The changing romcom: Romantic hero types through the years
The 1930s and ’40s were a golden era for the stern, WASP-y man’s man. These romantic heroes were worldly wise, sure, dominant and dapper. Think Clark Gable and Cary Grant.
The stories were formulaic — two men vying for one girl, two women for one guy, a misunderstanding, mistaken identity, or a guy and a girl who started out despising each other and eventually fell in love (It Happened One Night, Bringing Up Baby, His Girl Friday).
Posters from this period show strong-jawed men in bowler hats and suits, looking mildly amused or quizzical. Think of it as husband-in-a-good-mood mode.
The ’50s belonged to Marilyn. The Monroe comedies were driven by sex appeal, mischief, double entendre — The Seven-Year Itch, How to Marry a Millionaire, The Prince and the Showgirl. Never before, and not for a long time to come, would a woman dominate the posters and the screens as she did. The mischief continued through the ’60s, but without Marilyn, who died in ’62.
The 1970s were simultaneously the Cold War and the Hippie decades. In film, this meant gangsters, spies, soldiers, and experimentation. Blockbusters included The Godfather, Grease, and MASH. Romantic comedies were being turned into something completely different by Woody Allen.
The leading men of the’70s weren’t romantics; they were scruffy tough guys who took care of things (Al Pacino; Robert DeNiro; Jack Nicholson; Dustin Hoffman). Romcoms were not a very prominent genre; what comedies there were, were laced with sex and innuendo, or as in Grease and Saturday Night Fever, used the metaphor of dance.
The ’80s and ’90s belonged to the everyday heroes. They weren’t dashingly good-looking or obscenely rich. But they loved with a passion; and the women they loved were changing. These women had jobs, opinions, personalities. Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan became the face of this period’s romances, most notably in Sleepless in Seattle and You’ve Got Mail, but others included Billy Crystal (When Harry Met Sally, with Meg Ryan), the pre-action-hero Nicolas Cage (remember Moonstruck, Valley Girl?), and a young John Cusack.
The dance movie became a sub-genre that never really went away. We had Flashdance, Footloose, Dirty Dancing in the ’80s, then Dance with Me in the 1990s, Chicago, All That Jazz, and the Step Up movies through the following decade.
The ’90s also saw the rise of the pretty boy – softer, more vulnerable, flawed and often in need of rescue. The face of this decade, on screen and off, was Hugh Grant (Notting Hill, Four Weddings and a Funeral, Nine Months). His on-screen goofiness made women swoon, his real-life misadventures were straight out of a romance movie, pre-interval, before the one good woman arrived to fix his wayward ways. Several women tried and failed more dramatically than most scriptwriters would dare envision.
These were also the years of Richard Gere (Pretty Woman, Runaway Bride) and a rather unwilling Leonardo DiCaprio (Romeo + Juliet, Titanic), who complained steadily that his pretty face was keeping him from making real movies.
This was also the Julia Roberts decade. Not since Marilyn Monroe had so many romcoms hinged on a single smile (who even remembers the men in My Best Friend’s Wedding?).
Notice how White the list is so far? People of colour were on the screens, in the convenient boxes of cop, criminal, musician, slave, soldier, or first to be eaten alive.
The only notable person of colour to play a romantic hero yet has been Sidney Poitier, and that was in a movie called Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (gasp!), in 1967. Will Smith finally brings some POC lovin’ to the big screen in 2005, with Hitch. Taye Diggs begins to be called a heartthrob.
The stories are changing in other ways too. Ennis and Jack redefine love and heartbreak in Brokeback Mountain.
Women begin to take front and centre, even if it is in cringe-worthy tales like the Bridget Jones series, or Katherine Heigl’s various misadventures (27 Dresses, Knocked Up, One for the Money).
Moms and dads are starring now, as are grandmoms and granddads, and so we’re treated to Meryl Streep, Diane Keaton and Jack Nicholson in films like Mamma Mia, Something’s Gotta Give, It’s Complicated, and preceding them by a few years, As Good As It Gets and The First Wives Club.
The past year’s romantic leads have included a gay teen (Love, Simon), a plus-sized woman (Isn’t It Romantic); and Crazy Rich Asians. Onward and upward.