Sometimes I think Rupert Everett had a point when he compared Hollywood's attitude towards gender and sexuality with that of a certain terrorist group spawned by Enemy Number One.
Last week, the New York Times ran an article about the problem with chick flicks, or about their imminent demise-slash-reincarnation as chick-and-dude flicks. Young women, it seems, aren't going to movies in droves anymore, and so high-profile filmmakers who once wooed "chicks" can no longer do so and make a profit.
The article focused on Nora Ephron, one of the pioneers of the chick flick genre, and hearkened back to "Sleepless in Seattle" as one of said genre's biggest icons. "Sleepless" is a lovely movie. And Ephron, in her heyday, was tops at writing romantic comedies. But a more interesting film, a film that might have helped given the Times a clearer thesis, is another film Ephron wrote: "When Harry Met Sally," mentioned only as an aside.
"Harry/Sally"'s unexpected success and its enduring cult status really speaks to what women audiences want in their romances: realistic people in real settings having unrealistically compelling romances. "Harry/Sally" is infused with a New York Jewish aesthetic (the deli-munching and neuroses all prefigure Seinfeld) and so it roots Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan's characters in a believable world. Ryan's beauty is wrapped in a blowsy facade, with curly hair and boxy suits, and no plastic surgery to speak of.
Since then, Ephron's romantic films, (and Ryan's appearances in them) have become more and more white-washed — literally — from "Sleepless in Seattle," to "You've Got Mail" down to "Bewitched," starring the barbie-like Nicole Kidman.
And here's another thing the article completely ignored: where Ephron has failed, other "When Harry Met Sallys" have emerged — romantic films rooted in specific subcultures that have outperformed expectations. There are dozens, including "Bend it Like Beckham," "Monsoon Wedding," "My Big Fat Greek Wedding," "Once," "Something New" — even, in some ways, the first "Bridget Jones" film. Most of these were written or directed by women, and they all feature heroines who don't fit the Hollywood ideal because they aren't glamorous, rich, or white.
These films, despite having romantic plots, all take place in an actual setting, whether it's LA's African-American cotillion set, London's Indian immigrant community, or Dublin's impoverished music world.
Yet each time one of these films does well, it's viewed as a little film that could, rather than part of pattern indicative of women moviegoers' preferences.
The fact that these movies have been hits, while films like "The Holiday," "Music and Lyrics," and "27 Dresses" have failed to reap huge profits, should be a wakeup call to producers. These high-budget flops all feature white, ultra-skinny heroines prancing against the backdrop of suburban mansions or windowed penthouses. I know they take place in cities, or towns, but I'm not sure which ones. The heroines dress fabulously and have nary a wrinkle, or an accent of any kind, and usually lack back-stories or families — or even much personality besides a frenetic cutesiness.
And even when they do feature unusual characters, they ignore them. In "The Holiday," the camera rarely focused on the intriguing pairing of Kate Winslet and Jack Black, instead opting to linger on repeated close-ups of the clone-like Cameron Diaz and Jude Law making out.
Sadly these cornflake films are some of the only major studio films with women leads at all, leaving women viewers with few options. I just learned about the Bechdel-Wallace test, which asks whether movies feature two women who talk to each other about something other than men. The number of movies that pass this test is staggeringly small.
Rather than actually notice what we want, studio-heads scratch their heads, claim not to understand the female moviegoer, and inundate us with Judd Apatow flicks. If Apatow is the new Nora Ephron, women onscreen are screwed. At the risk of repeating myself: Apatow's contributions to the genre include 1) a line about how not wearing a condom was the best decision ever and 2) the castigation of a guy who asks if his date is too drunk to get frisky — he's being "too sensitive" (that latter bit is from the preview of this weekend's "Forgetting Sarah Marshall"). And yes, his non-white characters are always sidekicks. He doesn't even try and fail in the race department the way he does with gender.
Chick flicks succeed when they sell the idea that ordinary people can experience extraordinary love. But being ordinary doesn't just mean not being a perfect Hollywood star — it also means not necessarily being white, straight, or rich, as work by the new group of female auteurs like Gurinder Chadha, Mira Nair, and Sanaa Hamri demonstrates. Today, interracial and same-sex romances, struggles with assimilation, and balancing new ideas about dating with cultural traditions are the issues make finding love challenging and exhilarating for American women. And movies that deal with these issues are the ones they're going to pay ten bucks to see.