Breaking In: Rescuing the Romantic Comedy

Is the romantic comedy dead? Don't send for the coroner just yet. Script analyst Staton Rabin sees hope for a miraculous recovery for the genre - from an unexpected source.
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Originally published June, 2011.

 Oh baby! Rescue me, pleeeeeaaaassseee!!

Oh baby! Rescue me, pleeeeeaaaassseee!!

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Lately, a lot of people in and out of Hollywood have been asking the scary question, “Is the romantic comedy movie dead?” I read a lot of scripts for screenwriters and see a lot of movies, and I admit I’ve been starting to wonder that myself.

Remember the late ‘80s and early ‘90s? When Harry Met Sally, Sleepless in Seattle, Four Weddings and a Funeral. So many excellent movies! Romantic comedies were thriving. And that wasn’t so very long ago.

But as we sail into the storms of the new millennium, it seems like romantic comedies are struggling to find their sea legs. In the age of “hookups” and “friends with benefits," nobody seems to know what a modern romantic comedy should be.

THE “FORBIDDEN” EMOTION

Recently, No Strings Attached (a movie about a couple that has a “friends with benefits” agreement that doesn't last) tried to make a romantic comedy out of the secret, forbidden yearning of this new century: love. Imagine that! Love is the emotion that has become unacceptable. Back in the really old days, the “deep, dark secret” would have been sex. No, I’m not suggesting we go back to the era of Puritanism and prudery. But, love as a forbidden emotion when two single people are having an affair? What’s the world coming to?

And yet, movies don’t lie. The attitudes in that particular movie reflect reality for many young adults today. And that’s why screenwriters are having so much trouble coming up with a movie that is romantic, funny, and acknowledges that love actually (still) exists. Yes, The 40-Year-Old Virgin was a good, relatively recent “rom-com” movie, and a few others were good too. But most romantic comedies lately have tanked at the box office, and been critical failures as well. Does anyone believe in true love anymore? And if they do, can they admit it—even to themselves?

HAPPILY EVER AFTER

In the past, the whole romantic comedy genre was based on the assumption that real people who sat in movie theaters believed in romantic love. They could believe that a man could take one look at a woman and fall madly in love, and that they could “live happily ever after." Actually, that’s how my parents met. My father, recently returned from combat in WWII, first got a gander at my pretty mother in a pharmacy in Brooklyn (he especially admired her legs), followed her home to get her name off the building’s buzzer, and then looked her up in the phone book to call her for a date. I think she hung up on him the first time he called, but he persisted. No, she didn’t have him arrested for being a “stalker” (in those days. the expression was "a masher")-- after all, he was a stranger, but he was from the neighborhood. They went out on a date, and he proposed that night. They’ve been married since l947.

Nowadays, it seems so many people have grown cynical about love that it’s hard to come up with an idea for a romantic comedy that people will believe, anymore. I find that really, really sad.

HOPE ON THE HORIZON-- FROM AN UNEXPECTED SOURCE

Recently, though, I’ve read some scripts that were swooningly romantic (but not sappy), moving, real, funny, poignant, and everything you want a romantic comedy movie to be. These scripts gave me hope about the future of romantic comedy. They affirmed our common humanity and confirmed universal human feelings. They were contemporary. They were about people with emotional baggage, who (like most of us, these days) were cautious about falling in love again, and who faced challenges. But, in the end, our heroes surrendered to their emotions. And everyone lived happily ever after.

I loved these scripts. And, oh, by the way—the main characters in these love stories? They were gay. Yes, gay as in “homosexual," not just “happy."

These stories tapped into basic human needs and emotions that all of us, gay or straight, share and can relate to. They were lovely and true, moving and delightful. And simply by the fact that the main couple in the story is just like anyone else-- with hearts that can love, and hearts that can break—this sends a very strong but non-preachy message: that gay people are just like everyone else.

WHAT I LEARNED IN CALIFORNIA

I lived for many years in San Francisco, and though I’m not gay I got to know many gay people, some of them as close friends. So I’ve known for many years that gays are just like anyone else. The gay people I knew had normal lives. Many lived as devoted partners in long-term cohabiting relationships, sometimes for decades-- longer than many heterosexual relationships lasted. I lived there during the height of the AIDS crisis, so I witnessed true love and devotion in the way that long-time gay partners took care of each other when one or both partners became seriously ill.

The East Coast, South, and middle of the country may have been a little bit behind much of California in figuring out that gay people are just like everybody else (although California is also the state where much of the anti-gay legislation crops up from time to time). Things are changing now and the country as a whole seems to be slowly but surely moving in the direction of greater acceptance of gay relationships. That’s a fact, regardless of how people as individuals may feel about this.

SO, THE ANSWER IS???

Anyway, it occurred to me this week, after reading yet another excellent romantic comedy with same-sex romantic partners as the lead characters, that maybe therein lies the salvation of the romantic comedy genre. At least, for now (until some clever screenwriter figures out how to tap into the new Zeitgeist when it comes to heterosexual romantic comedies, too). Gay romantic comedy seems to be the answer.

But this leads to an interesting question. Why? Why do romantic comedies about gay couples work so well these days, while ones about straight couples keep sinking like the Titatnic?

Well, maybe these are some of the reasons:

1.) Although scripts featuring gay characters as the protagonists are becoming increasingly common, it’s still relatively rare for these movies to reach the screen as mainstream films. So these screenplays, most of which are aimed at mainstream gay and straight audiences, still seem inherently fresh and new. Many of the old reliable romantic comedy formulas are being successfully rejiggered to suit gay lead characters. The fact that the characters are gay is usually “no big deal” in the new movie scripts I read. In old dramas like Tea and Sympathy, homosexuality was a character’s “deep, dark secret." Or the movie’s whole focus was homosexuality (even when the fact that the character was gay was only implied). But today, when the main character in a movie is gay, this fact about the person is taken for granted, and may not be a significant factor in the plot. Still, when a main character is gay this often creates just enough added interest to the story that it gives the script a little extra jolt of originality and fresh possibilities, even when the situations in the story are familiar to audiences from old romantic comedy movies.

2.) Discovering that gay people have all the same conflicts and joys, fears and insecurities, and capacity to love as straight people do feels inherently “new” to some straight people. It shouldn’t be a “revelation," but, to some, it is-- and prejudices can be challenged. Challenging us to grow and become a better person is what great movies do.

3.) Intergenerational and family relationships can sometimes be particularly interesting when it comes to gay couples. There are older parents or grandparents who may or may not “disapprove” of their relationships. There may be straight opposite-sex ex-spouses, and complex issues involved in blending families. There may be a female surrogate mother, for example, in the case of a gay male couple that wants to have children. True, all of these situations can and often do exist in straight families, too. And a recent survey shows that the children of same-sex partners are actually even more easily accepted by their peers than the children of single mothers are. But there may be some extra possibilities for conflict and complications that screenwriters can explore when it comes to gay characters’ relationships in their screenplays. And more complications make for more comic and dramatic possibilities for screenwriters.

4.) Maybe, in a society that has become increasingly detached and disconnected (Facebook, I’m talking to you!), where hook-ups are common but “love” seems to be a four-letter word, watching a loving gay relationship unfold in a movie (or screenplay) gives us all permission to be human again. It gives us a chance to acknowledge our hidden need for love and acceptance and our common humanity. After all, if love can survive and flourish even in “unromantic” 2011-- and even with all the challenges of being gay in this still-prejudiced society-- doesn’t this say something about the enduring power and beauty of love, and affirm our common humanity?

A GAY COMEDY?

So... Am I suggesting that you write your next romantic comedy about a gay couple? Not necessarily-- and not at all, if you don't think this is something that you'd be good at. I'm suggesting that you consider new ways to breathe life into the genre to suit changing times, whatever those ways may be.

Keep in mind that writing a "gay" romantic comedy-- especially if you're hoping to sell it as a big-budget film-- might adversely affect your chances of selling your script since, even in this enlightened age, some stars won't want to play a gay role, and some film audiences will refuse to go see any romance about gay characters. From my perspective, I only care whether a script or movie is good, not whether the main characters are straight or not. But then again, I am not a movie executive who buys scripts, I'm a professional script reader.

And remember: you can't just write a script about gay characters if you don't actually know anyone who is gay or at least have done your "homework." Just because gay folks are just like anyone else, doesn't mean that you don't have to make any effort to understand how being gay and growing up gay "in a (mostly) straight world" results in different experiences in life.

Do you have to be gay yourself in order to write a meaningful and realistic script about gay characters? A good question, but the answer is "probably not" (though I would also guess it probably really helps). The classic example (on the topic of whether writers need "personal experience" in order to be able to write convincingly about something) that people always cite is that Stephen Crane, who wrote the Civil War classic, The Red Badge of Courage, was born after the war and had never witnessed a battle until after the book was published in the 1890s. That's not a perfect analogy by any means, but you get the gist.

I have no idea if the writers who wrote the good comedy scripts I've been reading lately about gay romances are gay or not. If they're not, I got the sense that, at minimum, they really, really did their homework and have gotten to know people who are gay.

Keep pitching. See you next month!

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