The greatest love stories, ever

As the Kate Winslet tear-jerker Labor Day gets set to open in cinemas this Friday, Dean Williams takes a look at the greatest love stories ever. So get those tissues ready and be prepared to berate your partner.

Love story

There will be no soppy rom-coms on this list. Hell, some of the romances here may be so warped you may never look at your relationship the same way again. But be sure, there is love, passion, and in some strange way…affection. Welcome to the wide and weird world of human relationships. WARNING SPOILERS!

Secretary

To love requires one to have at least a smidgen of Masochism, but to be loved is all about Sadism. So what happens when you take the S and the M and combine them? No you don’t get a European pleasure house, but what you do get is a relationship that teeters on the brink of a psychological precipice, and to fall off would be the ultimate extravagance.

James Spader (who played a rather more ‘damaged’ lover in the superb Crash) plays boss to Maggie Gyllenhaal’s secretary, and while the relationship takes a rather coy stance at first, there’s a cauldron of unbridled passion simmering beneath. How it develops into a delightfully painless S&M relationship, however, is a thing of subtle beauty, and one that transcends the mundane aspects that make most unions rather dull.

Spader and Gyllenhaal are superb, but one’s left with a nagging doubt that the person we thought initiated the relationship may have been played all along.

The English Patient

This is director Anthony Minghella’s crowning achievement, and arguably one of the most passionate love stories ever. Ralph Fiennes plays an anonymous burn victim at the end of World War II narrating his life story to his nurse. And what a story it is!

We find that Fiennes is actually Count Lazlo de Almasy a swashbuckling adventurer who falls for the gorgeous Katherine Clifton (played superbly by Kristin Scott Thomas). What makes this romance all the more fiery is the air of tragedy that surrounds it. The protagonists seem to grasp at each fleeting moment as it passes them by; a clawing tug at something too beautiful to last forever.

And eventually tragedy does befall the couple, but not before an epic journey through the labyrinth of love, replete with pitfalls, heartache, and that eternally gnawing sense of loss. The English Patient is an epic of the heart.

Revolutionary Road

Believe it or not, there are some people who still believe that Leonardo DiCaprio can’t act! Well, they certainly haven’t seen Revolutionary Road. Directed by Sam Mendes and co-starring Kate Winslet, the film centres on the life of a normal suburban couple with dreams beyond their perceived station.

DiCaprio plays Frank Wheeler who momentarily dabbles in thoughts of running away with his wife to Europe where she can pursue her creative dreams, only to realize that the suburban life is where HIS dreams reside.

A number of men and women will empathise with his wife April (Winslet), who puts all her passions and ambitions on hold to support her husband. Theirs is a love that cannot speak its name. A love that not so much needs compromise and disillusionment, but thrives on it. It is an all too familiar tale of crests and troughs, and the barbed fencing that encloses all our lives.

Superb performances and great direction make this one helluva fine film.

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf

Have you ever loved someone so much you hated them? Have you ever felt so passionately about someone that you could barely keep yourself from throwing something at them? If you have then you know exactly what goes on in the minds of George and Martha (played by the legendary duo of Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor). George is a history professor and Martha is a political brat and both have mastered the art of passive-aggressive behavior (leaning slightly towards the aggressive). That they may have loved each other at some point is never in question (such passion rarely comes from indifference) but to reach the point of such tempestuous fury is a sight to behold.

Here’s a glimpse of how George sees Martha: “Martha, in my mind you’re buried up to your neck in cement. No your nose, it’s much quieter.”

And here’s Martha’s take on George: “I swear, if you existed I’d divorce you.”

Those in the know claim that this is exactly how Liz and Burton loved in real life too: a fiery disdain for one another, masking the unfettered passion and raw sexual energy that sizzled between them.

Written by the dazzlingly prolific Ernest Lehman (North by Northwest, West Side Story, Sound of Music) the dialogue fizzes across the room, stemmed in its escape only by the masterly delivery of two film legends.

Casablanca

Whether Ilsa Lund asked Sam to “play it again”, or “play it for old times’ sake” matters little when cast against the backdrop of this outstanding film. Of all the so-called ‘classics’ Casablanca gives Citizen Kane a good ol’ Bogey hiding.

Directed by Michael Curtiz, Casablanca focuses on the crumbling façade of an expat club owner in Morocco forced to reluctantly reconnect with the love of his life.

Humphrey Bogart is on top form as the turmoil-stricken lover hopelessly trying to hide behind a mask of cool as an old love (played by the gorgeous Ingrid Bergman) walks into his bar and turns his life upside down.

The film is choc-full of memorable lines, none more so than the closing scene (which packs in a fair few of them). The beauty of Casablanca is that it doesn’t end with the boy-gets-girl formula. This one was always headed for heartache, but not the kind that reduces you to a quivering mess in the corner, but rather the sort that makes you want to walk off into a fog with your new best friend…hang on a sec!

Annie Hall

Woody Allen’s character in Annie Hall sums up relationships thus: “A relationship, I think, is like a shark. You know? It has to constantly move forward or it dies. And I think what we got on our hands is a dead shark.”

But Allen had more than just a dead fish on his hands; with Annie Hall he had a masterpiece. It wasn’t just a great film about a neurotic man and his equally fickle love, it was a film about two people trapped in a mediocre present seeking a way out of a vapid future, only to realize that their mediocrity was the spark that kept them alive.

Annie Hall, played by Diane Keaton, is one of those women you want to protect and berate at the same time. It’s almost as if you don’t know whether to ask her to get into bed or make it; that’s the beauty of Annie Hall.

Written for the ages by the phenomenally talented Allen, every scene drips with the dark humour that has come to epitomize the pseudoJudaic neuroses of one of our finest writers.

Take for instance the scene where Alvy asks Annie to kiss him before they get home. Taken aback she asks why, and he says: “Yeah, why not, because we’re just gonna go home later, right, and then there’s gonna be all that tension, we’ve never kissed before and I’ll never know when to make the right move or anything. So we’ll kiss now and get it over with, and then we’ll go eat. We’ll digest our food better.” That was the beauty of their relationship, they were both so awkward it cancelled itself out and left only a comedic space filled with the lightness of fear and rejection.

Needless to say, the relationship doesn’t end with harps and wedding bells, but then again, how could it: Sharks don’t get married, do they!

The Goodbye Girl

Neil Simon knows a thing or two about interpersonal relationships, be it a platonic one between two men (The Odd Couple) or one fresh in the throes of nuptial bliss (Barefoot in the Park), but it is The Goodbye Girl that stands out as an underrated classic.

Richard Dreyfuss plays Elliot Garfield, an off-Broadway actor forced to move in with Paula McFadden, a single mother (Marsha Mason), who’s also an out of work dancer. To add to the chaos Paula doesn’t hold men in very high esteem. What ensues is a wistful love story charged with the aggravation and irritation that makes relationships such an irreplaceable part of our existence.

Mason is outstanding as the man-hating woman forced to share an apartment with a man whose main aim is apparently to be the world’s hairiest naturalist. But it is Dreyfuss with his sad eyes, almost shambolic appearance, and in this case, acerbic wit who steals the show.

With both protagonists so deeply scarred, a happy ending was not so much desired as it was necessary. Thankfully Herbert Ross’s direction is fluid enough to iron over the frowns from some of the more hard-hearted members of the audience.

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

Two things become immediately apparent after watching Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. One is that Jim Carrey has acting chops the size of Manhattan, and the second is that very few writers could have pulled off the tortuous plot as well as Charlie Kaufman did.

OK, so what’s this film about (trust me I’ve met peole who’ve watched it twice and still haven’t figured it out)? Jim Carrey plays Joel Barish, a man who’s found out that his ex-girlfriend Clementine Kruczynski (Kate Winslet) has decided to undergo a procedure that basically erases all memory of him.

Puffed up with indignation, Barish decided to do the same, only to realize, half way through the procedure, that he loves her enough to want to remember their moments together. What follows is a hilarious and poignant journey as Barish infiltrates his own memories to save them from being destroyed.

This is complicated stuff, but Michel Gondry’s direction, along with the superb script helps us navigate it rather easily (unless you’re one of THOSE people).

For many viewers Carey’s presence precludes a serious film, but make no mistake, for all its laughs, this is a serious film. Losing one’s memories and then fighting to retain them is a soul-sapping task that only humans are privy to.

Punch Drunk Love

When news broke that director Paul Thomas Anderson would be teaming up with Adam Sandler, there were audible gasps, and may I say they weren’t caused by excitement.

What possibly could the director who gave us Boogie Nights, and Magnolia possibly see in the kinda-funny bloke who gave us Happy Gilmore, and Big Daddy? Well he certainly saw something we hadn’t, and sadly, something we haven’t seen since.

Punch Drunk Love, the story of a salesman, Barry Egan (Sandler) with serious anger issues falling in love with a demure English woman, Lena Leonard (Emily Watson) could have been all sorts of bad. But it turned out to be a hundred shades of great, thanks in no small part to Anderson’s beautiful direction and Robert Elswit’s (There Will be Blood, Syriana) stunning cinematography.

Sandler was allowed to unleash his manic inner beast without threatening to derail the entire cast’s careers, and Watson was the perfect foil for his over the top shenanigans.

Punch Drunk Love could, in some parallel universe, be described as a sweet love story, but in sooth, it’s a simmering oven of lust and passion, set upon by Adam Sandler. Bet you never thought you’d ever read those lines did ya?

Before Sunrise

Someone once told me that the best part of watching a love story at home is that you could mute the cheesy dialogue. No one, we bet, even went near the mute button while watching Richard Linklater’s seminal Before Sunrise.

Ethan Hawke plays Jesse who meets Julie Delpy’s Celine on a train in Europe and the two wind up spending the night walking the streets of Vienna in the knowledge that come sun-up they will have to go their own separate ways.

Before Sunrise is full of truisms that never lose their luster despite the passing of years. For instance, Jesse’s take on break-ups: “You know what’s the worst thing about somebody breaking up with you? It’s when you remember how little you thought about the people you broke up with and you realize that is how little they’re thinking of you. You know, you’d like to think you’re both in all this pain but they’re just like ‘Hey, I’m glad you’re gone’.”

There was no way in hell the two were ever going to find a way to be together and that’s what is all the more magical. The audience is drawn into a world without pretention or hope: One in which two people existed and fell in love simply because there was nothing else to do. Hawke and Delpy are outstanding but the real champion is Linklater’s script.

The Way We Were

What happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object? Well, at first there are sparks, and then an immense calamity people are lucky to survive.

Barbra Streisand plays Katie, a political student activist, so far to the Left, she can’t legally drive in the US. It so happens that the love of Katie’s life is Hubbell (Robert Redford) the all-American boy with red, white and blue coursing through his free market veins.

At first their opposing views attract, but then as the years pass these views take on monstrous shapes, and the result can only be tragedy.

The beauty of Sydney Pollack’s The Way We Were is that he never lets the film unravel into misery. He charts the splintering of Katie and Hubbell’s relationship with all the love and care of an Old Master seeking out his next muse. We understand both of them, more than that, we understand their slow drift. Both Katie and Hubbell struggle to keep the relationship alive in the knowledge that the ship hasn’t so much as sailed, but hit a reef and sunk.

There is a pivotal scene that sums up the film’s marvellous hopelessness. Katie tells Hubbell hopefully: “Wouldn’t it be lovely if we were old? We’d have survived all this. Everything thing would be easy and uncomplicated; the way it was when we were young.” And Hubble turns to her and says, “Katie, it was never uncomplicated.”

Take a spoonful of that, a dollop of sumptuous acting, and a thimble of the superb theme song, courtesy Streisand and what you get is sad, depressing, magic. The only kind that really matters.

An Officer and a Gentleman

OK, so I promised we wouldn’t have schlocky romance films on this list, but An Officer and a Gentleman just called out to me, pleading.

Directed by Taylor Hackford, the film has more iconic scenes that the Sistine Chapel, and then there’s Richard Gere as Zack Mayo. Please note that this is not the Gere who made women swoon, no sir, this is Gere in Dress Whites who, as the credits rolled, made women turn to their husbands, slap them hard across the face, walk out the door, and never come back.

And who can forget Debra Winger as Paula Pokrifki, the one woman who won’t allow her knees to buckle under the squint-gaze of Mayo. But whether you think the movie is a cheesy love story about a dashing and rebellious airman sticking it to the Man, or a brooding allegory of all that is wrong with the armed forces, there’s one thing you can’t deny. When Mayo carries Paula off in his arms at the end there’s no man who wouldn’t give his left…to be Richard Gere and there’s no woman who didn’t look at her man and wonder why he wasn’t.

Edward Scissorhands

We’re serious, Edward Scissorhands is a love story, and a damn good one at that.

This is Tim Burton’s second best film (the first being the peerless Beetlejuice) and it’s as if he took the darkness he created in Batman, and put it through a depressed wringer for Scissorhands.

Johnny Depp plays a man with, well, scissors for hands, who while being cruelly exploited by the ‘townfolk’, falls for the lovely Kim (Winona Ryder). Of course by that time you’re shouting: “For Pete’s sake he’s got scissors for hands, it’s not going to end well!” And of course it doesn’t, but it does end as it should. The closing sequences of the film are as beautiful as anything ever to come out of Hollywood’s brainless rom-com machine.

Years after Edward has left the town and Kim, and disappeared, a snow drifts from an abandoned mansion on the hill. Inside you seed Edward carving an image of Kim from a large block of ice, the flakes drifting out and down to her home where she sits by her window. And it is in Kim’s final lines that we understand that loss does not always lead to pain: “You see, before he came down here, it never snowed. And afterwards, it did. If he weren’t up there now… I don’t think it would be snowing. Sometimes you can still catch me dancing in it.”

Late at night, after all the commercial films have gone to bed, switch on Edwards Scissorhands. And sometime, just maybe, you’ll find yourself dancing.

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