Since seeing Blue Valentine, I have been unable to shake its harrowing depiction of marriage. Few films stay with me this long after I have see them. But the relationship between Cindy (Michelle Williams) and Dean (Ryan Gosling) is so beautifully damaged, it is impossible to forget their marriage.
This relationship also got me thinking. How often do we see couples in the movies who have been together for the long haul? The most romantic comedies bring together your Harrrys and your Sallys. But these movies establish false expectations for courtship and never show what happens after the credits roll.
Even the greatest movie couples – Sam and Ilsa, Jack and Rose, Westley and Buttercup – don’t say much about marriage. I’ve written about Hollywood’s supercouples before but none of the couples that I profiled made it down the aisle, let alone showed what real commitment looks like.
Then there is Barkley and Lucy in Make Way for Tomorrow. For every movie that gives us an iconic pairing, this one trumps them all. This Leo McCarey film about an elderly couple forced to separate when none of their five children will take both parents in will tug at your heartstrings with its simple and heartbreaking depiction of love, marriage, and commitment.
It is decided that Barkley and Lucy will stay with their children for just “a few weeks” but their sudden presence in their adult children’s lives becomes burdensome. As Roger Ebert writes in his wonderful assessment of the film: “Make Way for Tomorrow is quietly observant about the social awkwardness of the situation.” Lucy interferes with her daughter-in-laws bridge classes; Barkley is relegated to sleeping on the couch. We hope for Barkley and Lucy’s sake that the couple is reunited soon so they can present a stronger united front to their children, who have unintentionally cast their parents aside.
In the film’s final 30 minutes, when Barkley and Lucy are finally reunited before they are to separate again, Make Way for Tomorrow captures something most films do not. Real emotions without any exaggerations. The strangers who observe the couple as they revisit their honeymoon see something Barkley and Lucy’s children could not: unrelenting love and respect for one’s partner. No sequence will make you cry more than these final minutes of Make Way for Tomorrow.
The supercouple is perhaps the most common entity in entertainment. Supercouples, a term used since the early 1980s, are the high-profile, culturally significant and nearly perfect romances that influence our expectations of what a great love story should be like. They exist in television (Ross and Rachel from Friends), comic books (Clark Kent and Lois Lane), literature (Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth Bennett), soap operas (Luke and Laura from All My Children) and musicals (Tony and Maria from West Side Story).
But of all the various forms of entertainment, film is arguably the most influential medium that defines a supercouple. A movie has less time to develop a story and to argue why a couple should be together. It uses the allure of a fairy tale romance and the idea that love can conquer to pull the audience in. After a classic line is spoken (“Love means never having to say you’re sorry”), and the often mismatched duo is drawn together (if they actually stay together is another story), an iconic supercouple is born. Whether it is a couple from a classic (Joe Bradley and Princess Ann from Roman Holiday) or a couple that just emerged as an iconic love story (Cecelia Tallis and Robbie Turner from Atonement), audiences continually seek out these romances for thrilling, unequalled love stories.
In Casablanca, the ill-fated romance between ex-lovers Rick Blaine, an American expatriate, and Ilsa Lund, the wife of Czech resistance fighter is often considered the greatest romance in American film history. When Ilsa enters Rick’s café for the first time after their Parisian affair, he utters the first of Casablanca’s many classic phrases: “Of all the gin joints, in all the towns, in all the world, she walks into mine.” Their brief reunion combines drama, comedy, suspense, and the emotional struggle of who Ilsa really loves: Rick or her husband, Laszlo. In the end, Rick sacrifices a lasting relationship with Ilsa because the solving the problems in the world is far more important than any romance between two people.
The sordid romance between Depression Era gangsters Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker has maintained an enduring international popularity in film, television, music, and poetry. The 1967 film based on their relationship, Bonnie and Clyde, has cemented the duos enormous impact on popular culture. The tragic and graphic death of Bonnie and Clyde, paired with their enduring appeal, cements this couple as dangerously romantic and as American legends.
The relationship between Jack Twist and Ennis Del Mar in Brokeback Mountain has captivated audiences like no other romance has in recent years. Their love is anything but easy. Despite their desire for one another, both men are deceived by the cowboy myth and societal expectations prevent them from staying together. Jack and Ennis are just emerging as the iconic romance, whose love, as the film’s theme implies, can never grow old. Audiences are just discovering and experiencing this romance over and over again.
Before Doctor Zhivago or Titanic, Gone With the Wind was the first epic film that set a monumental love story against the backdrop of historical event. Rhett Butler and Scarlett O’Hara belong together, but they just can’t seem to stay together. Something, the Civil War or Scarlett’s infatuation with Ashley Wilkes, always seems to get in the way. And with Rhett’s perfect send off to the always self-involved Scarlett, “Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn”, their classic and tumultuous romance ends. While any chance of them remaining together is lost, Rhett Butler and Scarlett O’Hara remain one of cinema’s most beloved couples.
By now, you’re probably wondering if any screen duo makes it in the end and one couple manages to beat the odds. Even if it meant climbing the Cliffs of Insanity, battling Rodents of Unusual Size, or facing torture in the Pit of Despair. Westley and Buttercup in The Princess Bride embody the ideal fairy tale romance. At first Westley was just Buttercup’s “farm boy”, responding “as you wish” to her every demand and hoping she would realize her love for him. They eventually fall in love, but are separated for five years and Buttercup becomes engaged to another, Prince Humperdinck. In the end, Westley and Buttercup beat the odds, proving that true love, no matter how difficult it may be to achieve, can concur all.
Honorable Mentions: Jack and Rose (Titanic); Jennifer and Oliver (Love Story); Sam and Molly (Ghost); Johnny and Baby (Dirty Dancing); Han Solo and Princess Leia (Star Wars); Jerry Maguire and Dorothy (Jerry Maguire); Lloyd and Diane (Say Anything); Dr. Zhivago and Lara (Doctor Zhivago)
Published: The Mount Holyoke News
February 14, 2008