Dear anon – thank you for asking me this. I genuinely can’t think of a subject I would enjoy talking about more.
Bear in mind, not all of these will be films, but they’re all great.
First off, one has to mention the Mammy of them all, the romantic-comedy that to my mind best captures the appeal of the genre, which is Pride and Prejudice. I’m not particularly fond of the Keira Knightley film (treating Austen like it’s Bronte does a terrible disservice to the material) though it nails Mr Collins’ proposal scene, which is a point in its favour. The BBC miniseries is better, but it’s still no substitute for Austen’s prose.
No version of the story has quite captured what I consider the two essential truths of it. Firstly, that it’s the story of the child of an abusive marriage – why does Elizabeth Bennet demand respect and genuine love from her husband? Because she’s grown up watching her mother be continually abused and insulted by her father. We’re meant to laugh at Mrs Bennet and Mr Bennet’s treatment of her, but one of the key revelations of the novel (though it comes late on) is that Elizabeth doesn’t find it funny. She knows exactly how appalling it is, and desperately wants to avoid it for herself.
Secondly, one of the things Pride and Prejudice captures, better than any other rom-com I can think of, is the core fantasy that underpins the genre, which actually has nothing to do with wealth or beauty (though, conveniently, Darcy has both). Which is the idea that two people can meet, fall in love, and become better human beings in the process. Often – very often – love can be a profound disappointment, but Elizabeth and Darcy make each other kinder, wiser and more generous human beings.
It’s an incredibly powerful fantasy precisely because it happens so rarely in real life.
It’s worth noting that very few romantic comedies achieve that fantasy – so often films in the genre have one partner (usually the male) growing up and changing (in a moral sense) to match the other. Sometimes writers half-ass it by having the female half of the equation ‘gain confidence,’ but I don’t consider that meaningful change. That it’s such a hard trick to pull off convincingly should make people admire Austen’s work more, but it’s still often dismissed as a ‘mere’ rom-com. (For the Veep fans among us, Dan and Amy fall into the half-ass category – Amy doesn’t have to change in any real sense to be with Dan, but Dan definitely has to change if he’s going to be with Amy).
Next I’d mention a couple of plays, which I’d highly recommend seeing if you ever get the chance. There’s Much Ado About Nothing, with Beatrice and Benedick, who are probably the ultimate inspiration for every bickering couple that’s ever appeared on-screen. (Benedick is also the only Shakespeare ‘hero’ who’s actually interesting in his own right – the play is in some ways the story of his moral development… he’s not worthy of Beatrice until he becomes a protector of wronged women, which is more of an arc than Orsino or Orlando or the doucehbag in The Merchant of Venice get). Congreve’s The Way of the World is also a deeply sexy play – Mirabell and Millamant are as attracted to each other’s minds as their bodies, and half the reason things are so drawn out is that they enjoy the courtship dance so much.
There’s also Oliver Goldsmith’s She Stoops to Conquer which has (inexplicably) never had a decent film version made of it, despite being almost tailor made for the screen. This is one of the only plays that actually made me laugh out loud when I read it (the other is Accidental Death of an Anarchist… which is very funny, but in a very different way). Kate Hardcastle is one of the all-time great roles for an actress – she’s clever, she’s funny, she’s sweet, she’s resourceful – and frankly, I’d rather see an ingenue take that part on than yet another “I was abused by men and lived to tell the tale.” But great comic performances almost never get their due – you could be the most delightful Kate Hardcastle the world has ever seen, and still get bumped for Jennifer Lawrence playing a part ten years too old for her.
(The central comic conceit of She Stoops – a young man thinks he’s at an inn, when actually he’s in the home of an old family friend, whose daughter he’s supposed to marry – actually happened to Oliver Goldsmith, which I also find delicious – would that all of us could exorcise our social embarrassment to such brilliant effect).
As for film, we have to start with It Happened One Night. You know, I used to think I didn’t like Clark Gable…and then I realised who I really didn’t like was Rhett Butler, who bores me to tears (Gone With the Wind is an appalling, mawkish, sentimental novel that, perhaps unfortunately, will never be forgotten, because Scarlett O’Hara is such a unique heroine. That such a psychologically interesting heroine appears in such a deeply morally compromised novel is infuriating). But It Happened One Night is delightful – Gable and Colbert are fabulous on-screen together, and the scene of the two of them pretending to be a married couple is one of the great comedy set-pieces. I never knew until I watched it that Clark Gable could be funny. (Roman Holiday basically steals most of its plot from It Happened One Night, but I think with less success – neither Gregory Peck or Audrey Hepburn was ever much of a comedian… though they are very pretty together).
I’ve droned on about The Philadelphia Story, His Girl Friday and Bringing Up Baby before, so I’ll spare you (though I think Bringing Up Baby is only incidentally romantic – not that it matters, I will always love any film with Cary Grant in a silk dressing gown shouting “I just went gay all of a sudden!”).
Which brings me to my all-time, favourite film – The Apartment. Word of warning, this film is dark. It’s a love story where the central themes are depression, sexual exploitation of women in the working world, and moral cowardice, and it is also funny as hell. Billy Wilder at his finest is damn near unbeatable, and he gets fabulous performances out of the entire cast (especially poor spurned Miss Olsen). Its a film where the central characters have to seize their self-respect with both hands, because if they don’t… well, no one else is going to do it for them – and yet it ends on a moment of joy that’s all but effervescent. You feel like you’ve fallen in love or drunk a bottle of champagne at the end of it, and to pull that off, given the thematics, is quite a trick.
(The Apartment always reminds me how sad it is that ‘prestige’ directors don’t make romantic-comedies any more. Like, what would a David Fincher rom-com look like – wouldn’t it be fascinating to see? A sincere one, I mean, not some deconstruction that disappears up its own backside. On the other hand, we should probably all be grateful Christopher Nolan’s never made one). (It’s also a surprisingly beautiful film when you see it on the big screen – black and white often tends to get kind muddy on small screens, so I’d never have known this if I hadn’t gone to see it at the BFI).
I’d also recommend The Goodbye Girl, which does an incredible thing and turns Richard Dreyfus into a desirable romantic hero. (I kid, I kid). I could pretend that the only reason I like this film is all the theatrical references (Streetcar – though Richard Dreyfus as Stanley is a real stretch casting-wise – Richard III, etc), but it’s a surprisingly genuine look at what ‘opposites attract’ actually looks like. And it has that rare thing – a child actor who isn’t insufferable.
For sheer fun I love Strictly Ballroom (one of the first films I ever saw in the cinema). It’s a dance movie that actually shows the dancing, which is genuinely fantastic (you can tell it’s proper dancing because you can see the actors’ feet – they must have had to rehearse the final sequence for weeks). I think this is because Paul Mercurio was a dancer first, before he was an actor, but Baz Luhrmann directs him very intelligently – you’d never know he wasn’t a professional from the performance. I’m a fan of Luhrmann’s Romeo and Juliet (if ever there was play suited to hyperactive excess), but in general I think he has been ruined by money. The romanticism of Strictly Ballroom works precisely because it has to be comparatively low-key. (Also, you haven’t lived until you’ve heard ‘Bogo-Pogo’ said in an Australian accent).
I have a suspicion that television has contributed somewhat to the decline of the film romantic-comedy – so many shows use an ongoing will-they-won’t-they to generate narrative tension, and television can string out the tension for years if it suits the story. (That even a show like Veep, which most people wouldn’t dream of considering a romantic-comedy, gets a substantial element of its narrative tension from a will-they-won’t-they, shows how reliant the medium is on unresolved sexual tension as a form of narrative propulsion).
10 Things I Hate About You is a film I loved as a teenager, and which has aged incredibly well – I don’t think I appreciated at the time just how overtly feminist it is, and Heath Ledger’s performance was justifiably star-making. I also love The Truth About Cats and Dogs, though it is an instance of film relying on pretty extreme behaviour from its characters to make the story work. In general, the more wacky a romantic-comedy tries to be, the less effective it actually is. Note, this is one reason the first Bridget Jones film stands up so well (whereas the sequels…) most of the action (even the wacky elements) springs naturally from the characters, rather than the other way round.
There are some romantic comedies I really like that I can’t justify – One Fine Day and Just Like Heaven for example. Neither of them is what I’d call a good film, but my goodness, New York and San Francisco look stunning in both of them. I also think Bridesmaids is a good film, but the ‘romantic-comedy’ element of it is kind of the least interesting part. Some Like it Hot is one of the all time great comedies, but, again, the romantic element is relatively minor – though, to be fair, Marilyn Monroe does some of her best work in it. Girl deserved an Oscar for the scene in the train bathroom, which is hilarious and heartbreaking simultaneously. There’s also an Irish film A Date for Mad Mary which I’d strongly recommend for anyone who enjoys the genre, though it’s a lot grittier than most romantic-comedies. Still, any film that can make Athlone look beautiful is truly special.