In honor of Valentine’s Day, I thought it might be appropriate to write a column listing the ten most romantic films of all time. My qualification for writing this piece is simple: I’ve been in love with my first love for almost 40 years and married to her almost that long.
That being said, I should list some ground rules I’m playing by.
- Nudity and sex scenes do not count for romance. In film nowadays, people hop in and out of bed much as they are now doing in life, as a means of enjoying sex without a higher purpose in mind. I’m more convinced there’s real romance when I see a scene of two people holding hands.
- I’m not a big fan of love affairs where the parties involved are required by the script to consistently misunderstand the other’s intentions just to add drama to the story. If there’s a problem communicating, there’d better be a damn good reason for doing so.
- I like stories where someone has to give up something for the sake of romance. I believe Batman when he says it’s what he does that defines him, but more to the point, I believe what really defines us as human beings is what we give up for the sake of something greater.
- I like happy endings, and I don’t believe that simply because a scene makes someone cry, the romance must be definitionally superior. (Although many of the films I’ve chosen did, indeed, make me cry.)
Before I start, I should list three of the great romantic movies that didn’t make the cut: Gone with The Wind (Sorry, but the iconic image for me is Scarlett raising her fist to the heavens saying she’ll never go hungry again, and that’s the spine, her determination, not the love story) Wuthering Heights (Yes, Olivier’s speech holding the dead Merle Oberon is tremendous, but, my God, is her character annoying) and — Casablanca (the scene that is the most riveting is Paul Henreid challenging the Nazis by singing La Marseillaise; I know it’s supposed to be one of the great love stories, but I could never figure out why Bergman preferred Bogart to a hero like Henreid. I’m fully expecting to be fried for my heresy here.)
With the knowledge that there will be screams of outrage from readers that I’ve left their favorite romantic film off the list, here is a list of my ten greatest romantic films of all time.
10. Pride and Prejudice
This beautifully shot movie grew on me. The first time I saw it I had more difficulty adjusting to the English dialogue than I should have, but the second time I saw it I was moved by the pair of lovers (Keira Knightley and Matthew Macfadyen) who had good reasons for their inability to recognize they loved each other: his initial dislike of her because she challenges him, later turning to an infatuation precisely because of that, and her anger that he broke off his best friend’s engagement to her sister because he suspected her sister of non-affection. It’s a film that grows on you each time you see it.
9. Random Harvest
Was there ever a more debonair lover than Ronald Colman? Or a more beautiful woman on screen than Greer Garson? This movie was a huge hit in1942 and it’s easy to see why. The quiet grief Garson feels knowing that the man she loved, the man who adored her, has forgotten her through his amnesia is palpable, and the confusion Colman feels knowing that he is missing something is just as moving. What makes this movie so wonderful is the simple underplaying of the two stars, and the knowledge that Garson tries earnestly to be close to Colman despite the knowledge gap.
8. An American in Paris
I have loved this movie since I was 7 years old; the combination of Gershwin’s music and the growing romance between Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron has an innocence about it that still appeals to me. The scene where they dance next to the Seine to Our Love Is Here To Stay is romantic and innocent and wonderful. I’m chalking this up partially to Minnelli’s direction but mostly the power of Gershwin’s music; I wanted to have a musical on the list, and although West Side Story is the best film musical I’ve ever seen, the truth is that Tony is a sort of callow young boy who listens to Maria far too much. “Tony, stop the fight! Any fight is bad for us!” “You’re right, Maria. After that I’ll go negotiate peace in the Middle East.”
7. What Dreams May Come
Lovers of Richard Matheson, you can berate me, as his novel is quite different from the film, but this movie, despite its flaws but because of its central thesis, absolutely haunted me. The scene where Robin Williams comes to realize who his daughter is has amazing power, and the central theme that moved me to tears is one of the most powerful statements about loving another human being that I’ve ever seen: that if you love someone, that love entails being one with them when they suffer, that one has no right to detach or distance oneself from another’s suffering for any reason at all. Robin Williams literally has to go through Hell to find his wife, and when he finally finds her, his acceptance of what he must do is simply recognizing the eternal truth that lies at the center of true love.
6. Truly, Madly, Deeply
The astonishing and luminous performance by Juliet Stevenson as the woman whose lover (played by Alan Rickman in one of his best roles) has died is an incredible performance. When Rickman returns to her, it is one of the most moving scenes in film history; her weeping in his arms could melt glaciers, it’s so real. Rickman’s performance matches hers; he’s funny and poignant and everything a leading man should be, which is wonderful because he can also do character roles so well. This film is such a marvel that it has been used by psychologists to help people deal with the grief of a loved one. It’s a wrenching, moving, funny mixture that is so precious to people who’ve seen it that they will certainly think it deserves to be #1. I wouldn’t blame them.
5. The Adjustment Bureau
No, I’m not kidding. This movie appeals to every fiber of my being, because it embodies exactly what I’ve always felt: that I would do anything to make my wife mine, including challenging God himself if necessary. (Although the God I believe in thankfully hasn’t asked me to make that choice.) The chemistry between Matt Damon and Emily Blunt is perfect, the script never deviates from the central conflict with unnecessary subplots, and the ultimate conclusion is beyond satisfying. It starts out as a popcorn movie but soon it’s dealing with one man’s obsession with finding the woman he loves despite fighting the angels against him. The scene at the Statue of Liberty, when Damon asks a distraught Blunt to come with him, is a tribute to the red-hot romantic chemistry between them.
4. An Affair to Remember
I don’t know if any rip-off of a previous film ever angered me more than Sleepless in Seattle‘s thievery from An Affair To Remember, with the lightweight acting of Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan (wait there was another one, what was it … You’ve Got Mail ripping off The Shop Around the Corner … who starred in that one …. Hanks and Ryan? There’s a pattern here …) An Affair To Remember didn’t rip-off Love Affair; it essentially replicated it but was more suave, more funny, and in the end, much more moving. The amazing thing about this movie is that it sneaks up on you. It toys with you for two hours with its banter and essentially lighthearted tenor, then absolutely wallops you in the final scene, which is one of the most beautifully scored scenes in film history courtesy of the great Hugo Friedhofer. When Cary Grant enters the room at the end and sees the painting, it’s a shattering moment, and it deserves every single piece of hysterical acclaim it’s ever gotten.
3. Robin and Marian
When this movie came out in 1974, Audrey Hepburn was in her mid-fifties. Don’t believe it. The woman was so beautiful that it stuns the imagination. And Sean Connery, as the aging Robin returned from the Crusades after having deserted her 20 years before, is perfect as the simple man who sees things in simple terms. (By the way, if you haven’t seen the film, first watch the legendary Adventures of Robin Hood with Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland to know what was lost for 20 years.) The cast around Hepburn and Connery is one of the great casts ever assembled: Robert Shaw, Nicol Williamson, Richard Harris, Ian Holm. Yet the majesty of Robin and Marian’s story can be seen in two immensely moving scenes: one where they are sitting alone and Marian asks Robin if she is still beautiful, and the second, at the end, when Marian, the former nun, tells Robin she loves him more than one thing, then another, then finally says simply, “I love you more than God.” It’s a beautiful, beautiful, beautiful movie.
The protean Anthony Hopkins, in what for me is his finest role, plays C.S. Lewis, the brilliant author of the Narnia tales and assorted other masterpieces. The irony of Lewis speaking as a philosophical expert about the meaning of pain yet walling himself off from it all his life because of the untimely death of his mother is deftly juxtaposed with the amazing openness and sincerity of the devastatingly direct Debra Winger as the life force who changes his life. The ultimate tragedy is allowed to simply play out while we watch Lewis, the philosophical master, learn about love and pain and God and happiness at a far deeper level than he had known before. The movie has a compelling inevitability that proves to be unyielding in its beauty, aided by an absolutely gorgeous score by George Fenton. The scene where Hopkins, speaking to his friend about what it would mean for him to want to marry Winger, cut through me like a knife. And Winger’s simple summation of what it means to love at the end of the film is simply eloquent.
1. The Best Years Of Our Lives
This choice warrants a confession; two of my grown daughters threatened my life if I chose a film with a sad ending as #1. Thus Robin and Marian and Shadowlands had to take a back seat. But there are two salient reasons why I chose this film. The first is that it deals with not one, not two, but three different romances, all at different stages in life, as three soldiers return from World War II. From Harold Russell and Cathy O’Donnell as the couple barely out of high school, to Teresa Wright and Dana Andrews as late twenties lovers, to the middle-aged experienced couple Frederic March and Myrna Loy, it’s a lesson in how different ages find a way to romance.
The other reason is that it has what I believe to be the greatest love scene in film history, when Russell, as the young soldier with hooks for hands who doesn’t want the love of his life, the girl next door, to be burdened taking care of him all her life, finally invites her to come upstairs with him as he gets ready for bed to see how helpless he truly is. She helps him button his pajamas, then reaches over and kisses him gently as he lies in bed. After she leaves, the camera stays on him as we see a single tear on his cheek. The innocence of their love, her overwhelming love that powers the scene, is the purest expression of love I’ve ever watched on film.
I’m sure there will be scores of suggestions made as to how this list could be improved. But if there are those out there who haven’t seen one or more of these films, rest assured that watching one with your love beside you on Valentine’s Day would be a truly romantic thing to do.