In a new series, Martin Keady, our resident cinema historian, examines a particular cinematic genre each month, exploring what makes a great film in that particular genre and then suggesting a Top 10 for that genre. This month: Rom-Coms.
“Rom-coms” are, of course, “romantic comedies”, but they are rarely referred to as such. Instead, the shortened, diminutive term (which is itself perhaps diminishing and even a little demeaning) is almost universally used instead. This gives some indication of the general standing that romantic comedy has as a genre within cinema, which is not as high as it could or perhaps should be.
And yet the irony is that romantic comedies are almost the ultimate movie genre, at least in terms of getting people to switch off their phones, iPads or laptops and actually go to the cinema. That is because at their best they appeal to couples of all ages and all sexual persuasions, affording them a unique opportunity to watch a film together, cuddling up when the on-screen couple are getting along swimmingly, and grabbing each other (if need be) when the on-screen couple encounter the inevitable obstacles that are a prerequisite of a good rom-com and look as if they will – tragically – part.
Here is an introductory guide to the “rom-com” genre, accompanied by a plea that anyone reading this article try and write a great romantic comedy of their own, one that at least bears comparison with the “Top 10 Rom-Coms” that I suggest at the end. That is because now, just as in similarly bleak times over the past century or so, the world truly needs more romance, more comedy and more genuinely great romantic comedy.
The Three Key Ingredients of Rom-Com: First, the Importance of Obstacles
As with any genre in any art-form, there are certain key ingredients required for a good rom-com, sine qua nons without which they can end up as flat as a collapsed soufflé. The most important of these by far is a good obstacle, or ideally a set of obstacles, that the couple involved have to overcome if they are to end up living happily ever after (or at least living reasonably satisfactorily ever after).
It is often said that drama is conflict, but of course comedy is conflict, too. In fact, all art is conflict, just as all life is conflict, from that very first race to the top that we are all involved in as one of millions of spermatozoa desperately trying to swim into that one single egg or ovum that needs to be fertilized. (It is not strictly a romantic comedy – if anything, it is more of a romantic satire – but the essentially conflicted nature of human procreation is brilliantly parodied in the concluding “What Happens During Ejaculation?” section of Woody Allen’s Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex* (*But Were Afraid to Ask) (1972).)
In trying to write (or, if you will pardon the pun, even conceive of) a romantic comedy, it is perhaps instructive to bear in mind that first but most important journey that we are all involved in, even if we are not aware of it at the time. Just as that single successful spermatozoa must navigate long distances (relative to its microscopic size) and in the process turn some incredibly tight corners, so the two protagonists in a romantic comedy must overcome whatever obstacles or journeys are put in front of them – some physical, some mental, some even existential – before they can be successfully united with each other.
In the early 21st century, it is often suggested that the relative scarcity of great romantic comedies, at least in comparison to the genre’s two golden ages of the 1930s and 1970s, is down to the fact that there just aren’t as many obstacles to two people being together as there used to be. Frankly, though, that is a lame excuse. Even if in the West many of the traditional external barriers between people – class, age, religion, gender and even sexuality – have largely collapsed, there are still plenty of other barriers, some of them internal, that have arisen, or that can be constructed by a skillful screenwriter, in their place.
For example, we are often told that we now live in the age of “identity politics”, where people’s sense of personal identity – literally, who they are and how they fit into the world – is the most important determinant of their actions, including but not limited to how they vote politically. Well, if that is true, then in our increasingly divided age, especially on the two sides of the Atlantic that are currently beset by Trumpism and Brexysteria, there should be ample opportunity to explore the idea that people who are politically or personally very different can still be powerfully, maybe even irresistibly, attracted to each other. For example, a rom-com that featured an ardent Trumpist falling for an equally ardent anti-Trumpist, or a Brexiteer falling for a “Remainer”, would immediately generate the kind of romantic friction that is essential for the success of a good rom-com.
And that is without even considering the wider, non-Western world, especially in our age of impending climate catastrophe. For instance, if it was sufficiently well written (and in truth it would have to be spectacularly well written), it is just possible to imagine a rom-com in which a teenage environmental activist (they would have to be over the age of 18, to ensure that any relationship they entered into was genuinely consensual) somehow, despite their own deeply held beliefs, fell headlong for an older, divorced (perhaps even multiple-divorced) climate change denier. In that one (admittedly unlikely, but not impossible) scenario, there are enough apparent obstacles – of age, belief and perhaps even geography – to create a virtual mountain range that the two protagonists have to scramble over to get to each other.
So, put simply, and in a handy acronym that you can carry around in your head (or get tattooed on your wrist, if you prefer): “FYO”, which stands for “Find Your Obstacle”. Just as in drama, without obstacles – without something that the protagonists have to overcome – there is no story, and therefore no possibility of either romance or comedy.
Secondly, Create Genuinely Lovable (and Ideally Shaggable) Characters
Richard Curtis, who has proved himself to be one of the masters of modern rom-coms, if not the master, with Four Weddings And A Funeral (1994) and Notting Hill (1998) among others, memorably said of Four Weddings, his first big screen hit, that it didn’t matter how good the script for a romantic comedy was if the audience didn’t want to shag (to use Austin Powers/UK parlance) at least one, if not both, of the lead characters.
Curtis may even have been referring to the actors playing those characters, but even the best and/or most beautiful actors in the world will have difficulty in generating genuine attraction if they are not given the raw material – that is, the character and their dialogue – to work with. Of course the characters cannot be too perfect or too superhuman – supermodels with PhD’s. In fact, quite the reverse. They must be recognizably and uniquely human, which in itself is usually enough to generate at least interest, which in time might lead to romantic or even sexual attraction.
In all the greatest rom-coms, including many that make my Top 10, the characters meet this all-important criterion. Woody Allen is certainly not physically attractive, but his genius wit is such that he can attract (and indeed has attracted) some of the most physically beautiful women in the world, including Diane Keaton and (before the fall-out to end all fall-outs) Mia Farrow, both in the movies and real life.
At the other end of the spectrum of visible attractiveness, Cary Grant is one of the most physically beautiful men who has ever lived and arguably the most handsome of all male movie stars, but in his greatest roles in romantic comedies he is typically afflicted with something that undercuts that obvious attractiveness, be it his boozing (and possible propensity to use physical force) in The Philadelphia Story (1940) or just his spectacles and interest in paleontology in Bringing Up Baby (1938).
It must also be emphasized that both parties, or protagonists, must be attractive in some way. It is not enough for just one party or protagonist to be gorgeous, or a genius, or whatever it is that attracts people to them. Both parties or protagonists have to be attractive. Thus it is that in the greatest rom-coms it is impossible to think of one member of the romantic pairing without immediately also thinking of the other: Woody/Alvy Singer and Diane Keaton/Annie Hall in Annie Hall (1976); Cary Grant’s Dr Huxley and Katharine Hepburn’s Susan Vance in Bringing Up Baby; Harry and Sally.
Thirdly, Be Funny (or, ideally, “Be More Funny”)
It was just one of the seemingly endless succession of classic scenes in the golden age of The Simpsons (roughly the first 10 or 11 series) that produced this timeless advice for all aspiring comics, comedians and comedy writers. Because he will literally watch anything on TV, Homer somehow finds himself watching a very thinly veiled version of Paul Theroux’s “Lake Wobegon Days”, in which the Theroux-a-like dispenses gentle, plangent advice on how to get through life. A stunned, even stupefied, Homer watches, or tries to watch, for a few moments before shouting at the screen, “Be more funny!”
Of course, Paul Theroux (or his Simpsons avatar) was not necessarily trying to be funny, at least not “laugh-out-loud” funny (the best kind of funny, of course). But anyone trying to write a rom-com most assuredly is, and the two parts of that phrase are equally important. A romantic comedy must be both romantic and comic (i.e. funny). If it is just the former, then it is just a romance; if it is just the latter, then it is just a comedy. In the genre of romantic comedy, just as every Jack needs his Jill (or Julio), so the “rom” needs its “com”, and vice versa.
This third key ingredient of romantic comedy is so important, indeed so utterly indispensable, that it effectively affects the flavoring of the two other key ingredients: obstacles; and likable (and ideally shaggable) characters. The obstacles that the couple encounter must themselves be somehow funny, if not ridiculous, or at least must be exposed as being inherently funny or ridiculous, and the characters themselves must, in addition to being likable (and ideally sexually desirable), also be funny.
That humor has to be evident right from the start. In Annie Hall, Woody Allen’s stand-up comic, Alvy Singer, delivers one of his stand-up comedy routines directly to the camera, in what may just be the greatest opening monologue in any film in any genre. (Perhaps only Jack Nicholson’s voiceover in the US remake of The Departed (2006), in which he memorably and threateningly announces, “I don’t wanna be a product of my environment; I want my environment to be a product of me!” comes close.) Equally, When Harry Met Sally starts with the first ever meeting of the two titular characters, before they embark on a long-distance car journey that will lay bare their apparently complete and utter incompatibility, which is obvious even in how they order sandwiches in a diner.
So, however you do it – by exposing their ridiculous foibles, which we all share to a greater or lesser degree, or by literally having them deliver a stand-up routine that proves how funny they are, or by any other means necessary – make ‘em (the audience and the character) laugh, keep ‘em laughing (even if there are moments when they definitely should not be laughing), and ideally make ‘em (the characters) laugh so much, so hard and so long that they end up falling into bed together, utterly unable to resist each other any longer and in the process proving yet again the truth of the age-old dictum that “Against laughter, all is defenseless”.
Having set out the three key ingredients of a successful rom-com, here are my own personal Top 10 rom-coms. Nothing is more personal or subjective than a sense of humor, so I don’t imagine for a moment that anyone will like (let alone love) all ten of them, but hopefully there are at least a few universal crowd-pleasers.
10. FOUR WEDDINGS AND A FUNERAL (1994) (Written by Richard Curtis)
Yes, it’s a portrait of the idle rich (nobody in the film seems to work); yes, it is almost laughable that Charles (played by Hugh Grant) overlooks the incredibly obvious charms of Kristin Scott Thomas’s Fiona for the altogether more dubious ones of Andy MacDowell’s Carrie; and, yes, MacDowell’s delivery of the key line, “Is it still raining? I hadn’t noticed”, might just be the worst ever delivery of a key line in any film, let alone a rom-com (just look down, darling, and you’ll see you’re soaked through!). But Four Weddings and a Funeral is still a fantastic rom-com. Indeed, with its wonderful pairing of the ultimate repressed Englishman and the infinitely more sexually liberated American woman, it not only provided the template for most of Richard Curtis’s subsequent romantic comedies (particularly Notting Hill (1999)) but helped to jump-start the whole revival of the genre at the end of the 20th century, after it had been feared dead for decades.
Even more importantly, the title is crucial, because the funeral, and in particular the recitation of W.H. Auden’s “Funeral Blues” (a classic case of “borrowing grandeur”, as Woody Allen put it, where a film is elevated by the addition of a piece of classical music or classic poetry), showed that rom-coms don’t just have to be funny all the time, but can also accommodate the pain that is as much a part of romance as the pleasure.
9. SAME TIME, NEXT YEAR (1978) (Written by Bernard Slade, adapting his play of the same name)
Same Time, Next Year is probably the one film on this list that most readers won’t even have heard of, let alone seen, and yet it is a truly classic rom-com. The tagline on the original poster laid bare the premise of the film: “They couldn’t have celebrated happier anniversaries if they were married to each other”. Indeed, George (played by Alan Alda at the height of his MASH fame) and Doris (played by Ellen Burstyn, who had won the Best Actress Oscar for Martin Scorsese’s own romantic comedy-drama, Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (1974) and was nominated again for her performance in Same Time, Next Year) probably enjoy far happier anniversaries than most married couples, as their anniversaries celebrate their original one-night stand back in 1951. Thereafter, despite the fact (or, arguably, because of the fact) that they are reasonably happily married to other people, they meet once a year to recreate (and indeed, actually improve upon) the magic of that first meeting.
What ensues is a post-war history of America, as George and Doris navigate the major societal and political issues of the day, from the introduction of the contraceptive pill to the Vietnam War, all the time wondering (if not always simultaneously) whether they should make their relationship more than just a once-a-year thing.
Same Time, Next Year is a classic two-hander that occasionally betrays its origins as a stage play (there is one main set, the remote inn where they meet), but the dialogue is both truthful and funny. Just one example of many is George reporting how his wife Helen, on finally realizing that he has become impotent in middle-age, had remarked, “It’s funny, when I married an accountant, I thought it would be their eyes that went first!”
8. KISSING JESSICA STEIN (2001) (Written by Heather Juergensen and Jennifer Westfeldt)
The other entries on this list are, admittedly, “hetero-heavy”: depictions of heterosexual relationships. Indeed, there are relatively few great LGBTQ+ rom-coms, probably for two reasons: first, the difficulty of securing widespread release for such films throughout most of the 20th century; and, secondly, because of the prejudice and oppression that most LGBTQ+ people have faced throughout history, most of the stories about their relationships have, perhaps necessarily, been dramas about their struggles rather than comedies about their foibles. Hopefully, that situation will change in the 21st century and there will be a whole raft of great non-binary rom-coms.
For the moment, though, arguably the best of the few great LGBTQ+ rom-coms that have been made is Kissing Jessica Stein. Expanding on a single scene from Lipschtick (1997), a play that the film’s co-stars, Heather Juergensen and Jennifer Westfeldt had co-written, Kissing Jessica Stein tells the story of how the titular Jessica, who is seemingly one of the straightest women alive, somehow falls for a very out gay woman, Helen. The film is swooningly romantic, not least because Jessica is initially attracted to Helen’s lonely hearts ad because it quotes Rilke, and achingly funny, especially as Jessica tries to learn the basics (and the mechanics) of lesbian sex. Some LGBTQ+ viewers were disappointed by the film’s ending (no spoilers, but it hinges on Jessica trying to decide whether she is homosexual, heterosexual, bisexual or some combination thereof), but otherwise there is no denying either the truthfulness or the tenderness of this slyly subversive film.
7. WHEN HARRY MET SALLY (1989) (Written by Nora Ephron)
Widely dismissed as “Woody Allen-lite” when it first appeared thirty years ago, When Harry Met Sally has emerged from the obvious shadow (and influence) of Woody Allen to demand recognition of its own brilliance. In large part, that is down to Nora Ephron’s sheer genius in identifying and examining probably the No.1 obstacle that most heterosexual couples now experience (at least in the West) – the possibility that they might be better off as friends instead.
Ephron brilliantly showed how the feminist revolution of the late 20th century may have done much to liberate women but had also created new tensions in the traditional relationships between men and women. As the film’s original poster put it, “Can men and women be friends, or does sex always get in the way?” Harry and Sally (brilliantly portrayed by Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan in the best roles of their careers) start off hating each other, become friends, then lovers, then part, before…Well, in the unlikely event that you haven’t seen When Harry Met Sally yet, do so as soon as you can, because the ending in particular, set at a New Year’s Eve party where Harry ends up dissecting the lyrics of Auld Lang Syne, is one of the rommest and commest of any modern film.
6. BROADWAY DANNY ROSE (1984) (Written by Woody Allen)
In the wake of the allegations made against Woody Allen in the early 1990s by Mia Farrow (dismissed by a judge at the time but revived in recent years, not least by his own son, Ronan Farrow), there are many who would demand that he should no longer be allowed anywhere near a list of great rom-coms and should instead head the list of “creep-coms”, especially for Manhattan (1979), in which his 42-year-old male lead has a sexual relationship with a woman 25 years his junior that today would lead to him being grilled on TV (or in court) like Prince Andrew.
Nevertheless, despite the controversy surrounding both Allen’s personal life and films like Manhattan, to dismiss his entire Allen ouvre would be to dismiss arguably the greatest maker of romantic comedies since the 1930s. I had thought of including The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985) on this list, as a sop to those movie lovers (such as my wife) who can only abide Woody Allen films if he himself does not appear in them. Ultimately, however, I decided to go for Allen’s other great “Rose” movie, Broadway Danny Rose, in which Allen’s titular (and inept) theatrical agent goes on the run, or at least an animated walk, with Farrow’s gangster’s moll, who is having an affair with one of Allen’s clients, a 50s-style crooner enjoying an unlikely renaissance in the 1980s. Shot in black and white by the great Gordon Willis, Broadway Danny Rose is breathtakingly beautiful, and if ultimately there is not the happy ending that one would expect of a rom-com, well, perhaps that is appropriate, because the film also stands as probably the finest product of the Allen-Farrow partnership (both on film and in real life), which, of course, didn’t end well either.
5. BRINGING UP BABY (1938) (Written by Dudley Nichols, Hagar Wilde, Robert McGowan (uncredited) and Gertrude Purcell (uncredited))
And so to the Thirties, or the Original Golden Age of Hollywood, for the first time. It is no coincidence that so many of the greatest romantic comedies were made in this period, as it effectively experienced the first wave of feminism thirty years before that term was used. Liberated by both World War One and the subsequent expansion to women of the right to vote in most Western countries, at least some women in the Thirties were beginning to make their own way in the world and were damned if anyone, especially a man, was going to hold them back.
In Bringing Up Baby, Katharine Hepburn may have been an heiress (as she was in so many of her films, including the next one on this list), but she was still the epitome of the emancipated woman who was determined to experience the kind of mutual respect and passion in her emotional life that she demanded in every other aspect of her existence. “Baby” is, of course, her pet leopard, which presents the most immediate obstacle that she and Cary Grant’s dinosaur-loving Dr Huxley have to overcome as they journey (unwittingly on Huxley’s part) towards each other, but there are others, too, not least Huxley’s forthcoming marriage to another woman, which, it is implied, is only happening because of her ability to make a large donation to his museum. Witty, wise and wonderful, Bringing Up Baby is probably the definitive “screwball” comedy, supposedly a sub-genre of the romantic comedy genre (in which the whole notion of romantic comedy itself is satirized) that in reality is one of rom-com’s most important constituent parts.
4. THE PHILADELPHIA STORY (1940) (Written by Donald Ogden Stewart and Waldo Salt (uncredited), based on the 1939 play of the same name by Philip Barry)
Grant and Hepburn were reunited for The Philadelphia Story, and for good measure Jimmy Stewart was added to the romantic mix, as a principled, political news reporter reduced to reporting on the high-society second marriage of Hepburn’s Tracy Samantha Lord after she has divorced her first husband, Grant’s sublimely named C.K. Dexter Haven. The careful delineation of the complex relationships between these three – Stewart’s Socialist hack following everyone else’s lead in falling for the gloriously ditzy Hepburn, Hepburn initially appearing to reciprocate before realizing that she still loves Grant, and Grant trying to stand nobly aside while his former wife marries another man, until he realizes that he is still in love with her himself – is the stuff of rom-com heaven, nearly 80 years after it first appeared.
In addition to the superb leads, there is a brilliant ensemble of supporting characters who all attend the wedding, whether they are invited or not, notably Tracy’s younger sister Dinah (played by Virginia Weidler), who tries to play Cupid to get Tracy and her beloved “Dex” back together again, and her father, Seth (played by John Halliday), who cocks a snook at romantic conventions and, in arguably the most shocking speech in the whole film, practically defends his right to have affairs, regardless of his family’s opinions on the subject.
3. ANNIE HALL (1977) (Written by Woody Allen and Marshall Brickman)
Woody-haters (of which there are no shortage nowadays) will hate this list, which features two of his films, but it would be historical revisionism of the worst kind to deny the seminal importance of Allen to the rom-com genre. More than anyone else, he effectively updated it for the second half of the 20th century, introducing all the neuroses, hang-ups and self-obsessions that are practically de rigeur in any modern romantic relationship.
In addition, Allen exploded the whole genre structurally and stylistically in Annie Hall, using seemingly every imaginable cinematic technique to tell his story of a love affair between Alvy Singer, a stand-up comic (played, naturally, by Allen himself), and Annie Hall, a beautiful but socially and romantically awkward singer (played by Diane Keaton). There is direct address to camera, animation, the use of a split-screen (to depict Annie and Alvy’s very different therapy sessions), and much else besides. In effect, Annie Hall was the first (indeed, perhaps so far the only) great post-modern, or ‘po-mo’, rom-com, in which the traditional concerns and techniques of romantic comedy were brilliantly subverted, inverted and (as Alvy himself might have put it) just “verted”.
As with other entries on this list, notably Allen’s own Broadway Danny Rose, Annie Hall does not have the conventional happy ending that is often thought to be a requirement of a successful rom-com, but that is completely in keeping with a film that tries to examine the reality behind the romanticism of most relationships. And if Alvy ultimately doesn’t end up with Annie, he is still utterly grateful just to have known her, and it is hard to think of anything more truly romantic than that.
2. HIS GIRL FRIDAY (1940) (Written by Charles Lederer, based on The Front Page, a 1928 play by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur)
His Girl Friday is, as it were, a staple of Hollywood’s repertoire, having originally been filmed as The Front Page (the name of the play it was based on) in 1931, and then re-adapted again for a late Billy Wilder film starring his most beloved double-act, Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon, also called The Front Page (1974). There have also been other film and TV adaptations, but the definitive version of the story is surely the 1940 Howard Hawks film, the screenplay for which was written by Charles Lederer, who would go on to write Orson Welles’s The Lady From Shanghai (1947) and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953). However, building on the original stage play, His Girl Friday is undoubtedly his finest film script and arguably the wittiest film script ever written.
Set in a newspaper world that is now all but extinct, His Girl Friday is the story of how a canny editor, Walter Burns (played by Cary Grant), tries to win back, both professionally and personally, his star reporter, Hildy Johnson (magnificently portrayed by Rosalind Russell in her greatest – indeed, her only truly great – screen role), before she is married to another man, so that she can cover what appears to be a classic miscarriage of justice. With machine-gun paced action and dialogue, and a virtually explosive romantic chemistry between the two leads, His Girl Friday is also the perfect example of the political and sexual importance of the rom-com genre, in showing that women needed rescuing from boring and unfulfilling marriages just as much as men.
1. SOME LIKE IT HOT (1959) (Written by Billy Wilder and I. A. L. Diamond)
Because it is the greatest “com” (comedy) of any kind in the history of cinema, it is easy to forget that Some Like It Hot is also a rom-com, centered on the obsessive love for Marilyn Monroe’s sultry singer, Sugar Kane, felt by Tony Curtis’s Joe, a saxophonist on the run from mobsters whose St Valentine’s Day Massacre he has witnessed, along with his bass-playing sidekick, Jerry (played by Jack Lemmon). Of course, Joe cannot reveal his love, because he and Jerry are masquerading as female musicians, after joining an all-female band presents itself as the only way to escape the Mob.
Some Like It Hot was, along with The Apartment (1960), the high-point of Billy Wilder’s second great screenwriting relationship, with I.A.L. Diamond, following the disintegration of his previous writing partnership with Charles Brackett, with whom he had written The Lost Weekend (1945) and Sunset Boulevard (1950), among others. It is invariably forgotten that Wilder and Diamond were rewriting an existing French film, Fanfare d’amour (Fanfares of Love) (1935), which had already been remade once before (in German) in 1951. However, they cranked up the gags and the sex appeal (the addition of Marilyn Monroe, in her one truly great screen role, would have achieved that on its own) in a manner that even Shakespeare – himself the creator of great gender-swap comedies such as As You Like It and Twelfth Night – would have approved. The entire confection is perfection, including (ironically enough) the closing line, which remains and probably always will remain the greatest last line in movies: “Nobody’s perfect”. No human being may be perfect, but Some Like It Hot is very nearly the perfect film, and it is certainly the greatest romantic comedy of them all.
Most of these scripts can be downloaded for free from TSL’s Screenplay Library!
Martin Keady is an award-winning scriptwriter whose work has been produced for film, television, stage and radio. His major credits include: The Final, a short film about the famous ending of the 1979 FA Cup Final, which was shown on Channel Four; Moon the Loon, a play about the legendary Who drummer, Keith Moon, which was premiered at The Edinburgh Festival; and a collection of love poetry, Shards, extracts from which have been broadcast on Radio Four.” http://theshakespeareplays.com/