. Lawton’s original script* had been carefully excised away until nothing but a gooey centre remained. It was from this new script that Leigh read her lines as she auditioned for the film’s director, “Happy Days” creator Garry Marshall.
Leigh hadn’t got the memo about the film’s new light-hearted tone and delivered her dialogue the way she thought a character in Vivian’s situation actually would in real life.
“That’s great, Jennifer!” Marshall told her after they were done. “But this time could you make it a little more peppy?”
“Peppy?” Leigh asked him, confused. “This is a woman who spends 18 hours a day on the street giving strangers $50 blowjobs.”
“Yes,” agreed Marshall, “but she hasn’t been doing it for that long!”
Fact or fiction, it’s as perfect an example I’ve ever heard of the disconnect filmmakers must have from everyday life in order to construct their elaborate make-believe fantasies. Despite this, I actually find myself on Marshall’s side in this exchange.
Given the choice between the fairy tale and the truth, I’ll eagerly enjoy the fairy tale first and then reluctantly endure the truth just so people won’t think I’m a vapid jerk (a strategy I admit isn’t entirely successful). I just can’t help myself. I sincerely love even the most formulaic of romantic comedies.
This puts me in the minority amongst both serious cineastes and every dude I’ve ever heard complain bitterly about having to sit through a Kate Hudson movie just because their girlfriend/wife previously agreed to go to the latest musclehead car chase flick for the dudes. The critics will tell you that such films are trite, predictable, populated by stereotypes and bear no relation to the realities of human courtship, while the dudes will tell you that they are really fucking stupid and lame.
While I bristle at the lack of eloquence of the dudes, I can’t entirely disagree with the concerns of the critics. All of those things are true about the kind of romantic comedies I’m most attracted to, but they’re also the reasons why I like them.
So we know exactly what I’m talking about, I’m not referring to all films that try to spin funny tales out of romance, but the very specific kind of “high concept” pictures that follow the same basic rules:
1) The entire plot can be summed up in one sentence.
2) The film’s couple will meet in a cute fashion. Complications will therein ensue.
3) Said complications could have been easily avoided with just the tiniest bit of openness, communication and honesty, but the screenwriters have bent over backward to ensure that dire things will happen if such dialogue actually takes place until….
4) A speech is given that will make the disgruntled party forget all about the previous complications.
5) Everyone lives happily ever after, except for maybe the jerky loser who gets dumped at the event where the speech takes place. Fuck those guys. They had it coming for being so superficial and uptight.
It’s this rigid, unyielding structure that alienates detractors the most, but where they see cynical Hollywood condescension and lack of imagination, I see the glory of cinematic ritual, akin to the experience the devoted enjoy during their favourite religious ceremony. Of course, I knew exactly what was going to happen when I saw “Friends With Benefits” -- that’s WHY I went to see it!
Plus, as someone who has long identified more with female protagonists than male ones, romantic comedy is one of the few genres (outside of pornography and horror) where women play the most dominant roles.
While some male actors have successfully thrived in the genre (Hugh Grant being the best example), romantic comedies most often live and die on the appeal of their female star. For example, when I name “The Wedding Planner,” “Maid In Manhattan” and “The Back-Up Plan” the first names that come to mind aren’t Matthew McConaughey, Ralph Fiennes and some guy I’m too lazy to look up on the IMDb, but Jennifer Lopez, Jennifer Lopez and Jennifer Lopez.
I try to avoid throwing out accusations of “misogyny,” but it is hard for me not to think that the reason so many male viewers seem to object so strongly to these films is because they’re the rare example where they are expected to spend the entire length of the movie identifying with a female protagonist.
In many romantic comedies, the traditional sexist dynamic we have come to expect from mainstream films gets turned on its head. In these films, the female characters are the interesting protagonists we invest in, while the male love interests are -- more often than not -- bland fantasy figures who are simply there to serve the plot and look pretty.
True, they tend to always have really awesome jobs, live in amazing apartments and look like the kind of people you generally see on magazine covers, but they are still infinitely more relatable than their male counterparts in the action genre, who are more often than not portrayed as superhuman gods in mortal clothing.
But I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that my strongest attraction to the genre comes from its assertion that love, soul mates and happy endings are all things that really exist and can be had if you decide to fight for them. Many will say this instills false hope and unreasonable expectations in the hearts and minds of audiences who have spent their whole lives absorbing these romantic fantasies. It’s why so many relationships fail, and why so many more of us are single today than ever before.
But hope, false or not, when combined with the promise of tomorrow is enough to sustain most of us as we get on through the tiresome realities we confront each and every day. Even the worst of these movies allows me a chance to dream of what could be, rather than be devoured by the thoughts of what actually is.
Plus, I’m super-awesome at speeches. If I ever get my Hugh Grant in the rain moment -- I’m totally going to nail it.
* ”Pretty Woman” had one of the more fascinating development processes of any film made in the 90s. J.F. Lawton’s original script was called “$3,000,” and told the tale of a sociopathic businessman who hires a junkie street prostitute to temporarily pose as his companion. Rather than fall in love with her and return to save her from her life on the streets, their relationship ended when he literally kicked her out of his car and threw the agreed-upon $3,000 at her while she laid prostrate on the corner where he had originally picked her up. Lawton’s idea of a happy synergistic ending was to have Vivian use the cash to take a bus trip to Disneyland.