The dual-review film criticism site: first a spoiler-free review, then an in-depth Alternate Take.
Happy Endings & True Love: Part 1

Written by James MacDowell.

Photo from the article Part 1: Happy Endings & ‘True’ Love

“‘Boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl’… organises, indeed constitutes, the classical American cinema as a whole.”

-Raymond Bellour

“You don’t want to be in love - you want to be in love in a movie.”

-Becky, Sleepless in Seattle

““Reality and love are almost contradictory to me.”

-Céline, Before Sunset

I am going to talk here mainly about the concept of the Hollywood romance happy ending, but on a broader scale I will also try to address what I feel these endings have to do with something which most believe Hollywood seldom attempts to do: depict romantic love ‘realistically’.

Ask most people if they consider, for example, Hollywood’s current romantic comedies to be ‘realistic’ representations of love and even those who enjoy them will be forced to answer - perhaps regretfully - in the negative. We all know that the typical Dream Factory image of love is, at the very least in this genre, idealistic wish-fulfilment. It’s what has become popularly known as ‘movie love’.

But what exactly is it that makes the love in romantic comedies ‘movie love’ and not ‘real love’? Essentially, all that separates the romantic comedy’s depiction of romance from that of other genres is its guaranteed happy ending. As with the relationship between comedy and tragedy in general, the central plots of romantic melodrama and romantic comedy in fact often have very few dissimilarities other than tone in which they’re played: for example the undesirable existing / intended partner and the unfortunate miscommunication are absolute staples of both genres. Their endings, however, usually remain polar opposites.

I would argue that it is, in fact, only the happy ending (and the certainty one has, when watching the films, that it is coming) which has earned the romantic comedy its status as ‘unrealistic’.

Sinigin' in the Rain
Sinigin' in the Rain
What exactly is it that is so unrealistic about it? Few would deny that in the real world people do, every day, exactly what the characters in each and every romantic comedy do - that is: meet, court, and fall (however briefly or lastingly) in love. The problem comes when a film depicting this has to deal with the obvious requirement that all narrative art faces: it must choose a point at which to end. The decision traditionally inbuilt into the romantic comedy is to end at the moment of the central couple’s union (or sometimes reunion), often with the obligatory embrace and kiss-and-fade as the final moment of closure. Ending in this way sends the audience out of the cinema with an image of unproblematic happiness that one assumes (since we are shown nothing to disprove the theory) will last forever.

As the critic Rick Altman has said: marriage, or the promise of marriage (essentially meaning any depiction of the united final couple) is, in Hollywood, “that beyond which there is no more”: “It arrests discourse and projects the narrative into an undifferentiated ‘happily ever after’. The comic equivalent of apocalypse, marriage represents a timeless, formless state in American mythology.”

This “timeless” happy ending perpetuates the myth of ‘love conquers all’. In actual fact, of course, because this moment of union is only the moment when love finally blossoms (or re-blossoms), love has so far had to conquer exactly nothing. The real test of love - whether it can survive once it has formed - is sidestepped and we are left with a perfect picture of only the beginning (or new beginning) of a relationship. As I have said, the perfect happiness shown at these films’ conclusions is experienced in real life; however, relationships then continue beyond this point: we all know that love in the real world becomes threatened, tested, and must evolve if it is to survive.

What I mean by a ‘realistic’ representation of love, then, is one that at least acknowledges the continuation and survival of love over time as a distinct issue, as opposed to offering the illusion of finality and stasis offered by the happy ending. This understanding is close in spirit to the obvious-but-true conclusion of Irving Singer’s monolithic three-volume philosophical investigation into love, The Nature of Love, in which he states that romantic love can only be successful (and compatible with marriage) in the modern world if it comprehends “falling in love”, “being in love” and “staying in love”. Genres such as the romantic melodrama were concerned absolutely with addressing each stage of the struggle that these three processes constitute; the romantic comedy, on the other hand, is interested only in the first stage, ending its story as it does before such time-based concerns take hold.

Casablanca: unhappy ending.
Casablanca: unhappy ending.
Maybe all I have been stating so far goes without saying, but I feel that it’s all worth re-emphasising, if only because we are, at present, at a critical - I perhaps hesitate to use the melodramatic word dangerous - moment for Hollywood’s depiction of love. I say this for the simple reason that the romantic comedy now is effectively the only staple genre Hollywood currently has which privileges love as its central concern. We have none of the tragic romances, romantic melodramas and ‘women’s pictures’ so popular in the forties and fifties (Now Voyager [1947], All That Heaven Allows [1955] etc.), far fewer of the romantic dramas of the fifties and sixties (Barefootin the Park [1967] etc.), virtually none of the ‘nervous romances’ of the seventies (Annie Hall [1977] etc.), nor even the coming-of-age romances of the eighties (Dirty Dancing [1986], Pretty in Pink [1987] etc.).

This means that almost every single Hollywood film ‘about’ romantic love now ends happily; the old - previously perhaps rather unfair and untrue - assumptions about Hollywood’s idealistic approach to love have never been more well-founded.

Yes, the occasional film that could be described as a romantic melodrama may sometimes still arise from Hollywood - we could name When a Man Loves a Woman (1994), The Bridges of Madison County (1996), The Story of Us (1999) - but, when they do, they find nothing like the same captive audience their genre once did. Their comparative scarcity testifies to their current unpopularity. There may also be other non-romantic comedy films that focus primarily on romantic relationships - for example, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004) or Closer (2005) - but my point is that there is really no longer an established genre to class them under. Tellingly, a recent exception to the melodrama rule, Far From Heaven (2002), very self-consciously recreates the style of 50’s melodramas (in particular Douglas Sirk’s), a technique which acts as a clear illustration of just how alien, how of-the-past, the genre now is to us.

Far From Heaven: reliving past Hollywood romance.
Far From Heaven: reliving past Hollywood romance.

The love plot still continues in other genres, of course, and may even remain a main focus. I would argue though that in many notable major examples of recent Hollywood films that foreground romantic love such as Titanic(1997), Pearl Harbour (2000) or Cold Mountain (2002), the central relationship is there to supply the ‘human element’ to a story that is essentially about something else. The love of DiCaprio and Winslet, or Beckinsale and Affleck/Hartnett, or Kidman and Law, would mean nothing without their stories of a liner sinking, a warship base being bombed, and a Civil War to surround them. The love story here serves the historical plot that frames it rather than the other way round, unlike, for example, the string of G.I-meets-girl-on-leave romances of the forties (eg, The Clock [1945]), making them, in my opinion, not strictly ‘romance’ films.

So, although, as I have argued, it is quintessentially ‘unrealistic’ in its illusion of finality, I will suggest in this essay that the happy ending must now be acknowledged as constituting the powerful and seductive centre of our ideology of romantic love. As such, it is necessary for it to be navigated, if not shown, in any depiction of love that itself attempts to be ‘realistic’.

I will be looking at the ways in which apparently wildly different depictions of love that have emerged from Hollywood in the last fifteen years tackle the happy ending. The first - Sleepless in Seattle (1993), one of the most successful romantic comedies of all time - I am taking as epitomizing the current approach to the ‘unrealistic’ genre of romantic comedy. The second and third - Before Sunrise (1995) and its sequel, Before Sunset (2004), which have their roots more in independent American cinema - I am, together, using as an example of an attempt to present a ‘realistic’ view of romantic love.

My main reason for drawing together these seemingly incongruous films (apart from the fact that I love all three of them) is because of their surprisingly similar use of the happy ending as an idealistic structuring concept that their films’ characters willingly accept, strive towards, and attempt to impose on their own lives.

Chapter 1: “Romantic Projections” - The Current Romantic Comedy

“People have these romantic projections they put on everything that aren’t based in any kind of reality.”

-Jesse, Sunrise

“Our dream was to make a movie about how movies screw up your brain about love, and then if we did a good job, we would become one of the movies that screwed up people’s brains about love forever.”

-Nora Ephron, director/co-writer of Sleepless

In her seminal book concerning Hollywood’s depictions of romantic love, Creating the Couple, Virginia Wright-Wexman suggests that cinematic romances can now not only be seen as reflecting their society’s changing views of love and marriage but also as playing a large part in creating these views in the first place. Quoting, as one of her starting points, German sociologist Nicklas Luhmann, Wexman writes: “‘Taking a chance on love and the correspondingly complicated, demanding reorientation of everyday life is only possible if one has cultural traditions, literary texts, convincingly evocative linguistic patterns and situational images - in short, if one can fall back on a timeworn structure of semantics’. In the modern world Hollywood cinema may be seen as constituting such a semantic structure.”

The statement from Nora Ephron, quoted at the start of this chapter, shows that Sleepless is concerned with exactly these kinds of issues: its very subject is the way ‘movie love’ affects its audience.

In the film, the character Annie decides to risk her forthcoming marriage to a loving - but, of course, uninspiring - fiancée, for the sake of finding a man whom she has never met, but only heard once on the radio, Sam. Her reason for doing this is that she has become so indoctrinated into the concept of love as offered by Hollywood romances (particularly Leo McCarey’s An Affair To Remember [1957], which is featured heavily within the film) that she decides to take a chance and live her life entirely by its philosophy that “signs”, “magic” and “destiny” are necessary and expected components of successful romantic relationships. The control that Hollywood has over her is perhaps clearest in a scene in which Annie is writing a letter to Sam while she, and her best friend Becky, are watching An Affair To Remember on video:

Grant and Kerr plan their happy ending in An Affair to Remember...
Grant and Kerr plan their happy ending in An Affair to Remember...

ANNIE: [Watching the film] Now those were the days when people knew how to be in love… They knew it! Time, distance, nothing could separate them, because they knew it was right, it was real, it was…

BECKY: …A movie! That’s your problem: you don’t want to be in love, you want to be in love in a movie.


ANNIE: I should write something in this about magic.

BECKY: Magic?

ANNIE: What if I never meet him? What if this man is my destiny and I never meet him? [Writing the letter.] Okay: “I want… to meet you…”

[From the television we hear Cary Grant say to Deborah Kerr…]

CARY GRANT: How about the top of the Empire State Building?

BECKY: …On the top of the Empire State Building: sunset, Valentine’s Day.

[Annie types this into her letter.]

In Sleepless Annie plans hers...
In Sleepless Annie plans hers...

The familiar Hollywood figure of the dreamer who strives, against odds, for an extraordinary life (in this case through romantic ambitions) is shown here to have taken her ideals from her cultural surroundings: specifically, from Hollywood’s fictions. There is the opportunity here for an extremely truthful commentary about Hollywood’s ideological influence on our lives to be made - and, to a point, the film delivers this. It also, however, belongs to - and, in a way, epitomizes - a specific trend in recent Hollywood romantic comedy: that of the self-conscious romance.

In Terms of Endearment: Hollywood Romantic Comedy of the 80s and 90s, Frank Krutnik correctly identifies the current state of the Hollywood romantic comedy: “In the last two decades the genre is characterised by a self-conscious acknowledgement of the tradition [of romantic comedy], an acknowledgement which is also a defence against social convulsions in those very institutions of love, sexuality and marriage on which the genre is based.”

These films use references to existing romance texts (either cinematic/ literary/ theatrical romances, or cultural institutions associated with romance) as ironic touchstones in order that they might acknowledge, for an assumed-cynical audience, the falseness of the fantasy they themselves are presenting, while simultaneously perpetuating it. They say: “We know this is ridiculous - and we know you know this is ridiculous: this is a film”.

Pretty Woman's ending: 'Welcome to Hollywood...!'
Pretty Woman's ending: 'Welcome to Hollywood...!'
This means that, in Pretty Woman (1990), we cannot see the hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold kiss her “prince” at the film’s finale without simultaneously hearing a reprise of the opening voice-over telling us, “Welcome to Hollywood! Land of dreams…”, then nine years later, in She’s All That (1999), the ugly-duckling-turned-beauty is not permitted to kiss her hero at the film’s end without first saying, “I feel just like Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman”. This approach is not one practised only by a few isolated films: it is in fact rather unusual now to come across a Hollywood romantic comedy that does not contain at least a passing knowing reference to another romance text.

(In case you are wondering, here is a - certainly incomplete - list of some romantic comedies from the last twenty years or so alongside the romance tradition or story they reference:

Romancing the Stone (1984)/ romance fiction; Something Wild (1986)/ screwball; When Harry Met Sally (1989)/ Casablanca (1942); Pretty Woman (1990)/ Cinderella and Hollywood “movie love” in general; Sleepless in Seattle (1993)/ An Affair to Remember; Only You (1994)/ Roman Holiday; Everyone Says I Love You (1996)/ Hollywood musicals; The Wedding Singer (1998)/ 80’s romantic comedies; Ever After (1998)/ fairytales; You’ve Got Mail (1998)/ Pride and Prejudice; The Object of My Affection (1998)/ Singin’ in the Rain (1952); Never Been Kissed (1998)/ As You Like It; Shakespeare in Love (1998)/ Romeo and Juliet; She’s All That (1999)/ Pygmalion and Pretty Woman; 10 Things I Hate About You (1999)/ Shakespearean romance; Notting Hill (1999)/ Hollywood; Bridget Jones’ Diary (2000)/ Pride and Prejudice; Get Over it (2001)/ A Midsummer Night’s Dream; America’s Sweethearts (2001)/ Hollywood; The Wedding Planner (2001)/ fairytales; Serendipity (2002)/ Love in a Time of Cholera; Love Actually (2003)/ Titanic (1997); Intolerable Cruelty (2003)/ screwball; Down With Love (2003)/ 60’s “sex comedies”; Alex and Emma (2004)/ romance fiction; Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason (2004)/ the happy ending.)

Using my argument that it is only romantic comedies’ endings that brand the genre ‘unrealistic’, I would say that it is also only the rule of the happy ending that has necessitated this current approach. The romantic happy ending now is seemingly assumed so devalued by the postmodern (a concept I will return to later) self-consciousness so undeniably rampant in all areas of recent popular culture, and (more arguably) by “social convulsions in… love, sexuality and marriage” in the real world, that to present it entirely innocently is apparently not currently a viable option.

Yet we have also seen that the other, perhaps even more obvious, answer for a world suspicious of romantic love - to present unhappy endings - is now not entertained as an alternative either. What we have in Hollywood at present is an industry that is disbelieving of its own, happy ending, fantasies of romantic love, yet is absolutely unwilling to either relinquish them or offer an alternative in their place. Hollywood’s only remaining genre ‘about’ love now operates on the principle that “it is better to believe in a myth, a fabrication, than to have nothing”.

As I began to suggest, it is possible to view Sleepless (and, to a lesser extent, any other self-conscious romantic comedy) as deconstructing the effect of Hollywood’s depictions of romantic love on relationships, which, by addressing the unrealism inherent in the happy ending, could be said to constitute a realism of sorts. Whether or not this is true will come to form a focus of this essay; before I address this question, however, let us first look more closely at the broad types of ending that Sleepless and Sunrise / Sunset practise.

Chapter 2: “Happily-Ever-After” - The Happy Ending

“Love is the answer,

Someone to love is the answer…

Then you will be happy too."

-Lyrics to the final song of Sleepless

In his book The End: Narration and Closure in the Cinema, Richard Neupert sketches, and names, different kinds of ending that narrative cinema can achieve; two of them are, in order of the extent to which they create a sense of closure: the Closed Text ending and the Open Story ending. Neupert’s study states that full closure of a film is achieved when both its narrative, and its style, are resolved by its end; if this happens, the film has a Closed Text ending.

Speaking broadly, (classical) Hollywood cinema traditionally belongs to this category (Neupert chooses John Ford’s The Quiet Man [1952] as his case study), whereas a film of the second category - Open Story - is more likely to belong to what we might call Art Cinema (Neupert’s illustration uses Truffaut’s The 400 Blows [1959]).

Endings are something that only exist in art, not in life - short of our own death, or the apocalypse. The moment the telling of any story is ended it is immediately made, in this way, ‘unrealistic’, and, by that same rationale, the moment a story begins it is also unlike life for the same reason. Essentially, the entire process of giving a narrative to anything is a basic falsity created by the human mind to rationalise the unfocussed contingency of the real world, as I shall return to later.

Having acknowledged this though, we can assess the degrees to which a type of ending can be said to be ‘realistic’ or otherwise within the confines of the unavoidable ‘unrealism’ of a narrative. In terms of its structure, the Closed Text ending is, with its fully resolved style and story, the very least ‘realistic’ (i.e: life-like) of all possible film endings.

A Closed Text film needs a certain kind of story: one which has well-defined goals. Speaking of what a resolved story is, Neupert says: “A large story action may be that a sheriff must keep a murderer locked in jail until the judge arrives in town to hold a trial. This sort of action already has its own inscribed termination point since it implies that the sheriff will either succeed or fail. Either way, the question of ‘Will the sheriff be capable of holding the prisoner?’ would have to be answered for the action to be perceived as resolved.”

A ‘happy ending’ (or an ‘unhappy ending’, for that matter) is essentially only possible within a Closed Text film, since such a definitive statement about the ‘happiness’ of a story’s outcome assumes the potential for the achievement (or otherwise) of an established goal. In a romance film, the goal is whether ‘boy’ will ‘get girl’ having ‘met girl’ and ‘lost girl’. Being a romantic comedy, this goal is absolutely achieved in Sleepless.

Sleepless: Dark Moment
Sleepless: Dark Moment
Let’s look at the story’s conclusion. What happens at the end of Sleepless is the success of a plan arranged by Annie (inspired by An Affair to Remember, as the scene cited earlier shows) that she and Sam should meet on top of the Empire State Building on Valentine’s Day. The happy ending is preceded, however, by the familiar romantic comedy moment when the audience is asked temporarily to believe that the film’s lovers will not end up together due to a complication (referred to, in Billy Mernit’s instructional guide for the aspiring romantic comedy writer, Writing the Romantic Comedy, as “The Dark Moment”) - the moment when it appears that ‘boy’ has ‘lost girl’.

The Dark Moment avoided.
The Dark Moment avoided.
Here, this moment occurs when Annie, having just broken off her engagement with her fiancé, runs to the top of The Empire State only to find it empty, Sam and Jonah (Sam’s son, who flew to New York secretly in order to meet Annie) having just left. This is quickly resolved, however, when Sam and Jonah reappear to reclaim a rucksack that Jonah has accidentally left; Annie and Sam introduce each other, hold hands, and the three disappear into an elevator together.

Clearly, this ending answers the question of “Will Sam and Annie meet and form a relationship?”, but it also resolves the individual ‘quest’ of each character that was set up at the film’s opening: Sam’s need to get over the death of his wife (made plain in the pre-credit sequence following her funeral) and Annie’s desire for a “magic” relationship (established in the post-credit sequence of the visit to her family home). As well as this, in order to reinforce closure even further, this conclusion has resolved the recently rocky relationship between Sam and his son Jonah (via Sam rushing to find him), and Annie’s relationship with her fiancé. The satisfaction we take from all these questions being answered is a pleasure unique to a Closed Text ending: the sense of unquestionable completion, that there is nothing more to tell.

Through its style, too, a Closed Text ending tends to stress finality. Visually, Sleepless does this in almost the most exaggerated way possible: by, prior to the fade-out, actually closing off the possibility of any further action through removing the audience from the characters and world of the film entirely.

When Jonah, Sam and Annie have got in the lift, as the couple look into each other’s eyes, Jonah looks towards camera and smiles just as the lift doors close shut. The clearly self-conscious aspect of this action I will elaborate on later on, but, that aside, the look to camera clearly spells closure: it is almost akin to a bow to audience at the end of a play. As well as this, the closing doors are a powerful visual symbol of an end-point: the characters are sealed into the film, their fictional lives now complete; it is, to continue the theatrical analogy, the final curtain.

Following this, on the doors that have closed, we see an outline of the Empire State Building; this outline then becomes reality as the screen fades to (seemingly) a helicopter shot of the real building (complete with giant red hearts made from lights on its sides). We circle once around the building before pulling up, craning back further and further, faster and faster, until finally we reach the cartoon map of America we first encountered on the credit sequence (and which has since been used as a visual illustration of the characters’ travels, via dotted lines, backwards and forwards across the country) but this time at night, now made up of hundreds of twinkling lights. There is more to come, however, when several fireworks shoot up from America and form the stars in the sky. The ‘camera’ moves up again, focussing on the stars, the song that is playing - which is itself a reference back to the credit sequence, creating an extra sense of circularity and completion - ends, and we fade out.

This ending takes the familiar Classical Hollywood technique of craning up and away from our protagonist(s) in the final shot of the film to new heights. Needless to say, this visually creates an overpowering sense of closure. The story having finished, the whole world (or at least America, and in particular, New York, the city now almost synonymous with Hollywood romance) has served its purpose - uniting these two lovers - and can therefore be left forever. For the world of the film, time itself has finished.

As well as this, the circularity of using the image of the map from the opening credits, plus hearing the same singer (Jimmy Durante) on the soundtrack, signals that the ending has been predestined since the beginning; as Neuport says: “Bracketing by means of similar opening and closing sequences or combinations of elements allows a fiction film to maintain a cyclical unity for its narrative. Simultaneously, such bracketing proves that the narrator knew where the story was heading all along.”

And, of course, every single member of the audience, too, has been expecting this conclusion to the story from the moment the film began. Apart from the obvious genre supposition, it has been coded as inevitable throughout by many structural and visual parallels between the lives of Sam and Annie. Scenes in which Sam has been talking to his best friend about relationships have been immediately followed by scenes in which Annie is talking to her best friend about relationships; a scene in which Sam is shown sitting outside alone, deep in thought, has been intercut (and linked by a song on the soundtrack) with a scene of Annie doing the same; the film An Affair to Remember, linked first with Annie, finds its way into Sam’s world too. Such parallels create, in a film that very self-consciously buys into the old romance tale chestnut that fate is the driving force behind ‘true love’, a definite sense of inevitability and predetermination.

The ease of overcoming distance in a predestined world.
The ease of overcoming distance in a predestined world.

Within the already ‘unrealistic’ (by my definition) concept of ending any story, the Closed Text is (due to its goal-centred narrative and tight closure) the least like life. Amongst the ‘unrealistic’ genres of the Closed Text film, the romantic comedy is (through its suggestion that the happiness of the start of a relationship will continue indefinitely) one of the least ‘realistic’. Finally, within the ‘unrealistic’ genre of the romantic comedy, Sleepless gleefully takes pride in being among the most ‘unrealistic’ you could ever hope to find.

This Closed Text ending, and its familiar concepts - illusion of finality for the relationship, fate being a structuring force behind life and love - are, at least at first glance, entirely absent from Sunrise and Sunset

Read Part 2 here.

This article was published on September 07, 2005.

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