All I want to do these days is stay home and watch Turner Classic Movies – it’s 31 Days of Oscar month! As you could probably guess even if I didn’t talk about it all the time, I am an absolute sucker for old movies. And looking over this year’s schedule, I’m realizing just how much influence and inspiration I’ve taken from them in writing my own versions of romance.
The whole month is stuffed with great films (and not so great films that were overrated in their day), but I can draw a straight line from any of these to my own ideas about relationships and the stories I’ve written about them. (All aired or will air on TCM at some point in March 2022; some are streaming on HBOMax.)
Cabaret (1972): I saw this the first time on pay cable in the middle of the night when I was about 12 years old, and if you hold a gun to my head and ask me to name my absolute favorite movie of all time, I might very well say this one. It is a classic example of a big ideas, big concept epic that is held together and made real by the love story at its center, scary and swooney and sad. It was the first romantic story I ever really engaged that wasn’t about two cis straight people; it introduced me to ideas like the potential beauty of decadence in squalor and art as the whole universe and sex as both a game and an expression of the soul. And Liza Minelli literally sings her heart out. I recently introduced my teen-age niece (a goth theater kid after my own heart in every way) to it, and she fell completely in love just like I did. Streaming on HBOMax
Dr. Zhivago (1965): My grandmother, who I adored, absolutely adored this movie, and the first time it came on network TV, we all gathered at her house to watch it. And Omar Sharif and Julie Christie and Geraldine Chaplin were all impossibly beautiful and tragic and yearning, and I got completely caught up in the story. But later, thinking about it, I realized that as a love interest Yuri Zhivago was not, to use the time-honored Southern expression, worth the dynamite it would take to blow him up. Weak and indecisive, he half-heartedly tries to do the right thing with no conviction and ends up making everything worse for everybody every single time. He was my first, “he’s pretty but damn” romantic hero, and I make a concentrated effort to never write a guy like him myself. Streaming on HBOMax
The Philadelphia Story (1940): One of the greatest screwball comedies of all time and a major inspiration for my own Stella Hart stories. I adore almost every little thing about this movie about a prideful but hilarious society beauty and the poor saps who just can’t help falling in love with her. Katherine Hepburn’s persona is on perfect display here and used to its best possible effect, and neither Cary Grant nor Jimmy Stewart was ever sexier. I watch it every single time it comes on and always will. Streaming on HBOMax
Sense and Sensibility (1995): If you’re only going to allow one Jane Austen movie adaptation into your life, skip the many excellent versions of Pride and Prejudice and pick this one. Alan Rickman gets to break out his perfect yearning lover face in a role where he actually survives the story AND washes his hair; Hugh Grant is the best version of his floppy-haired English heartthrob self, and Kate Winslet and Greg Wise both look good enough to eat. And when Emma Thompson as Eleanor breaks down in happy sobs at the end, she is every smart, sensible woman who ever finally got exactly what her foolish heart has always wanted, and she is glorious. Showing March 13 at 8:00 p.m.; streaming on HBOMax
Wuthering Heights (1939): This is not my favorite movie adaptation of the gothic classic; that would be the version from 1992 with Ralph Fiennes and Juliette Binoche. That one hews much closer to the original story, and Fiennes and Binoche play Heathcliff and Cathy much more as written than Laurence Olivier and Merle Oberon do in this film. But this is the one that turns a very twisted and complicated psychological novel into a swoon-worthy tragic romance. It omits the entire second volume of Bronte’s original, so the audience never sees just what a sadistic, controlling piece of crap Heathcliff actually becomes. And in Oberon’s portrayal, Cathy becomes less his match in cruelty and more the innocently careless seductress so popular in romances of the day (think Scarlett O’Hara or Bette Davis’s character in Jezebel–the Depression Era version of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl). But Olivier never looked more beautiful or acted more romantic on screen. When he plunges out into the storm in pursuit of the ghost of his beloved, my heart breaks every time. Showing March 14 at 2:30 p.m.
Camelot (1967): Beautiful Vanessa Redgrave as Guinevere can’t sing a lick, and Guinevere as a character is kind of a twerp. Handsome Franco Nero’s Lancelot struck me as bombastic and over the top and anything but romantically appealing even the first time I saw this when I was about nine. But Richard Harris as Arthur is pure delight–that Guinevere breaks his heart to be with Lancelot just proves what a nincompoop she is. And this movie was my gateway drug not just to the Matter of Britain but all medieval fantasy, aka the absolute best thing ever. If I hadn’t sat up half the night watching this on TV in my grandmother’s living room with my Aunt Kathy all those years ago, I might have missed out on Dungeons & Dragons, Lord of the Rings, and about half of my own fiction catalog. Showing March 18 at 1:30 a.m.; streaming on HBOMax
A Fish Called Wanda (1988): This not-quite-a-Monty-Python comedy makes me laugh until tears run down my face every time I see it. I would love it even if it had no romantic subplot to speak of. But the love connection between Jamie Lee Curtis’s sexy jewel thief Wanda and John Cleese’s repressed barrister Archie Leach is one of my all time favorites in any movie ever. Like every femme fatale since Barbara Stanwyck came down the stairs in a towel and an anklet, Wanda goes after Archie boobs hiked and guns blazing in the beginning to take something he has. Her pretending to be smitten with him starts out as one of the jokes. Why would a girl like Wanda ever go for a guy like Archie? (His name is a clue, though–Archie Leach was Cary Grant’s real name.) But of course the great twist is, she falls for him for real. She chooses him over the prettier but abysmally stupid Otto (played by a very pretty Kevin Kline) not just because Archie really can speak Italian and Russian but because he’s smart and kind and sees her even when she’s faking. Repressed or not, he tells her with absolute sincerity and no hesitation that she is “the sexiest girl [he has] ever seen.” Who could resist that? Showing March 20 at 3:00 a.m.
The Gay Divorcee (1934): Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers and another major inspiration for Stella Hart. It’s all snappy dialogue and impossible settings and frothy costumes on Ginger Rogers that swirl like seafoam when she dances and a plot that even if you manage to follow it makes almost no sense whatsoever. It’s a sanitized version of a much more sophisticated musical play, The Gay Divorce, with songs by Cole Porter. Astaire and Rogers would play a much more coherent version of a slightly naughty mistaken identity plot the next year in Top Hat, also a favorite. But this is the one with that heavenly dance number set to Porter’s “Night and Day.” Showing March 22 at 12:15 a.m.
Casablanca (1942): If you don’t know why this one made the list, I can’t help you. And if you’ve never actually seen it before, I’m jealous. Play it, Sam. Showing March 26 at 11:00 a.m.
Dangerous Liaisons (1988): Far and away the most heartbreaking story on this list. And this list has Cabaret, Wuthering Heights AND Dr. Zhivago. Michelle Pfeiffer, John Malkovich, and Uma Thurman are all insanely good, and Keanu Reeves is very, very beautiful to look at. The story is sexy and chilling and impossibly sad, and Malkovich makes a perfect dark romantic anti-hero. (Yes, John Malkovich! I know, right?) The cruellest kiss off ever uttered is apparently, “It is beyond my control.” And yeah, Cruel Intentions is based on the same book–if you like that, please watch this. And bring a tissue. Showing March 27 at 2:00 a.m., streaming on HBOMax.