Hollywood didn’t invent the love story, but it has certainly popularized the idea. Romance has been a staple among Hollywood films from the earliest silent reels. From “Broken Blossoms” (1919), starring Lillian Gish and Richard Barthelmess, through “A Good Year” (2006), starring Russell Crowe and Marion Cotillard, audiences have proven that romance is far from dead.
In the decades following “Broken Blossoms,” romantic screen treatments have undergone many changes. But romance isn’t the only ingredient that qualifies a film for that dubious distinction of becoming known as a “chick flick.” This is certainly not an official category that you’ll find is sanctioned by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Chick flicks are a cultural phenomenon — a natural response to the testosterone-fueled summer action pictures that monopolize the studio budgets.
There was a time in our not-too-distant past when films of this type were known as “date flicks” or even more graphically, “make-out movies.” Such phrasing appears to have vanished, along with the once popular drive-in theaters that flourished in the 1950s. The “chick flicks” of today comprise a diverse and fascinating group of themes, plot lines and time periods. They are not all mushy love stories, although romance is a primary ingredient in most of my choices for the best chick flicks.
The matinee hero and heroine have long been a staple among films, from the silent couplings of Greta Garbo and John Gilbert, through the flamboyant and ever-popular Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland adventure films of the 1930s and ’40s. Today, Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan have come the closest in matching that Flynn-De Havilland magic.
While romance is often an integral ingredient, some chick flicks can be shy on romance but chock-full of appeal all the same. “Freaky Friday” and “Thelma and Louise” certainly represent the female bonding experience better than most. This all depends on a compelling story, which is precisely what the screenwriters of “Thelma and Louise” had going for them.
Most of the films represented here are of recent origin. This is an intentional effort to give credit to some modern filmmakers who are clearly in tune with public sentiment, as well as Hollywood tradition.
As is generally the case in these ultra-cynical times, film critics have missed their opportunity to celebrate the best of modern cinema.
The negative critical reaction to superb films like “Under the Tuscan Sun” and “A Good Year” defies logic. Fortunately, the public knows a good film when it sees it. One advantage filmmakers have today is the omniscient presence of cable television, which provides a ready and eager audience for films that floundered at the box office. Cable television is directly responsible for creating cult favorites out of films like “Overboard” and “Just like Heaven.”
Conversely, a few films mentioned here were bona fide box-office hits. The enduring popularity of “Sleepless in Seattle” should empower filmmakers to create films that appeal to a larger segment of the audience.
So let’s sit back as the lights dim and enjoy a movie. Here are some of the best chick flicks of recent vintage.
• The late Christopher Reeve will always be remembered as Superman. But his outing in “Somewhere in Time” (1980) is the one the ladies remember.
Based upon the novel by Richard Matheson, Reeve co-starred with Jane Seymour in tale of love lost and found across the barrier of time. Reeve is playwright Richard Collier who meets an elderly woman on opening night for his play. The woman hands Richard a pocket watch and says “Come back to me.” Later, he comes across a photograph from 1912 of Elsie McKenna and realizes she was the mysterious woman who handed him the watch. Collier uses hypnosis to travel back in time to find Elsie. Naturally, they fall in love, but Collier struggles with ways of remaining in the past. He becomes a conflicted, tortured man who wants nothing more than to remain with the woman he loves.
• “Overboard” (1987), starring Kurt Russell and off-screen partner Goldie Hawn, didn’t make much of an impact on release, but this is a film that wouldn’t die. It remains a perennial favorite thanks largely to frequent showings on cable.
Russell plays a carpenter, Dean Proffit, who gets hired by the wealthy Joanna Stayton (Hawn) to work on a closet on her yacht. Dissatisfied with his work, she refuses to pay him. Later, after falling overboard, Stayton loses her memory, and Profitt uses the opportunity to get revenge. He persuades Stayton that she’s his wife and mother of his children. Initially, he enjoys having a live-in housekeeper and mother for his kids, but over time his feelings for Stayton deepen. Eventually, Stayton’s memory returns, and she is upset at having been used. You guess how it tuns out.
It’s a cornball premise that works primarily because of a glib screenplay by Leslie Dixon and the appealing chemistry between Russell and Hawn. The supporting cast includes the always excellent Edward Hermann, Katherine Helmond and Roddy McDowel.
• "Dirty Dancing” (1987) is a perennial favorite. Directed by Emilio Ardolino from a screenplay by Eleanor Bergstein, Patrick Swayze stars as Johnny Castle, a dance instructor at a family summer camp. It’s the early 1960s, and Castle is already a leftover from the ’50s greaser era. But Castle has two qualities that will assist him in overcoming the class snobbery he encounters — honesty and talent.
Jennifer Grey plays Francis “Baby” Houseman, daughter of a wealthy physician. Her father, played by the late Jerry Orbach, takes an immediate dislike to Castle. Francis and Castle fall for each other, and the dancing sequences are among the best ever filmed. Swayze is not only a classically trained dancer but an underrated actor. This is probably the movie both he and Grey will be best remembered for. This one is so good even an old cynic like me is eager to call it “a modern classic.”
• "Pretty Woman” (1990) pairs rising star Julia Roberts with Richard Gere, who had already proven himself to be a box-office draw. Directed by Garry Marshall (who also directed “Overboard”), “Pretty Woman” has an equally implausible plot — a wealthy client falls in love with a hooker who has a heart of gold. Most critics were quick to mention that prostitution is a far more dangerous and heartbreaking lifestyle than presented here, apparently oblivious to that fact that such films are fantasies to begin with. No matter, life is nothing if people don’t believe in their dreams.
Audiences responded enthusiastically to “Pretty Woman,” and its popularity has never diminished. The tagline gets right to the point— “She walked off the street, into his life and stole his heart.” Audiences know that Ed Lewis (Gere) and Vivian Ward (Roberts) are meant for each other. But will they stay together?
• "Thelma and Louise” (1991) might very well be the ultimate “buddy film.” Directed by Ridley Scott and starring Susan Sarandon and Geena Davis who play two bored housewives who decide to escape their humdrum lives and go on a road trip. Complications of a major type ensue when Sarandon kills a man who was attempting to rape her.
Their road trip then turns into a flight from justice. The script by Callie Khouri is sensitive without being cornball. In fact, Thelma and Louise are two tough gals, and the ending is so over-the-top it’s become a classic. A young Brad Pitt even has a small part in this one.
• Tom Hanks was well on his way to becoming one of the most respected actors in Hollywood when he made “Sleepless in Seattle” (1993) under Nora Ephron’s direction.
“Sleepless in Seattle” features Hanks as a widower whose son calls a radio talk show in an attempt to find his father a new wife. Thousands of women write to him, including Annie, portrayed by Meg Ryan. Eventually, they plan to meet at the Empire State Building in New York City, just like the lovers in “An Affair to Remember.” Naturally, true love prevails.
• "Notting Hill” (1999) starred Hugh Grant and Julia Roberts and repeats the setup, conflict and resolution of “Overboard” and “Pretty Woman.” Can the most famous film star in the world fall for just an ordinary guy?
Grant plays the amiable bookshop owner whose life is changed when movie star Anna Scott (Roberts) walks in and buys a book. Thrust into the media spotlight, he struggles with his growing feelings for Anna and his newfound — and unwanted — fame. This film benefits from a literate script by Richard Curtis that wisely avoids slapstick. Grant and Roberts are excellent together, and I thought there was a possibility they would make additional films together.
• "Sweet Home Alabama” (2002) starred the immensely talented Reese Witherspoon, along with Josh Lucas and Patrick Dempsey, in a culture-clash comedy.
Witherspoon plays Melanie Smooter, a county bumpkin from Alabama who dumps her husband and tries to re-invent her life as a New York socialite. She succeeds and becomes engaged to a handsome bachelor. The problem is, Smooter is still married, and her husband has contentiously refused to sign to divorce papers for more than five years.
So what’s a girl to do? Smooter decides to take action and make a return trip to Alabama and confront her stubborn husband, played by Lucas. As you might guess, she still harbors feelings for her husband. Cheeky, but fun.
• "Freaky Friday” (2003) was a remake of a popular 1960s movie starring Jamie Lee Curtis and Lindsay Lohan as a mother and daughter who switch bodies and are forced to adapt to each other’s wildly different lifestyles and viewpoints.
Updated for modern audiences, the film is a treat for Curtis and Lohan, both of whom are excellent in their roles.
• "Fifty First Dates” (2004) stars Drew Barrymore as Lucy Whitmore, a lovely young woman and the perfect soul mate for Henry Roth (Adam Sandler).
Roth falls in love with Whitmore, but the catch here is that Whitmore suffers from a rare form of short-term memory loss. She can’t remember anything about her past when she wakes up each morning. This forces Roth to devise ingenious methods of helping Whitmore fall in love with him every day. Of course it’s implausible, but the story works due to a tight script and appealing actors.
• Director Garry Marshall appears to have mastered the art of romantic screen comedies. “Raising Helen” (2004) stars Kate Hudson (Goldie Hawn’s daughter) as a woman who loses her sister and brother-in-law in a car accident, leaving her the guardian of their three children. Such a heavy setup usually spells doom for a picture like this, but again, a tight screenplay elevates the action.
Hudson is superb as Helen Harris, assisted here by John Corbett, Joan Cusack and Helen Mirren. Like “Sweet Home Alabama,” this film is about choices. Helen doesn’t really know anything about raising children because she’s something of a party girl. She soon discovers that all-night partying doesn’t mesh with getting the kids off to school in the morning. She has to make a choice between parenthood and partying.
In some ways bittersweet, “Raising Helen” balances these disparate elements and coalesces into a charming, albeit realistic tale.
• "Under the Tuscan Sun” (2004) was based upon Frances Mayes’ best-selling book and stars Diane Lane as a San Francisco writer who spends 10 days in Tuscany. She falls in love with the place, purchases an ancient villa and begins the process of restoring it. Her life in Tuscany becomes an odyssey of self-discovery as she becomes a part of this charming community.
Director Audrey Wells, who also wrote the screenplay, has created one of the better films to come out of Hollywood in recent years. “Under the Tuscan Sun” is uplifting without being preachy or maudlin, and Lane is an actress who deserves far more accolades than she has received.
• "Just like Heaven” (2005) is another Witherspoon venture, this time co-starring the amiable Mark Ruffalo.
Here Witherspoon plays a doctor who is seriously injured in an accident and lies in a coma, slowly deteriorating. As her body dies, her spirit struggles to find a way to survive. She haunts her old apartment, now occupied by Ruffalo, who also happens to be the only person who can see and communicate with her.
They slowly fall in love but are faced with the daunting prospect that she’ll soon die. Is there a way to save her? Far better than the synopsis hints, Witherspoon and Ruffalo are charming together.
• "Must Love Dogs” (2005) pairs Lane with John Cusack in a film that I enjoyed more the second time I saw it.
Lane plays Sarah Nolan — a divorced, lonely and unhappy person who allows her sister to post her profile on an Internet dating site. Suddenly, she has more dates than she can handle, but none of them are men that she finds interesting — except for a guy named Jake (Cusack).
But Jake is a bit too intense at first, and they don’t really hit it off. As time goes by, they both realize they care for each other. The ending is a bit schmaltzy, but schmaltzy can be good when it’s done right.
• "A Good Year” (2006), starring Russell Crowe, was based upon the best-selling book “A Year in Provence” by Peter Mayle.
Crowe plays Max Skinner, a ruthless businessman who inherits a vineyard in the south of France. Skinner slowly re-discovers his past and forges a new future for himself amidst the lush grandeur of France. He falls in love with a local beauty, Marion Cotillard, begins restoring the vineyard’s mansion and changes his life in unexpected but rewarding ways.
There are plot similarities between “A Good Year” and “Under the Tuscan Sun,” and both films are based on popular travel memoirs. “A Year in Provence” was published in 1991 and set the standard for travel memoirs.
Well, there we have it — my 15 chick flicks men shouldn’t miss. I enjoyed all of these films, which probably means I’m really tuned in to my feminine side. With that said, I’m off to the beauty parlor for a manicure and to get my hair frosted.
Then I’ll have lunchy-wunchy with the boys at Bubba’s Sports Bar before a round of shopping at Gander Mountain.