100 Exceptional American Movies in 10 Genres: Lovers, 10-6

You can read up on the basis for this series here, and also find links to other posts in the series.

Movies I’ve reviewed on this site have a link in the title which you can follow to read my full review.


As it stands, we are fifty movies down, with fifty more to go, and I think I can say that no genre has forced me to do as much research, broaden my moviewatching habits, or reconfigure my list as much as this one has. Part of the issue, in retrospect, is that this is by far the broadest category of the ten; I’ve made no distinction for this list between happy endings and unhappy ones, between funny relationships and serious ones. And because of how broad the category is, it frequently mashes up with other genres. Arrival, Badlands, and Giant each appear in a different list of ten, and all three feel awfully different from one another, but they all could have made a case to be included here. Last of all, and most personally, I think that Brief Encounter is the greatest movie about two people in love ever made. There are not many American movies like Brief Encounter, and so I’ve had to look elsewhere.

10) The Awful Truth (1937), directed by Leo McCarey

The Awful Truth is set in the fashionable, opulent world of the rich, where Irene Dunne’s dresses become the dishrags for the servants after a single night out, and apartments are massive endeavors with rooms upon closets upon hallways upon rooms. And it’s a good thing, too, because it seems like just about everybody has to hide in someone else’s apartment in this movie. Cary Grant, who gets back together with his wife in more movies than anyone else in Hollywood history, seems to be most frequently out of sight. Sometimes he’s snooping. Sometimes it’s because Jerry is having friendly little chats with his soon-to-be-divorced wife, Lucy (Irene Dunne), who rapidly gets herself engaged to the transplanted Oklahoman oilman Dan Leeson (Ralph Bellamy, who seems to get the fuzzy end of the lollipop an awful lot thanks to Cary Grant deciding he wants his wife back). And sometimes poor Lucy has to hide Jerry with another guy who may or may not have been sleeping with her, which ends about as well as you’d expect. Inevitably, Jerry and Lucy get back together again. Aside from the fact that Hollywood was plenty squeamish about actually divorced couples, there’s a dog named Mr. Smith who’s trapped in the middle of a custody battle between the two of them. Lucy has primary custody, although she doesn’t play fair at the hearing. The judge says that whoever the dog comes to will get to keep him; Lucy hides a treat for Mr. Smith and lures him over, which hurts Jerry much more than the divorce proceedings themselves do.

The Awful Truth hits on a sort of truth about marriage, although I’m not sure I would characterize it, necessarily, as “awful.” From time to time married couples forget what it is they like about each other, which is where The Awful Truth begins. Jerry has been off with some other woman while telling Lucy that he’s in Florida; he is desperate to get a tan before he returns to his wife, who he’s been sending oranges to (without checking to see, amusingly enough, if they’re really from Florida). Lucy comes home to Jerry with her music teacher, who she had to spend the night with because of a broken down car…maybe. The two of bounce their marriage back and forth like a tennis match, amping up the weird humiliations they’ve got in mind for one another. Jerry can’t stop himself from sending Dan, the world’s most exuberant dancer, onto the dance floor with his recent fiancee. Lucy, inspired by a tawdry, sad little act from that same club, obliterates Jerry’s chances at remarrying when she shows up pretending to be his sister. (Jerry has not learned much. It’s not long before the divorce kicks in; Lucy comes to see Jerry, answers his phone, and then the two of them have to double down on a badly conceived lie.) Neither Jerry nor Lucy is quite happy with the other, but the movie makes it clear, beyond their machinations, that the two of them see a kindred spirit in the other. Each one recognizes the other’s humor, asperity, and relentlessness, even if it takes a near-miss with another totally different person to put them on the right track.

9) Sabrina (1954), directed by Billy Wilder

Like The Awful Truth, the best parts of Sabrina are not necessarily about people in love. In The Awful Truth, it is absolutely watching Ralph Bellamy redefine dancing for an audience of millions; in Sabrina, it’s watching Holden swing around on a hammock with a hole for his butt because he sat on a pair of champagne flutes the night before. Unless, of course, it’s watching Bogie demonstrate this new kind of plastic he’s developing. I’ve never been an Audrey Hepburn fan, old Holden is far superior to young Holden, and Humphrey Bogart was old enough to be her distant ancestor. (I’m not really kidding about that. Bogart was literally thirty years older than Hepburn; Anne Bancroft was six years Dustin Hoffman’s senior. Hollywood is weird.) Maybe most importantly, no one could argue that Sabrina reaches the same heights as a movie like The Apartment. But I can’t help but like Sabrina, hiccups and all, because it aspires to a certain level of maturity. Sabrina (Hepburn) goes to Paris as a girl with a ponytail and comes back with a chic haircut; she left thinking of David Larrabee (Holden) as the absolute apogee of manhood, but ultimately comes to realize that his waywardness is unappealing. Linus (Bogart) may be an old bachelor too focused on his business models to have time for a home, but at least he isn’t thinking about which girl he’ll bed next or who he can get into the indoor tennis courts for a quiet escapade fueled by expensive booze. In that seriousness, we can see a touch of emotion that at least lets us imagine Linus as a romantic character. David could never be a really romantic person because there’s never anything more than tipsy sex with him. Romance requires a personality, and Linus has one if you dig enough. It takes much more imagination to make your brother forget he has glass in his butt so you get a shot at her than it does to simply dazzle her with good looks.

In the fall of 1954, Sabrina premiered; in January of 1957, Bogart was dead, killed by cancer probably brought on by all those cigarettes we watched him smoke in his pictures. There’s a sadness in Sabrina that almost certainly wasn’t there in the original run, but which history has added into the way we watch the movie. For me, at any rate, it’s hard not to see Linus Larrabee as a guy who won’t be around much longer for one reason or another. Even if he’ll live longer than Bogie, how long will it take him to set down enough business to spend time with his young wife? Linus is a sensitive kind of guy even in the best of circumstances. How many years will it take before he comes to understand that she’s not really married to him so much as watching him die? It’s the tradeoff for Sabrina, who takes a little time herself to realize how much more she can care for a man who lives to build something (Linus is a “compassionate capitalist,” who monologues well enough on employment opportunities that I almost believe him) than a man who lives because he must.

8) Trouble in Paradise (1932), directed by Ernst Lubitsch

A quick look at my chosen movies for this genre shows that about half of them feature love triangles of some kind. There’s romantic competition and one-upmanship. There’s jealousy and deception. But none of them could actually turn into a legitimate menage a trois, which Trouble in Paradise seems to threaten to do throughout the entire movie. Cunning thief Gaston (Herbert Marshall) manages to weasel his way into a major position in Madame Colet’s (Kay Francis) perfume company as her private secretary. He brings along his girlfriend, Lily (Miriam Hopkins), another accomplished pickpocket and con artist, who has the front row seat to this ballsy game that Gaston’s playing. She watches her man fall for a woman who was, admittedly, always going to fall for him. Our sympathies are divided, even though the levels of victimhood are unambiguous in this scenario. Clearly we should feel most of all for Madame Colet, whose love affair is a sham and whose professional life is in danger of being totally derailed; then we should feel for Lily, who can’t keep Gaston’s eyes off of the mark. I still pity Gaston a little, even though the man is living a fantasy. He understands his responsibilities to both women well enough, but cannot possibly play nice with both. Leave Lily for Madame Colet and he risks exposure for himself as well as for his lady partner. Leave Madame Colet but take her money, and he fills himself with an immense guilt knowing that he’s doubly cheated a woman he cares for deeply. Trouble in Paradise isn’t taut – there’s too much wordplay to ever let it go that far, praise Ernst – but it is a little tense sometimes. The scene where Gaston admits the whole ruse to Madame Colet is more sad than anything else; it’s a shame to let the fantasy which wrapped them up turn into this grisly, ugly reality.

While it happens, though, you can’t help but enjoy the ride a little. Trouble in Paradise is a sly devil, a subgenre of romantic comedies that may not actually exist anymore. More than that, it’s the women in the picture who stand out as particularly troublesome. Marshall gets the famous lines about spanking (“in a business way”), but it’s Kay Francis who sets him up with a clear-eyed sparkle and says, “You’re hired!” after hearing about some probably not-so-metaphorical pugilism. There aren’t many calls for minxes anymore either, but that’s Miriam Hopkins’ game. Much of the movie takes place in Paris, but the first act is set in Venice, where Gaston and Lily meet; each believes that s/he will con the other. It is Lily who is bold enough to begin the accusations (You robbed the man in the suite!), and then primly asks Gaston to pass her the salt as well. She frequently steals things off of him anyway, but no single item matters as much as the necklace she lifts from him while they’re in a taxi, driving away from Madame Colet. In Venice, he refers to her touch as “sweet” when she took the items off his person; in Paris, he smiles at her, presumably knowing what kind of touches are in store.

7) Roxanne (1987), directed by Fred Schepisi

Cyrano de Bergerac plays a game I’ve always enjoyed: what if there were a perfect man who just happened to have a single, undeniable deformity? Would a perfect woman be able to fall in love with him? Roxanne plays a similar game, based as it is on Cyrano, although Charlie is a different kind of man. Cyrano’s professional life is far superior to his romantic life; you could honestly argue that Charlie is doing better with Roxanne (Daryl Hannah) than he is with his fire department. “Goddamn it,” he yells upon seeing a burning trash can in the firehouse, “we’re supposed to put them out!”

I have a dream. It’s not a big dream, it’s just a little dream. My dream – and I hope you don’t find this too crazy – is that I would like the people of this community to feel that if, God forbid, there were a fire, calling the fire department would actually be a wise thing to do. You can’t have people, if their houses are burning down, saying, “Whatever you do, don’t call the fire department!”

Cyrano resents his large nose, sure, but you’d never catch him doing therapy via an impromptu appointment with a plastic surgeon. (Nor can I imagine Cyrano saying, “I wanna look like…Diana Ross,” but maybe that’s just me.) There’s a vulnerability in Charlie that makes this movie work matched by a vulnerability in Martin himself, who is funny for about ninety percent of his time on screen, but in the other time has to convincingly play someone who is not merely in love but made eloquent by the fact of it. Roxanne is an interesting romantic comedy – especially for one which is only thirty years old – because it assume there’s something intellectual about love. It’s not just a feeling that people wake up with one morning in this movie. The men of the 1980s take for granted that Daryl Hannah is hot, even if the rest of us would like a word about that, but the physical attraction that Steve Martin (and Rick Rossovich and every other guy in town) are prisoners to isn’t the end-all be-all of the motivation either. Charlie may have been the smartest person in town for a while, but Roxanne, an astronomer, quickly takes that title from him. Rather than being offended or put off or, worst of all, trying to outdo her, Charlie takes it in stride. He tries to meet her where her mind is and, amazingly enough, it even works in the end.

6) Harold and Maude (1971), directed by Hal Ashby

When we think about Harold and Maude, we have to think first about the fabulous staged suicides that Harold (Bud Cort) puts on, and how unimpressed his mother (Vivian Pickles) is with the vast majority of them. He’s “hanged” himself, but she continues making her phone call. He’s “drowned” in the pool, but she does her laps anyway. He “cuts his throat,” and that one is messy enough to elicit a response from her. Of course, his mother cannot compare to the reaction of the actress who’s matched up with him via computer dating service when he “stabs himself in the gut.” What a performance! she cries, and goes ahead and recreates that last scene from Romeo and Juliet in which the latter stabs herself; she falls over and Harold is left to watch someone else die. In 1971, I think if you’d tried to explain Tinder or Match.com to somebody they would have been amazed (…and then, because it was 1971, have gone forth to have as much unprotected sex via dating sites as they could manage), but there’s something to be said for that computer program. It found a girl who has, roughly, some of Harold’s interests. And ironically it turns out that the girl that Harold has fallen in love with over the course of a week – a woman who will turn eighty later in the week, Maude (Ruth Gordon) – has at least one other interest in common with that aspiring actress. Maude’s actual suicide is maybe the only way this movie could have ended. It is the last lesson that she teaches her disciple, who comes to love her because she has something to give. The wealth that Harold’s mother flaunts and the ability he has to get just about anything he could want cheapens everything he has. Maude, who is her own person and needs nothing from him other than his time, is a perfect match even beyond the fact that she dies.

I started this post by talking up Brief Encounter, which is actually how I start most of my posts and a plurality of my conversations with other people. Even though we all know that Brief Encounter spends most of its time making us wish we were dead, there are long stretches of the movie that are mostly charming. Alec and Laura go to lunch together, laugh together, eat the same thing, go to the movies, see the serious woman with the bad glasses again, laugh again. Harold and Maude, which is primarily a comedy, plays many of the same notes. Watching Maude drive circles around a motorcycle cop (while Harold, presumably, holds on for dear life) so the two of them can plant a tree they’ve stolen is endearing in the extreme. Hal Ashby, America’s greatest hippie, makes a love story out of the threat of the military draft. Harold’s one-armed uncle (Charles Tyner) is an officer who is grooming his gawky nephew for the army, who appears to be significantly more bloodthirsty than he bargained for. Harold chasing after Maude and smacking her with the sign she was carrying after she’s thrown his shrunken head into the water is utterly priceless just as physical comedy. As romantic comedy, it’s still gold. What’s your girlfriend for if not to help you stay out of Vietnam?

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