It's been a while since I've given a damn about romance in Hollywood

Posted by · 11:40 am · April 22nd, 2012

Guy and I have something in common (other than the fact that we both write for In Contention). Producer David O. Selznick’s seminal Civil War epic “Gone with the Wind” stands out for each of us as one of our most beloved films of all time. The film won eight Academy Awards including Best Picture and has remained a significant part of our cinematic history for over 70 years.

I was introduced to the adaptation one Sunday afternoon as an 11-year-old and soon found myself obsessed with all things to do with the production. I had biographies of Selznick, each of the film’s stars, every “making of” special I could get my hands on and even a “Gone with the Wind”-inspired cookbook.

I was fascinated by Selznick’s compulsion to see his own vision fulfilled, his attention to detail down to the petticoats that each of the O’Hara sisters wore beneath their elaborate dresses and with the directorial hirings and firings along the way. (Although Victor Fleming ultimately received the credit, both George Cukor and Sam Wood took turns at the helm).

The animosity that existed between the two romantic leads, an avarice that through some magic translated to an indelible on-screen chemistry, stands as the first time that I truly understood the world of make-believe that cinema dwells in. There was some part of me that even in my snarky preadolescence was shocked that Vivien and Clark were not as enamored of one another as their counterparts Scarlett and Rhett.

I shut the world out for four continuous days as I devoured Margaret Mitchell’s Pulitzer-winning novel. And though I was fascinated by the alterations that the characters underwent from page to screen, I discovered that I ultimately preferred Clark Gable’s Rhett Butler and Vivien Leigh’s Scarlett O’Hara to the portraits that Ms. Mitchell originally painted.

“Gone with the Wind” is visually lush with an aesthetic that has been repeatedly imitated over the years. It is grand in scale both thematically, cinematically and emotionally. It addresses the demise of a culture via its own hubris and endemic poisonous beliefs and practices.Though the film has since, rightly, faced criticism for its portrayal of a seemingly idyllic South (I would argue, however, that it presents the image as a falsehood that is inherently and deeply flawed) as well as its presentation of the African American characters.

Via Rhett and Scarlett’s unbearable missteps the film explores the damage we do to our own lives when we lie to ourselves about our genuine nature and what we truly want. And ultimately, it remains one of the most haunting love stories ever brought to life, haunting in that it echoes with the viewer long after the final credits have faded. Scarlett’s final promise to us “I’ll think about that tomorrow” in turn becomes our promise to her. And we do think about it. The climactic confrontation between Rhett and Scarlett is so perfectly in tune with who we understand them to be: willful, arrogant, dangerously protective of their own vanity and cursed with tragically mismatched timing.

But as much as we embrace the film’s willingness to see them through to their inevitable end, many of us refuse to accept that one as adaptable and cunning as Scarlett will not find a way to recapture what she has lost, nor that two humans so perfectly crafted to fit together will be forever lost to one another.

The beauty of the tale is that it continues on in our imagination and that as we age we come to understand Rhett and Scarlett’s vices and shortcomings more and more and, possibly, see them reflected in our own lives. At least I have. I see how my silence, my stubborn inability to express what I am feeling or my failure to recognize what that is until it was too late has damaged some of my relationships, potentially beyond repair.

“Gone with the Wind” continues to resonate for me as emotionally true with characters that are as alive and vital today as they were when the film was initially released in 1939. Rhett and Scarlett are unabashedly flawed, more so than any of the other central characters in the piece. And yet, we are able to see that it is their perceived weaknesses that also make them survivors. They are unapologetic fighters who are capable of forcibly pulling those around them (those who would otherwise flounder and die) up by the roots of their hair if they must so that they may survive as well. Their weaknesses become their strengths and their strengths their weaknesses, as is true for so many of us.

I set that against this weekend’s romantic drama, “The Lucky One,” the latest adaptation from novelist Nicholas Sparks. Sparks is the author who brought us such offerings as “Message in a Bottle,” “Dear John,” and the popular “The Notebook.” It is perhaps somewhat unfair to compare a single release to one of cinema’s masterworks, but a truly successful romance is so rare these days that I thought I would explore the failings that many of these endeavors have in common, as I perceive them.

The main characters in many of our modern tales of love must seemingly be “perfect,” morally upright, gentle, ever forgiving and calm. If they do not begin as such then they are quirky and endearingly misguided initially and ultimately easily brought to heel. The milquetoast Ashleys and Melanies of romantic fiction have taken center stage, whereas the more richly textured and dynamic Rhetts and Scarletts are relegated to secondary “best friend” position.

Certainly that is the case in the adolescent phenomena “Twilight,” which often reads as unbearably preachy. For me, Katniss lost a bit (though not all) of her bite in the cinematic adaptation of “The Hunger Games.” Zac Effron and Taylor Schilling (through no real fault of their own) are nearly unwatchable and unfathomably bland in their portrayals of Logan and Beth, respectively, in “The Lucky One.”

The film itself relies on repetitive plot devices to create dynamic tension: a frustratingly ill-conceived series of misunderstandings, a cartoonish jealous ex-husband, artificially forced danger and an angelic child to bond the pair. War is present as an inciting incident in the story (Effron is an Iraq veteran who believes a photo of a mystery woman has saved his life and as such seeks said woman out), but is only dealt with in the most cursory of measures.

Two of cinema’s greats, “Casablanca” and the aforementioned “Gone with the Wind,” manage to engage with the larger elements of their respective socio-political backdrops even as they weave a gorgeously intricate romance. Though I will confess I find Scarlett and Rhett to be far more equally matched in terms of dimensionality than Rick and Ilsa.

There are a plethora of romantic films released each year in Hollywood, be they comedic or dramatic (I am focusing on U.S. releases because that is where I see the bulk of problematic love stories emerging from), and very few of them are even marginally memorable. Perhaps I am looking upon the past with rose-colored glasses. “They don’t make ’em like they used to.” But certainly there is a tradition of an abundance of forgettable formulaic fair peppered with the extraordinary emerging from Tinseltown.

The enduring love stories seem to be fewer and farther between. The last U.S. romance that truly left its mark on me was 2004’s “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.” Nearly a decade latter I again must ask: Where is the love, Hollywood?

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