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From Meeting Cute to the Ultimate Happy Ending
How to Create the Perfect Romance
So what exactly is a chick flick? Perhaps the classic definition of pornography applies: we know it when we see it. (Not to imply in any way that chick flicks are pornography, though I do have a friend who calls Sandra Bullock's Hope Floats "porn for girls.") A more concrete definition might be a movie that specifically appeals to viewers with a feminine sensibility.
Quite often the stars, story line, and marketing campaign make it immediately obvious whether something falls in the chick flick camp or not. Male teenagers, in particular, seem to have an infallible radar detector warning them away from a film that their mother might enjoy, while female teenagers innately sense that anything with "wedding" or "princess" in the title is worthy of their patronage.
Most chick flicks aren't concerned with winning the male audience over. The films might feature car chases and explosions (typical guy flick modus operandi), but those chases and explosions are employed in pursuit of the most important thing of all: love. Why are chick flick enthusiasts so fascinated by the twists and turns of love? "Love is the ultimate magic," theorizes Practical Magic writer Alice Hoffman, "the ultimate goal with no reason, often making no sense. We spend our lives trying to make those kind of things practical—why do I love him, why does he love me. Basically, it's just magic." Nothing captures and displays that magic better than a chick flick.
Incorporating everything from epic costume dramas to old-fashioned Hollywood musicals to family-friendly fables to contemporary working girl comedies, the chick flick genre is too broad to analyze as a whole. Nevertheless, an examination of the fundamental ingredients in a chick flick romance reveals a prototypical pattern that can be broken down into ten basic steps.
Step One: Create a Sympathetic Heroine
Even if the female lead is a prostitute or the Queen of England, she should be saddled with a plight not so removed from the viewer's own life. The heroine needs to be a character whom everyone in the audience—from a teenage bookworm secretly in love with the big man on campus to an overworked at the office/under-appreciated at home C.E.O.--can relate to. The actresses playing these heroines don't seem too far removed from the girl next door, which is why we deem them to be mega-love-worthy and embrace them as America's sweethearts. Consequently, Renee Zellweger can play a socially inept neurotic in Bridget Jones's Diary and a cold-blooded murderess in Chicago and still have the audience rooting for her. Inaccessibly beautiful actresses are usually cast as the villains, the "bad girlfriends" whom the male leads are superficially attracted to before realizing their mistake. "Invariably the 'third character' part in a romantic comedy is a bitch or an ice princess or really unlikable," agrees Alicia Witt, who played Sandra Bullock's rival for Hugh Grant's affection in Two Weeks Notice.
Step Two: Offer up a Love-Worthy Hero
Of course, the heroine doesn't realize how loveable the hero is at first--if they were a perfect match from the start, there wouldn't be any story to tell, would there? Because he'll change over the course of the movie, the hero is often flawed at the start. To compensate for this handicap, the actor has to use his personal charm and charisma to infuse likeability into the role. Analyzing Dennis Quaid and his character in Something to Talk About, producer Paula Weinstein comments, "Dennis made Eddie, who after all, has been stepping out on his wife, an immensely compassionate and complicated human being." Tom Hanks is also good at playing a cad worthy of redemption. "Tom has such charm," proclaims You've Got Mail director Nora Ephron, "he is so irresistible that he can play a bad guy and you never once believe that he doesn't truly have a heart."
Love at first sight can occur. However, this instant love connection is tested by a series of bumps in the hero and heroine's relationship. To permanently win the affection of his true love, the hero must make a grand gesture, a public declaration of everlasting love. But wait, we're getting ahead of ourselves . . .
Step Three: Don't Forget the Best Friend
If the heroine needs to explain her feelings to someone, or perhaps she requires additional motivation to do the right thing, she should come equipped with a best friend. Because this character often provides comic relief and can't be perceived as a potential rival for the hero's affection, the best friend role is usually cast with quirky comediennes or gay men. Whoopi Goldberg is an excellent instigator in How Stella Got Her Groove Back, Rosie O'Donnell provides a similar nudge in Sleepless in Seattle, and Rupert Everett proves to be Julia Roberts's ultimate champion in My Best Friend's Wedding. The hero, by the way, often has his own Sancho Panza, usually a coworker. But unlike their female counterpart, the male best friend sometimes poaches. Think Jason Alexander in Pretty Woman.
Step Four: Something's Wrong with the Heroine's Life
Sometimes our girl isn't fulfilled at work. Or she hungers for a family. In the Britney Spears vehicle, Crossroads, the teenage heroine (Lucy) has mother-abandonment issues. "We all have certain questions in life, and Lucy's is finding her mother," explains Kim Cattrall, who plays the AWOL matriarch. "Once she does, she can put that to rest and get on with her life, as opposed to always being connected to this phantom figure."
The heroine feels incomplete because she has not yet achieved her destiny. While in limbo, she can fall victim to Bad Boyfriend Syndrome. Bad boyfriends are not to be confused with bad boys. A bad boy is a beast who just needs a little tender loving care from a beauty before he can be recognized as a true prince. A bad boyfriend, on the other hand, might be a prince, but he's not the heroine's true destiny.
Meg Ryan has Bad Boyfriend Syndrome in Sleepless in Seattle. "Walter represents the perfect man to take home to your family," the actress says of her character's initial wrong choice in potential mates. "He's wonderful, but something is wrong with the relationship, and Annie doesn't know herself well enough to know what she really wants."
What's worse than having a bad boyfriend? Having no boyfriend! Renee Zellweger's problem in Bridget Jones's Diary is written in capital letters on the DVD cover—she's UNMARRIED. Director Sharon Maguire can relate to her heroine's plight. "I know the world so well because it's mine. We were having a really good time, going out partying, and we didn't really want that to stop. At the same time, we were anxious why we hadn't settled down yet. Yet, we thought we shouldn't be striving for male approval anyway because we were feminists. That contradiction is the thing that [writer] Helen [Fielding] so brilliantly captured in Bridget Jones's Diary. There are a lot of women out there who've got their careers, their independence—but they're constantly thinking, 'I just want to be in love. I just want a man.'"
Step Five: They Meet
Unless the chick flick is a tearjerker, our heroine and her true love are guaranteed to end up together in the final reel. But first they have to meet, usually in a memorable way—or better yet, a "cute" way. In The Wedding Planner, Matthew McConaughey saves Jennifer Lopez from a runaway garbage bin. "They have this kind of chance meeting," J.Lo explains. "It's a big accident, and then they get thrown together for the rest of the day. She definitely feels something right away, and it's something she hasn't felt in a long time. It takes her by surprise. She really doesn't know what to make of it, but it's exciting."
"I think the most incredible thing about love is the actual moment when the two people find each other," agrees Drew Barrymore, who starred with Adam Sandler in another wedding-themed flick. "In The Wedding Singer, they literally find each other over a kid throwing up. It just doesn't get much more romantic than that!"
Step Six: Toss in Impediments to the Romance
"The trap in making romantic comedy today," complains Neal Moritz, who produced the Reese Witherspoon vehicle Sweet Home Alabama, "is that audiences feel like they've seen everything that can happen already--the boy and girl are going to get together in the end. So, in order to avoid these cliches, we've tried to put in a number of twists and turns, to give the audience a movie they haven't seen before. They won't have the feeling that they know the end of the movie before it begins."
Whether it's a deadly disease, a bet, a workplace rivalry, or a romantic triangle, the best impediments have high stakes and provide a real challenge to the characters' love. It's in this "complications ensue" stage that so many chick flicks founder. Even with a tearjerker like Sweet November, the audience must feel invested in events prior to Charlize Theron's swan song. Sweet November director, Pat O'Connor, recalls, "I tried to make this film bounce along with a certain gusto and panache and style." To do that, he relied on "the delight in the challenge of the unexpected." Could he be referring to Charlize's transvestite neighbor?
Step Seven: They Dance
Waltzes and tangos aren't included in chick flicks just to spoon-feed the audience big screen images of their fondest desires (in real life, most chicks love to shake their tail feathers while most guys would chew off their own leg rather than shake it on the dance floor). Dancing also cinematically illustrates that the heroine and hero are destined for each other. "We think of it as the ultimate symbol of romance," explains The Wedding Planner screenwriters Michael Ellis and Pamela Falk, "because it's the closest two people can come without kissing or actual sex. It's foreplay. It's a symbol of a connection without saying anything."
Step Eight: Pack in as Many Memorable Moments as Possible
Although every plot is different, every successful motion picture delivers a sufficient number of wows to leave the audience feeling satisfied. In guy flicks, explosions and car chases are the money shots. Chick flicks must deliver their equivalent big bangs--those "awwwwww" and "I wish that were meeeeeeee!" bits--to make viewers eager to watch the film again. Who can forget Daniel Day-Lewis's waterfall promise to come back to Madeline Stowe in The Last of the Mohicans? Or The Witches of Eastwick trio (Cher, Michelle Pfeiffer, and Susan Sarandon) literally flying around the balloon-filled ballroom? Or Angela Bassett in Waiting to Exhale, loading her philandering husband's expensive suits into his sports car and torching it? These scenes alone are worth the price of admission. They're also the reason why DVDs are God's gift to movie fans--it's so easy to go straight to the good parts.
Step Nine: The Hero Employs the Three Magic Words
Chick flicks serve up on a beautifully garnished platter another thing we desperately wish real men would do as willingly as their fictional counterparts: say "I love you." In movies packed with A+ moments, the hero typically has to overcome major obstacles to pronounce the Three Magic Words at just the right time, in an extremely public situation. And because he has the benefit of a hardworking screenwriter putting carefully crafted phrases in his mouth, a hero like Jerry Maguire will utter those heartfelt words more memorably than any average joe ever could.
Step Ten: Achieve the Ultimate Happy (or unhappy) Ending
In The Philadelphia Story, Katherine Hepburn and Cary Grant get hitched (for the second time) moments before the credits roll. Traditionally, the exchange of vows symbolizes that the heroine and hero's courtship story line has concluded satisfactorily. Recent chick flicks have offered viewers an international buffet of I Dos: Monsoon Wedding (2001), Muriel's Wedding (1994), My Big Fat Greek Wedding (2002), Polish Wedding (1998), and the binge-worthy Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994). However, even if there is a marriage ceremony in a movie, the viewer is not necessarily guaranteed a happy ending--because a seemingly happy-go-lucky chick flick can take an unexpected turn and reveal itself to be a tearjerker (as Steel Magnolias fans well know).
If you're smiling or crying as the credits roll, your viewing experience can be judged a success. You'll feel like Yul Brynner, who after whirling Deborah Kerr around the palace floor in The King and I, proclaims, "Again!" Yul finds things to be just as glorious the second time around, and you will too. When it comes to enjoying a chick flick romance, repeat as many times as necessary.
Why Motion Pictures Are Like Real Life—but Better
Is there anything more enchanting than Audrey Hepburn taking a break from her royal duties to explore Rome with Gregory Peck in Roman Holiday? How fun is it to be Drew Barrymore, ditching her boring grown-up job as a newspaper copyeditor to go undercover as a hip high school student in Never Been Kissed? Who doesn't want to tag along with Susan Sarandon as she packs up her T-bird for a carefree weekend fishing trip with Geena Davis in Thelma & Louise? One of the reasons why we watch chick flicks is to indulge in a vicarious thrill as characters we identify with leave their mundane existence behind and embark on a potentially excellent adventure.
While there is an undeniable element of escapism, cinematic story lines are often inspired by real-life experiences. Let's examine the many ways a kernel of reality can be buffed, shined, and glamorized by screenwriters until it's worthy of becoming a chick flick fantasy.
A Historical Event Becomes a Backdrop for a Fictional Romance
CASE STUDY: TITANIC (1997)
Writer/director James Cameron knew he had the technology to recreate the dramatic sinking of the famous ocean liner. What he needed were characters the audience would root for, even though, as Cameron points out, "Every single moment that you're with them, there is this little voice in the back of your mind that says they're all doomed." He created a fictional pair of star-crossed lovers, poor boy Jack (played by Leonardo DiCaprio) and wealthy debutante Rose (Kate Winslet). While Winslet proclaims, "I believe this story does take you to the point where you would do anything you could to stop that ship from sinking in order for Rose and Jack to be together," screenwriter Cameron emphasizes the reality of the situation. "We wanted to tell a fictional story within absolutely rigorous, historically accurate terms," he stresses. "All the accuracy and all the special visual effects are intended for one purpose: to put viewers on Titanic. It's a very you-are-there kind of experience." Thus DVD viewers can survive history's ultimate shipwreck in the safety of their own home whenever they so desire.
The Autobiographical Experience Gets Glamorized
CASE STUDY: HOW STELLA GOT HER GROOVE BACK (1998)
In real life, novelist Terry McMillan made a spur-of-the-moment trip to Jamaica after a particularly tough period in her life in which she lost her mother and best friend. While on the island, she fell in love with a much younger man. Twenty years younger. McMillan created the fictional Stella and the story of how she reinvigorated her life by falling in love with a Jamaican two decades her junior "in essence but not in particular" to her own experience. First she wrote the book, then the movie, in which Angela Bassett plays not a novelist but a stockbroker feeling at loose ends when her son goes off to stay with her ex-husband. A "Come to Jamaica" commercial on TV inspires her to call up her best friend, Whoopi Goldberg, and head down to the island for some R&R. There she meets a young stud named Winston Shakespeare, played by the impossibly handsome Taye Diggs. Both the novel and the movie are wonderful, although the movie has the advantage of showcasing Taye sans shirt. If Terry McMillan's real-life Romeo is half as good looking, it's no wonder she brought him back to the States with her.