Terms of Endearment: Hollywood Romantic Comedy of the 1980s and 1990s

Peter William Evans and Celestino Deleyto (eds),
Terms of Endearment: Hollywood Romantic Comedy of the 1980s and 1990s.
Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1998.
ISBN 0 7486 0885 0 (pb)
£stg 16.95 (pb)
(Review copy supplied by Edinburgh University Press)

Uploaded 30 June 2000

In their fine 1989 book, Affairs to Remember: The Hollywood Comedy of the Sexes, Bruce Babington and Peter William Evans ponder the risk Brian Henderson took in his much-republished and punningly-titled 1978 article, “Romantic comedy today: semi-tough or impossible?”

In that article, observing what he considered to be the death throes of romantic comedy, Henderson had identified Michael Ritchie’s 1977 film Semi-Tough as indicative of a significant break with the traditions established by such films as The Awful Truth(1937) and Bringing Up Baby(1938), hingeing his case on the notions that “there can be no romantic comedy without strong heroines” (18), that then-recent films had abandoned the former sexual dialectic which had lovers meeting on equal ground and discovering their true selves in the process (19), that “romantic comedy depends upon the suppression of (the) question (“How come we never fucked?”) and that with its surfacing romantic comedy becomes impossible”. (21)

The problem Babington and Evans identify is Henderson’s attempt to make a mountain out of a mole-hill and they’re forthright in their comments about the limitations of his approach: “The bravura (or silliness) of theorising from a single not wholly representative instance possibly leads him to a too generalising and simplifying negative”.(6)

However, the best part of a decade later and on the basis of the new book he has co-edited with Celestino Deleyto, Evans at least appears to have somewhat softened his position. Terms of Endearment: Hollywood Romantic Comedy of the 1980s and 1990s is a collection of eleven essays grappling with more recent trends in romantic comedy, each of which (aside from the editors’ introductory overview and the final chapter on Meg Ryan), limits its discussion to one film or, occasionally, two.

It is true that, as a whole, the book finishes up dealing with a sampling of a dozen films or so, rather than just one. It is also true that, individually and in their generally emotionally-detached ways, the pieces produce numerous insights into the films under discussion, and that, collectively, they come up with some illuminating views about the ideological machinery at work in contemporary romantic comedy.

However, the extent to which any of the chosen films could be deemed to be any more representative today than Semi-Tough was in 1978, is arguable, even though all of the writers do make an attempt to situate them in a wider generic context. Even more troubling is the fact that all of the films discussed in detail were completed between 1982 and 1992 (only the introduction manages to spread its wings a little more widely), which means that most of the more interesting ’90s examples of the genre go unexamined, totally invalidating the title’s claim that the book is about the romantic comedies of the ’90s as well as the ’80s.

To name at random just a few of the ’90s films that either missed the boat completely or rated nothing more than a passing mention: Chasing Amy(1997), My Best Friend’s Wedding(1997), Sliding Doors(1998), The Object of My Affection(1998), As Good as it Gets(1997), The Opposite of Sex(1998), One Fine Day(1998), Four Weddings and a Funeral(1994), Notting Hill(1999), Everyone Says I Love You(1996), In & Out(1997), all of them mainstream, all of them in one way or another, demanding consideration within the context of the genre’s constantly shifting directions. There’s also no mention of teen romantic comedies at all (from Fast Times at Ridgemont High(1982) and Risky Business(1983) in the ’80s through to Clueless(1995) and Drive Me Crazy(1999) in the ’90s) or of several unexpectedly subversive, recent Australian contributions (such as Thank God he Met Lizzie (1997) or Dating the Enemy(1996)).

Equally problematic is that some of the films chosen for commentary either require a very long stretch of the critical bow to qualify as romantic comedies (Jungle Fever(1991)) or else require much more extensive argumentation than is on offer before their “family resemblances” might allow them entry into the fold (Gas Food Lodging(1992), Alice(1990)). Each of the chapters on these selections usefully illuminates the individual films by considering the ways in which they differ from your run-of-the-mill romantic comedy, but they have little to tell us about the workings of the genre as a whole.

Thus, even before one considers the actual issues raised by the book, it becomes clear that this is an enterprise constructed on some very shaky foundations. If romantic comedy is really to be the issue dealt with, then what’s required is a far more comprehensive overview of the genre than the introduction offers, and some coherence of approach in what follows: perhaps a chapter on different plot types, and then maybe others on themes and variations in the period under discussion, on the differences between straight and gay romantic comedies (of which there is now an abundance) and on their occasional intersections (as in films like In & Out and Edge of Seventeen(1998)), on the relationships between “the comedies of remarriage” of the classic era and those of contemporary times (from Green Card(1990) to The Story of Us(1999)), on the roles played by work or children in recent examples of the genre (from Broadcast News(1987) to One Fine Day)…….

Chantal Cornut-Gentille’s fairly pedestrian account, via Marx and Engels and Betty Friedan, of the “bourgeois or liberal feminism” (113) operative in Working Girl might have usefully been further developed to deal with the ways in which romantic comedies of the ’80s and ’90s tackled the question of women, work and romance. And Evans’ chapter on the ways in which Meg Ryan’s screen persona affects the workings of the films in which she stars and on how “almost in spite of itself, (it is) surrounded by edginess and disturbance” (206), points to a direction the book might have usefully taken but doesn’t: the initiation of a discussion, like the one Evans pursued with Babington (in Affairs to Remember: The Hollywood Comedy of the Sexes) about the significant role played by casting in romantic comedies of an earlier era. It is worth noting in passing that what the earlier book has to say about Doris Day – “a more multi-faceted figure than selective memory has made her out to be” (201) – has much in common with Evans’ comments about Ryan here (although he doesn’t connect the dots in this way).

All of that said, several chapters in the book do make indispensable contributions to the study of romantic comedy. The introduction usefully identifies some of the key changes which have taken place in the genre in recent times, noting the ways in which “cultural variations have been incorporated into the genre in several areas that attest not only to the genre’s resilience but also to its flexibility to adapt to historical change”. (3)

However, its claim that love and marriage have “been indissolubly linked in romantic comedy” (6) overstates the nature of the union with which many romantic comedies come to a close, ignoring the fact that the majority of traditional films in the genre end not with a wedding but with a secular vow of some kind that strategically separates its lovers’ relationship from any rituals presided over by institutions of church or state. It is possible, in fact, to argue a convincing case for the view that many romantic comedies, from The Awful Truth (1937) and His Girl Friday (1940) to Green Card(1990) and Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994), have openly disavowed any formal connection between love and marriage.

The best chapter in the book is the one by Frank Krutnik, previously co-author with Steve Neale of one of the best of all recent commentaries on romantic comedy – Popular Film and Television Comedy (Routledge, 1990). His topic is the reign of “romantic fabrication” in modern times and “the difficulty of speaking of love in an age when the language, the conventions and the values of heterosexual union lack the integrity they once possessed”.(29) And his means is a detailed comparison of Annie Hall(1977) with When Harry Met Sally(1989), examining the ways in which Rob Reiner’s film (written by Nora Ephron) goes about recuperating the romantic cliches which Woody Allen’s has torn asunder: “When Harry Met Sally is an exemplary new romance because it values aesthetic fabrication not as part of a process of critical self-awareness, as Annie Hall does, but as a necessary tool to achieve the reconsolidation of romantic illusion”. (29)

Also instructive is Deborah Thomas’s perceptive reading of Murphy’s Romance(1985), which discovers, by way of a thoughtful comparison with John Ford’s seminal 1962 Western, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, a role-reversing romantic comedy which foregrounds the relationships between individuals and their community and also distinguishes itself from others of its ilk by refusing “the ‘magical’ qualities of so many comedic films whose resolutions seem to come from elsewhere than the characters themselves”. (73)

This kind of approach, seeking out digressions from a generally understood norm, characterises much of the writing throughout the book. Thomas makes it work, as does Bruce Babington in his analysis of the “hesitations between romantic comedy and melodrama” (95) in Peggy Sue Got Married(1986). And, allowing for the uneasy position the films occupy in the context of romantic comedy, Celestino Deleyto’s commentary on Alice and Kathleen Rowe Karlyn’s reflections about Gas Food Lodging are still of value. For Deleyto, Alice evocatively focusses on the ways in which the title character’s eventual “rejection of sexual involvements is a way to regain her own identity and an indictment of those forms of socialisation of female sexuality in modern culture that the ‘unchanging’ structures of romantic comedy constantly reinforce”. (143) And for Rowe Karlyn, Gas Food Lodging provides evidence that the genre “is being rewritten and revitalized by independent filmmakers to incorporate new social concerns about class, gender and race”. (172)

However, the essays on Victor/Victoria(1982) and Something Wild(1986) (in descending order of usefulness) offer little illumination on their subjects or on the workings of romantic comedy, and simply seem to be stating the obvious in as oblique a way as possible, their convolutions directly attributable to their deployment of psychoanalytic theories as templates rather than support mechanisms.

For the most part, Terms of Endearment: Hollywood Romantic Comedy of the 1980s and 1990s avoids such pitfalls. Its chief problem as a whole lies elsewhere: in the ramshackle way its chapters have been thrown together and in the fact that another title – say Some Representations of Romance in the 1980s – might have better, if less grandly, represented its concerns and the precise parameters of the period with which it deals.

Tom Ryan

About the Author

Tom Ryan

About the Author

Tom Ryan

Tom Ryan is a Melbourne-based film critic. He is the editor of two volumes in the University Press of Mississippi’s Conversations series, one on Baz Luhrmann, the other on Fred Schepisi. His most recent book, also for UPM, is The Films of Douglas Sirk: Exquisite Ironies and Magnificent Obsessions.View all posts by Tom Ryan →