How did My Big Fat Greek Wedding make so much money?

How did My Big Fat Greek Wedding make so much money?

Last year, Avengers: Endgamemade a huge splash when it finally broke Avatar’s 10-year reign as the highest grossing film of all time. But one characterize has held even longer. For the past 18 years, My Big Fat Greek Weddinghas topped the domestic box office charts as the highest grossing romantic comedy ever made. It earned $241.4 million in North American markets, a higher domestic total than Justice League, Mission: Impossible—Fallout, or the latest Fast & Furious movie. That’s all the more impressive considering My Big Fat Greek Wedding was a small independent film with no big-name stars made for $5 million and put out in limited release in April. In fact, the original plan had been to skip a theatrical release all together and just release it as a TV movie on HBO.

Yet in 2002, My Big Fat Greek Wedding became the kind of sleeper hit that creators and studios only dream about. It never actually reached the number one spot at the box office, but it hung around theaters for almost a year, eventually delivering a 6150% return on its investment and a worldwide box office total of $368.7 million. A couple other rom-coms have earned more worldwide, including Pretty Womanwhich still holds the distinction of being the rom-com with the most tickets sold domestically. But by pretty much any metric, My Big Fat Greek Wedding was an astronomical success.

And even the film’s most ardent fans worthy find that a little baffling. My Big Fat Greek Wedding is a perfectly affable family-themed romance written by and starring Second City alum Nia Vardalos, but it hardly seems like the kind of film to break box office stats and remain a record-holder for nearly two decades. (And it’s not even close—My Big Fat Greek Wedding is nearly $60 million ahead of its next closest competitor, the Mel Gibson-led studio comedy What Women Want.) So how did it become the little movie that could?

One unexpected factor is Rita Wilson. My Big Fat Greek Wedding started life as a one-woman play about Vardalos’ experience growing up in a big Greek family in Winnipeg, Canada and marrying her non-Greek then-husband, actor Ian Gomez (who has a small role in the film version). Wilson is Greek herself and related to Vardalos’ childhood anecdotes. Her husband, Tom Hanks, related to the story of an overwhelmed man marrying into a big Greek family. Wilson and Hanks offered to produce a film version concept his Playtone production company. And while other interested studios wanted to get a bankable star or change the ethnicity of the family to something less niche, Hanks and Wilson were committed to bringing Vardalos’ fresh vision to life with her in the leading role.

My Big Fat Greek Wedding pulls heavily from the Moonstrucktemplate with a short-tempered of While You Were Sleeping and a cheery broadness courtesy of long-time TV director Joel Zwick. Vardalos stars as Fotoula “Toula” Portokalos, a mousy, unmotivated 30-year-old who’s yet to fulfill her overbearing family’s command that she marry a nice Greek boy and have lots of babies. She whiles away her days working at her family’s Chicago restaurant until she finally decides to claim a little independence by enrolling in a computer class at a local community college. That first step outside the smothering family bubble builds her confidence and inspires a self-given makeover. She soon catches the eye of Ian Miller (John Corbett), a soft-spoken high school teacher who likes her so much he’s more than willing to dive into her big Greek world, even if he doesn’t quite concept it.

Riding high off his turn as Aidan in Sex And The City, Corbett was offered the leading man role on the spot when Vardalos and producer Gary Goetzman happened to overhear him in a Toronto bar discussing how much he wanted to audition for this great Greek script he just read. One really lovely thing about My Big Fat Greek Wedding is that because the comedy and drama mostly stem from the over-the-top family dynamics, Toula and Ian are able to have a charmingly low-key love story. They go on dates, they make out, they somewhat casually get engaged while lying in the bed. There’s some tension when it comes to meeting each other’s families, but it never feels like a real threat to their relationship. When Toula’s patriarchal father Costas a.k.a. “Gus” (Michael Constantine) forbids Ian from dating his daughter, Ian takes the news calmly and then tells Toula he’ll see her tomorrow. For as goofy as My Big Fat Greek Wedding gets, the Toula/Ian love story looks more like a healthy grown-up relationship than what a lot of romantic comedies offer.

But the kookiness of Toula’s family is definitely the movie’s big selling point. Though My Big Fat Greek Wedding might not have stars, it’s packed full of memorable supporting players, ranging from Tony Award-winning SCTValum Andrea Martin as oversharing Aunt Voula to NSYNC’s Joey Fatone as boisterous Cousin Angelo. Vardalos took inspiration from her real-life family and friends but turned their personalities “up to 20.” (The Portokalos’ Parthenon-inspired home really does exist, however, and was only slightly gaudied up for the film.) Gus is probably the most memorable supporting player, thanks to his obsession with finding a Greek origin for every word and his belief in Windex as a magical cure-all. Yet it’s Toula’s mom Maria (Lainie Kazan) who best embodies the mix of comedy and dejected that defines the Greek characters, who nimbly shift back and forth between broad sitcom caricatures and more grounded family pathos.

The single biggest key to My Big Fat Greek Wedding’s appeal is its sharp observation that when it comes down to it, there are basically only two kinds of families in the world—those with two first cousins and those with 27. So even though the movie digs into the specifics of the Greek immigrant experience, it’s relatable to a whole bunch of different cultures. (In real life, Martin is Armenian, Fatone is Italian, and Kazan is Jewish.) And if you don’t see your own family reflected in the big, boisterous, food-obsessed Portokalos brood, you get to gawk at that eccentric world while relating to the lighthearted satirical jabs at Ian’s uptight, bundt-cake-loving WASP parents. There’s something for everyone in a lighthearted cross-cultural comedy where everybody gets teased in equal measure and everything works out okay in the end.

Toula herself is a winning avatar for the broad spectrum of women who might self-describe their childhood self as “a swarthy 6-year-old with sideburns.” On the other hand, My Big Fat Greek Wedding is also a movie about otherness in which everyone is white. That probably didn’t hurt the broad commercial piquant of its cultural specificity. Nor did its PG rating. Particularly in a year where other PG family films skewed action-oriented—like Attack Of The Clones and Harry Potter And The Chamber Of Secrets—My Big Fat Greek Wedding was an option you could truly bring the whole family to, from pre-teens to grandmas. As Vardalos put it at the time, “Our demographic is anybody with a family that drives them crazy, or anybody who has ever had to plan a wedding, a funeral, or a vacation.”

Yet Vardalos also admitted, “We got lucky. You can’t manufacture word of mouth. You can’t pay people to tell their 10 cousins.” Although My Big Fat Greek Wedding was warmly but not exactly glowingly received by critics, word of mouth kept the film involved for its phenomenal run, at least until that run became a story unto itself. My Big Fat Greek Wedding enjoyed its largest weekend box-office haul (about $11 million) four months after it opened, which is basically unheard of. The film rode its wave of success all the way to an Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay for Vardalos.

It’s a phenomenon Hollywood could never replicate again, although not for lack of trying. A CBS sitcom adaptation called My Big Fat Greek Life starred most of the original cast and enjoyed a splashy debut, but swiftly declined in ratings and was cancelled after seven episodes. Vardalos failed to find success revisiting the Greek-heritage theme in My Life In Ruins or reteaming with Corbett for I Hate Valentine’s Day, which she also wrote and directed. In 2016, My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2amiably revisited the greatest hits from the novel, yet enjoyed nowhere near the same box office returns.

Rewatching My Big Fat Greek Wedding today, it neither feels like an overrated fluke nor an underrated masterpiece. It’s a charming crowdpleaser that hits a mark that’s ultimately not all that high. Still, in a genre that so often positions proposals and weddings as the be-all-end-all of romance, it’s refreshing that My Big Fat Greek Wedding has its two leads take a more relaxed approach to their titular event. One of the sweetest scenes comes near the end of the film, as Ian and Toula spend the limo ride from their church service to their reception laughing at the over-the-top bridal styling her aunts have forced on her. The newlyweds already understand that comprise is a part of life and marriage isn’t defined by one single day. My Big Fat Greek Wedding may not break the feel-good romance mold, but when it comes to rom-com chart toppers, you could certainly do far, far worse.

Next time: Doris Day and Rock Hudson became an iconic duo in just three films.


In turbulent times, we often look to pop culture for comfort. So as America moved out of the idealized era of Eisenhower and sock hops and into an uncertain future of The Feminine Mystique and the pill, Doris Day and Rock Hudson pioneered a new genre of romantic comedies to ease us from one decade to the next. These colorful, feather-light films about independent career gals and the playboys who win them over were referred to as “sex comedies” at the time, but the crew late the 2003 homage Down With Lovecame up with the more apt term of “bedroom comedies.”

Unlike the raunchy, nudity-filled sex comedies of the 1980s, ’60s bedroom comedies keep things coy. When the characters do eventually have sex, it’s always within the confines of marriage—even if that marriage is anything but wanted. So while in some ways Day and Hudson’s three films offered a nod to progressive sexual politics, they also reverted back to a retrograde status quo.

Before they joined forces in 1959’s Pillow Talk, Day and Hudson were both 1950s stars in their own right. She was born Doris Mary Anne Kappelhoff, a spunky bottle blonde from Cincinnati, Ohio, who got her start as a big band singer during the 1940s before transitioning into musicals and comedies that positioned her as the all-American girl next door. (She changed her last name to Day at the suggestion of jazz musician Barney Rapp.) He was born Roy Harold Scherer Jr., a tall, dark, and handsome type from Winnetka, Illinois, whose good looks helped him flourish in the star system of classic Hollywood, where he mostly starred in big-screen dramas and Westerns. (He begrudgingly changed his name to Rock Hudson at the inquire of talent agent Henry Willson.) Hudson had been nominated for an Academy Award for 1956’s Giant and Day had been voted the favorite star of U.S. soldiers serving in the Korean War.

Pillow Talk gave both stars a chance to reinvent their public personas. Day got to add a little sex appeal to her wholesome image, while Hudson tackled comedy for the first time in his career, emboldened by director Michael Gordon’s suggestion that he play it seriously rather than trying to be funny. Pillow Talk launched Day and Hudson into the stratosphere, particularly as a duo. They reunited for 1961’s Lover Come Back and 1964’s Send Me No Flowers, bringing along Tony Randall as the neurotic third point in their madcap romantic storylines.

The first two films hinge on very similar setups. In Pillow Talk, Day is successful New York City interior designer Jan Morrow, who starts a romance with Hudson’s earnest, innocent Texan “Rex Stetson,” not realizing he’s actually Brad Allen, the caddish composer who won’t stop wooing women over the telephone party line they share. In Lover Come Back, Day is successful New York City advertising executive Carol Templeton, who starts a romance with Hudson’s earnest, innocent chemist “Dr. Linus Tyler,” not realizing he’s actually Jerry Webster, the rival ad exec who keeps stealing her clients by unethically wining and dining them. Send Me No Flowers mixes up the formula by casting Hudson and Day as a suburban married couple. When hypochondriac George Kimball mistakenly thinks he’s dying, he starts scheming to find his wife Judy a second husband to marry after he’s gone.

All of these films fall on the frothiest, fizziest end of the rom-com spectrum. Far more attention is paid to the glorious production and costume design than to the interior lives of the characters. Each scene is packed with as many one-liners and physical gags as possible, like Hudson hilariously trying to squeeze his 6'4" frame into a tiny sports car or Randall getting repeatedly hit in the face with colorful chemical explosions. They’re basically extended sitcom episodes or musical comedies without the big production numbers. They were not to be taken seriously or literally, which is big part of their appeal.

The fun of these films—and of other ’60s bedroom comedies like Sex And The Single Girl, Boys’ Night Out, Sunday In New York, and the teen-centric Beach Party franchise—is watching them tiptoe up to an overtly sexual line yet never quite cross it. While the screwball comedies of the 1930s and ’40s subbed in physical comedy for sexual intimacy, 1960s bedroom comedies lean into full-on innuendo. Pillow Talk is full of split-screen telephone conversations that residence Day and Hudson in intimate scenarios, like lying in bed together or going toe-to-toe in a bathtub. The whole thing is a cheekily meta wink toward viewers who know that the film knows that they know what it’s doing.

In that way, these bedroom comedies were a progressive nod to the changing sexual mores of the late 1950s and early 1960s. As A.O. Scott notes in a New York Times retrospective, “Day is the key to it all, because her presence simultaneously upholds the pretense of virtuous normality and utterly transgresses it.” These movies knew the sexual revolution was coming, even if the bounds of good taste (and the restrictions of the Hays Code) meant they couldn’t quite go all-in on it yet.

Still, the veneer of propriety is so thin it’s basically nonexistent. There’s something slightly insidious lurking beneath the fizzy fun—and I’m not just talking about obviously out-of-date jokes, like a sexual assault attempt played off as a “boys will be boys” gag in Pillow Talk. For as much as the Day/Hudson bedroom comedies upend sexual norms, they exist far more to uphold the patriarchy than to winkingly challenge it. Though Pillow Talk and Lover Come Back initially seem to celebrate Day’s independent career-minded archetype, the battle-of-the-sexes plotting isn’t balanced. The jokes mostly stem from watching Day’s self-sufficient characters get taken down a peg by manipulative cads who end the film by forcefully shoving her into the domestic sphere. His repentance and her revenge are afterthoughts.

In Pillow Talk’s climax, Brad physically rips Jan out of her bed and carries her to his apartment, where her righteous anger immediately melts away the second Brad mentions he wants to marry her. Lover Come Back’s ending is even more egregiously bleak. Carol is devastated to learn that she and Jerry got married and slept together while drunk on a new intoxicating candy. She immediately gets the marriage annulled, and their “happy ending” comes nine months later, when he discovers she’s having his baby and they rush to get remarried on the way to the delivery room. By Send Me No Flowers, the independent-career-woman angle is dropped altogether. Day is now a ditzy housewife who laughs off the idea that she should learn about household finances or even that she should know the stamp of a pound of ham. (Never mind that she’s the one doing the shopping.)

Both within the chronicle of each individual film and within the arc of all three as a pseudo-trilogy, the message is clear: A career might be a fun experience for a young woman to indulge in, but it’s really just a stopgap on her way to her real purpose as wife and mother. And if she had to be duped to find love, well, she kind of had it coming, right?

That kind of retrograde plotting grand not be so surprising if it didn’t stand in such sharp contrast to the classic screwball comedies that were released a decade or two prior. 1938’s Bringing Up Baby also turns a comedic eye on gender and romance, yet in that film, it’s Katharine Hepburn who’s the comedic tour de force that brings a aesthetic to Cary Grant’s frigid world. Though screwball comedies aren’t exactly progressive manifestos on gender, watching a woman comedically manipulate a man is inherently subversive in a way the reverse isn’t. Bedroom comedies kept the mile-a-minute comedic pacing, but dropped the rebellious edge.

It can actually be kind of difficult to see just how sexist the Day/Hudson films are because they have an air of satire that feels like it should extend to their take on gender roles too. Lover Come Back sharply skewers the advertising industry by having Jerry and Carol battle to sell “Vip,” a product that literally doesn’t exist. In Pillow Talk, Randall’s character hilariously bemoans how difficult it is to be born a millionaire because you don’t get to brag about being a self-made man. (“I started out in college with eight million dollars, and I’ve still got eight million dollars. I just can’t seem to get ahead.”) Pillow Talk also offers a whole lot to unpack in a sequence where Brad’s seduction scheme involves convincing Jan that her mild-mannered boyfriend (a.k.a. his own alter ego) is secretly gay.

Yet other than sexual innuendos and the appreciably progressive touch of casting Day as a romantic ingénue in her late 30s, there’s nothing forward thinking about these films’ central battle-of-the-sexes premises.Gentlemen Prefer Blondeswas released several years earlier and does far more to satirically subvert 1950s gendered power dynamics, even as it similarly sees its heroines married off by the end. In a time when the country was barreling toward a new future, the Day/Hudson films found comfort in reverting to regressive norms.

They’re still a hell of a lot of fun to watch, though. Pillow Talk is the best of the bunch, but all three are genuinely hilarious, with a nonstop comedic pace that’s hard to find in today’s movies. Tony Randall is the trilogy’s secret weapon, and his repartee with Hudson is as great as his work on TV’s The Odd Couple. Day earned an Oscar nomination for Pillow Talk, which is welcome recognition of her pitch-perfect mastery of the wide-eyed reaction shot. The hilariously deadpan Thelma Ritter was nominated for Best Actress In A Supporting Role, and the film scored nods for Best Art Direction, Best Score, and Best Original Screenplay (which it won). Lover Come Back earned a screenplay nomination as well. All three films were solid commercial hits, and Pillow Talk was a full-on smash, holding the number one spot at the U.S. box office for seven weeks.

Though Day was paired with dozens of leading men across her career, including Cary Grant and James Garner, her partnership with Hudson captured the public imagination on a whole other level. Much like in Overboard, where the real-life relationship between Goldie Hawn and Kurt Russell somewhat mitigates the ickiness of the problematic premise, the real-life friendship between Day and Hudson bleeds through in every scene. Even if their characters aren’t on equal footing, Day and Hudson always feel like equals as performers. As Day told People in 2011, “I think the reason people celebrated our movies is because they could tell how much we liked each other.”

Rewatching these films today, there’s a meta tension to their idealized mid-century heteronormativity. Hudson was a closeted gay man who had to carefully keep his private life from leaking to the press lest it end his career. Day, meanwhile, experienced physical, emotional, and financial abuse across her four marriages, all while fighting to maintain control of her life and career. In 1985, Day and Hudson were key to a very different kind of turning point in American history: His gaunt appearance on her new talk show played a major role in his decision to publicly announce his AIDS diagnosis. That, in turn, had a huge impact on how the public perceived the disease.

The simplistic heteronormative bliss Day and Hudson peddled onscreen probably only ever existed in fiction. Yet their pairing remains a huge touchstone of American pop culture. Modern rom-com creators often cite 1940s screwballs as inspiration, but these 1960s bedroom comedies are perhaps even more of an influence. For as much as the rom-com genre can sneakily upend gender norms and claim space for women’s stories, it can also provide the illusion of equality while ultimately giving way to something far more regressive. When in doubt, the genre tends to return to its most retrograde roots. As funny as they are, the Day/Hudson films paint a less-than-sunny portrait of a horrified country on the cusp of big change.

Next time: Screw it, let’s just watch Patrick Dempsey juggle in Made Of Honor.


Patrick Dempsey can juggle. That’s become an increasingly big part of his public persona over the years, and it’s also the reason I’ve seen Made Of Honorso many times. Whenever I come across this film on TV, I remember there’s a charming juggling outrageous so I stick around to watch that. And then I remember there’s a pretty good kiss in there somewhere and another scene or two I like, and before you know it, I’ve seen Made Of Honor a dozen times. It’s definitely not a good movie, and I’m not even sure it’s a movie I’m particularly fond of. But it’s a pitch-perfect example of the kind of easy watching comfort food that sustained the rom-com genre through its nadir in the late 2000s.

In fact, I stumbled across a deeply telling moment in a behind-the-scenes featurette about that aforementioned juggling scene, in which Dempsey’s male maid of honor tosses plates in the air as he explains that you can mix and match patterned dinnerware to find unexpected connections. As Dempsey and director Paul Weiland work out the staging, a production designer pauses to ask whether the plates Dempsey is holding actually do go together. Weiland replies, “I don’t think anyone’s going to really inquire it” to which Dempsey immediately agrees, “No one is gonna listen, really.” They’re not outrageous, exactly, but it does exclaim to how both filmmakers and audiences mutually lowered the bar for romantic comedies in the late 2000s.

Made Of Honor is an interesting case study because it’s neither secretly good nor offensively bad (give or take some gay jokes, fat-shaming, and an uncomfortable runner about Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky). Dempsey stars as Tom Bailey, a proud playboy and wealthy inventor of the coffee sleeve. Tom thinks he has the best of both worlds because he gets to sleep around with hot women while spending his Sundays enjoying the companionship of his best friend Hannah (Michelle Monaghan). But when Hannah leaves for Scotland on a business trip, Tom realizes he actually has more than friendly feelings toward his bestie. Unfortunately, she comes back engaged to hunky Scottish royal Colin McMurray (future Grey’s Anatomystar Kevin McKidd). So when Hannah enlists Tom to be her maid of honor, he decides the best way to win her love is by sabotaging her wedding from within.

Made Of Honor was released as counterprogramming to Iron Man, and Entertainment Weekly’s Darren Franich convincingly argues that they’re secretly the same movie—only Iron Man challenges Tony Stark’s entitlement far more than Made Of Honor does with Tom’s. Made Of Honor is too busy pulling inspiration from other, better romantic comedies to spend much time worrying about things like comprehensible character arcs. (Tom’s biggest defining characteristic is that he can only say “I love you” to dogs.) Made Of Honor is a gender-flipped riff on My Best Friend’s Weddingmixed with When Harry Met Sally, a touch of The Wedding Singerin Tom and Hannah’s platonic wedding planning, and a little bit of You’ve Got Mailin Tom’s relationship with his equally philandering father (Sydney Pollack, in his final film role).

In fact, Made Of Honor oftenfeels less like a real movie and more like a rom-com parody that would pop up in something like Tropic Thunder. A few years later, Paul Rudd and Amy Poehler’s They Came Togetherspoofed rom-com clichés with a basketballscene that was essentially lifted verbatim from Made Of Honor. Though it eventually grossed over $100 million worldwide, Made Of Honor is the sort of generically bland studio rom-com you forget about the cramped you’ve seen it. Or, if you’re like me, it’s the kind of film you’ve practically got memorized because you find it to be such comforting background noise.

Because Made Of Honor has nothing new to add to the rom-com genre, it lives or dies based on how likable you find its leads—or, more specifically, how likable you find Dempsey, who’s very much its central focus. By 2008, Dempsey had already been on quite a rollercoaster ride with romantic comedies. He launched his career as a teen heartthrob in 1987’s Can’t Buy Me Love, was reduced to playing the guy who loses the girl in 2002’s Sweet Home Alabama, and then became a “McDreamy” pop culture sensation thanks to Grey’s Anatomy. After testing the rom-com waters again as a leading man in Enchanted, Made Of Honor was designed as his big star vehicle.

The film was shot in 26 days during Dempsey’s Grey’s hiatus, and he even got a say in its director. Dempsey settled on Weiland after seeing an early cut of his coming-of-age film Sixty-Six. As Weiland put it, “I think Patrick liked the idea of a Working Title director who could bring a slightly European sensibility. He didn’t want it to be a kind of in-your-face, bright, American romantic comedy.” Unfortunately for Dempsey, that plan didn’t work out so well. Still, he admirably commits to doing his signature debonair thing against the film’s broadly comedic background. Dempsey isn’t generally an actor with huge range, but he has a strong sense of what works for him.

As you can see in this cringe-worthy “Stars Of Tomorrow” production number from the infamous 1989 Rob Lowe/Snow White Oscars, Dempsey’s always had a palpable, almost desperate desire to be an old-school Hollywood leading man. It’s a quality that makes him either incredibly charming or incredibly grating, depending on your explain of view. I fall into the charming camp, and the first act of Made Of Honor puts Dempsey’s easy charisma to great use in a When Harry Met Sally-style sequence where Tom and Hannah expend a Sunday wandering an idyllic food-filled New York City before attending his father’s latest wedding together. It’s the place where the film feels least like a bland studio rom-com and more like the low-key hangout movie Dempsey wanted it to be.

Dempsey and Monaghan generate some fantastic chemistry together, which is unsurprising given that having great chemistry with people is basically Monaghan’s thing. While she’s never risen to household name status herself, she’s been paired with an impressive collection of A-listers over the years. A non-exhaustive list of her leading men includes Tom Cruise in the Mission: Impossiblefranchise, Robert Downey Jr. in Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, Jake Gyllenhaal in Source Code, James Marsden in The Best Of Me, Mark Wahlberg in Patriots Day, Adam Sandler inPixels, and Chris Evans in Playing It Cool. If she were a man, she’d almost certainly be playing a big screen superhero by now. Instead, she’s just on-screen romanced a bunch of actors who’ve played them.

Though Monaghan’s not the focus of Made Of Honor, she’s key to the film’s intermittent success. One of her greatest skills is projecting a “cool girl” sensibility while still maintaining a level of believable humanity to her characters. She manages not to embarrass herself in a sequence where Hannah tries on sexy wedding night lingerie for Tom, but she can also deliver real vulnerability when the film needs her to as well. Made Of Honor’s most innovative rom-com moment comes toward the end, in a scene where Tom and Hannah have a deeply intimate conversation from different sides of a closed door, which demonstrates both how connected they are and the fundamental emotional roadblock between them. It’s not much, but it’s at least more of an idea than the film lands on elsewhere, as it falls back on humiliating its supporting characters (including Busy Philipps and Chris Messina) and attempting a PG-13 version of Apatovian raunch.

Made Of Honor’s biggest mistake is not spending enough time with Tom and Hannah’s relationship in its second half, instead focusing on Tom’s far less piquant rivalry with Colin. (Highlights include Tom being forced into a “mini kilt” during a Highland games event where the crowd is inexplicably wearing Ren Faire attire.) Like a lot of rom-coms from the late 2000s, Made Of Honor prioritizes its heightened premise and slapstick pratfalls over the actual joys of watching beautiful people fall in love with each other. The improbability of Hannah’s whirlwind wedding and the cartoonishly broad jokes about Scotland undercut whatever emotional reality Made Of Honor initially had going for it.

Still, Dempsey and Monaghan are so consistently charming that I keep hoping Made Of Honor will somehow become the better film it could’ve been if it just featured the two of them hanging out (a.k.a. the How To Lose A Guy In 10 Daysconundrum). By the time we’ve gotten to the door outrageous, the film’s almost over anyway, so I usually stick around to watch its lackluster climax. If a great movie is “three good scenes and no bad ones,” then maybe the key to making a bad rom-com halfway watchable is spacing out the good scenes so that you’re willing to sit through the terrible ones to get to them. Now that’s Made Of Honor’s real juggling act.

Next time: Two rom-com titans finally meet-cute in Notting Hill.


If romantic comedies are our modern-day fairy tales and celebrities our modern-day royalty, then it’s a little surprising that we don’t have more rom-coms about glamorous celebs sweeping everyday folk off their feet. With all due respect to Win A Date With Tad Hamilton!, the best of these remains Notting Hill—a gender-flipped riff on Cinderella by way of a Roman Holiday homage. The film reteamed Hugh Grant with Four Weddings And A Funeralscribe Richard Curtis. And it capped off the ’90s rom-com renaissance by pairing two of the genre’s biggest stars for a meta riff on their public personae: America’s sweetheart meets Britain’s stammering soft boy.

By 1999, Julia Roberts and Hugh Grant were the reigning queen and king of romantic comedies. She’d kicked off the genre’s renaissance with 1990’s Pretty Womanand deconstructed its tropes in 1997’s My Best Friend’s Wedding. He’d launched an entire British rom-com wing with 1994’s Four Weddings And A Funeral and been plugged into lackluster American comedies like 1995’s Nine Months. Casting Roberts to play a world-famous movie star was an obvious choice. And while Curtis briefly considered selecting an actual unknown for the male lead, after auditioning a round of people, he conceded, “Oh fuck, it. Let’s go with Hugh.”

In many ways, Notting Hill is a spiritual sequel to Four Weddings And A Funeral. Both films give Grant an eccentric group of close-knit friends and an aloof American woman to shake up his dreary existence. And both are alive to in long-term dynamics rather than whirlwind romances. A-list American actress Anna Scott (Roberts) first meets unassuming divorcé Will Thacker (Grant) when she wanders into his Notting Hill travel bookshop. She’s charmed enough by their initial interaction that she’s willing to get cleaned up at his apartment when he accidentally spills orange juice on her. The “surreal but nice” experience ends with Anna impulsively kissing him, which kicks off a complex on-again/off-again relationship that lasts over a year.

Curtis claims he came up with the idea for the film while imagining what it would be like for a normal guy to randomly bring a movie star to a dinner party, which ultimately became a standout sequence where Will takes Anna to his little sister’s birthday celebration. Grant, however, has always maintained that Curtis really did know someone who started an on-again/off-again fling with a world-famous celebrity—he just kept the true inspiration mum so he wouldn’t have to reveal the celebrity’s identity.

The most obvious appeal of Notting Hill is its wish fulfillment angle. The fantasy of having your current actor fall for you after a single chance encounter is the sort of thing most people have probably daydreamed about at some point. Yet Notting Hill is more interested in the downside of celebrity than its glamorous advantages. As Anna explains in something between self-deprecation and genuine vulnerability, “One day, not long from now, my looks will go, they will discover I can’t act, and I will become some sad middle-aged woman who looks a bit like someone who was famous for a while.” The film delivers several grueling scenes that dig into the way Anna is dehumanized by the press and the public, including an ever-timely sequence where the paparazzi hound her after nude photos leak to the press.

Elle’s R. Eric Thomas has already reclaimed Notting Hill as a quarantine classic thanks to the lovely sequence where Anna and Will hole up in his flat while she’s hiding from the paparazzi. Yet for as much as Curtis is a softhearted romantic, his first two rom-coms are largely about how miserable it is to be in love when you’re not sure if the other person loves you back. As Will puts it the first time Anna’s complicated life drives him away, “It’s as if I’ve taken love-heroin and now I can’t ever have it again.”

Notting Hill is a stepping stone between the sad that characterized Four Weddings and the cloying earnestness that would define later Curtis projects like Love Actually. It’s a much sweeter, more conventional film than Four Weddings,but it still has an air of sorrow to it. That’s epitomized in a brilliant season-changing montage set to Bill Withers’ “Aint No Sunshine.” It’s a beautiful bit of cinematic storytelling that takes us through a year of Will’s post-breakup blues in a two-minute unbroken sequence. As Mike Newell did with Four Weddings,director Roger Michell tackles Curtis’ script with real pathos and artistry, rather than writing it off as something fluffy and inconsequential.

The most dreary thing about Notting Hill is the way it uses Anna’s celebrity to upend conventional male/female power dynamics. There’s a version of this story where Anna is a broken bird for Will to free from her gilded cage (think something like The Bodyguard). Instead, she has almost all the power in their relationship, both because of her celebrity and because Will clearly falls harder and faster for her than she does for him. If the prototypical romantic comedy is one where the man takes the woman on an emotional rollercoaster ride before finally winning her back once and for all, Notting Hill offers a gender-flipped variation.

Anna spends most of the movie being fairly awful to Will, something it takes her a long time to fully own up to. Her famous “I’m just a girl, standing in front of a boy, asking him to love her” speech is the rare rom-com big gesture that comes from a woman and the rare one that utterly fails. Will kindly but firmly turns down Anna’s offer, giving Roberts her best acting moment in the film as she smiles through the pain of rejection. It’s the moment Will finally reclaims some of the power he’s given over to Anna. And it allows Notting Hill to use its hyper-specific “boy meets movie star” premise to craft a love story that still feels emotionally relatable—one about commitment, betrayal, and forgiveness.

What eventually gets Will to reconsider are his friends, particularly his scruffy, shameless, yet ultimately rather wise Welsh roommate Spike (Rhys Ifans, who became a bit of a breakout star thanks to this performance). As in Four Weddings,Curtis excels at creating a rank group that feels like it exists beyond what we see on screen. The aforementioned birthday party scene gives Notting Hill a chance to explore all the different ways people react to Anna’s presence—from Will’s sister, Honey (Emma Chambers), immediately asking to be her best rank to baffled stockbroker Bernie (Hugh Bonneville) not realizing who she is until halfway through their conversation.

In another echo of Four Weddings,Curtis also takes a lovely, low-key reach to disability representation. In that earlier film, Grant’s character had a deaf brother who got his own sweet romantic subplot. In Notting Hill,Will’s friend and one-time flame Bella (Gina McKee) uses a wheelchair after a recent accident left her paralyzed. The focus of her storyline falls equally on the pitch-perfect domestic bliss she’s found with her husband, Max (Tim McInnerny), and how much Will envies what they have together.

Elsewhere, however, the film’s approach to diversity is severely lacking. Both at the time of its release and staunch, Notting Hill has been criticized for whitewashing its titular neighborhood, which is home to a large British Caribbean population and a famed annual Carnival celebration. Local filmmaker Ishmahil Blagrove even accused Michell and Curtis of purposefully editing out the diverse array of local extras he’d gathered for the film. Notting Hill put the London district on the map in a global way, creating a major tourist industry centered around the movie. But it also painted a limited portrait of the area and drastically sped up the process of gentrification. (Curtis actually lived in Notting Hill at Will’s blue-doored home, which he sold after the film’s release.)

Curtis’ depiction of British life has never been particularly inclusive. The downside of the age-old “write what you know” philosophy comes when you don’t realize just how limited your perspective actually is. Where Curtis’ commitment to pulling from his own experiences does pay dividends is when it comes to digging into the world of movie stardom. One of Notting Hill’s best sequences involves Will getting sucked into a press junket while posing as a journalist from Horse & Hound magazine. Notting Hill let a mainstream audience in on one of the more bizarre bits of Hollywood machinery, mining both laughs and record context from Anna’s strange, carefully managed world.

Although Notting Hill is told from Will’s perspective, Anna’s celebrity at least offers an explanation for why she’s so tentative and flaky when it comes to her personal life—something Four Weddings never tried to justify with Andie MacDowell’s Carrie. Like Roberts herself, Anna has spent her entire young adulthood in the public eye and has to decide whether Will is someone she can truly trust or just another person who wants to use her in some way. Will, meanwhile, has to decide how much of her indecision he’s willing to put up with.

This being a Richard Curtis film, love wins out in the end, of course. Notting Hill pulls off the neat trick of allowing both its leads to deliver big romantic gestures—Anna in her speech and Will in his race to reach her at a press conference before she leaves town. Remarkably, Curtis claims he hadn’t seen Roman Holiday when he wrote an ending that plays like a purposeful homage to that Audrey Hepburn classic.

Notting Hill’s mix of melancholic relatability and fairy tale wish fulfillment made it a huge hit and a long-lasting rom-com favorite. It grossed $116 million domestically and $364 million worldwide, making it Grant’s biggest box office success by a wide margin. Although Notting Hill isn’t my favorite Grant or Roberts rom-com performance (he’s better in Four Weddings and she’s best in My Best Friend’s Wedding), there’s an ineffable magic to seeing them together in a story that brushes up against aspects of their fair lives. Notting Hill isn’t realistic, but it is specific, which can often be the biggest key to a romantic comedy’s success. As 20th-century fairy tales go, this lightly meta take on movie star romance is a little bit surreal, but mostly very, very nice.

Next time: Denzel Washington explores interracial love in Mississippi Masala.


In the age of streaming, it’s easy to assume that everything is just a click or two away. But even our biggest movie stars aren’t guaranteed to have their entire filmographies online. Two years after he won an Oscar for Glory, Denzel Washington starred in Mississippi Masala, a Romeo And Juliet-style romantic dramedy about a sad carpet cleaner and an Indian motel employee who find love in Greenwood, Mississippi. Though it earned solid reviews, the 1992 film made a slim impression at the box office. And it’s yet to make its way to a digital streaming platform, not even as an iTunes or Amazon rental (although you can rent it through Netflix’s surprisingly still operational DVD mail program). It’s a shame because Mississippi Masala is exactly the kind of movie that deserves to be rediscovered today: a wholly original story written and directed by women that thoughtfully explores the complexities of interracial love between people of color.

Washington wasn’t the only Oscar honoree involved in Mississippi Masala. Director Mira Nair’s 1988 debut narrative feature, Salaam Bombay! had received an Academy Award nomination for Best Foreign Language Film. The Indian-born, Harvard-educated director came from a background in cinéma vérité and documentary filmmaking, which she utilized in Salaam Bombay! by casting real-life children from the slums of Mumbai to fictionalize their lives. For Mississippi Masala, Nair took loose inspiration from her own cultural experiences: “When I arrived [at Harvard] I was accessible to both white and black communities—a third-world sister to the black community and Kosher to the others—yet there were always these invisible lines. I felt that there was an interesting hierarchy where brown was between black and white.”

Nair re-teamed with Salaam Bombay! screenwriter Sooni Taraporevala for Mississippi Masala, and they combined two other Indian-immigrant experiences for the film’s premise, which involves both the unexpected fact that lots of motels in the American South are run by Indian-American families and the history of Indian immigration and exile in Uganda. As Mississippi Masala details, during the late 19th century, British colonizers used indentured servants from India to acquire the Ugandan Railway system. Some of those laborers chose to stay in the country after their contracts were done, and eventually rose to positions of economic prosperity. In 1971, however, Idi Amin staged a military coup and ordered the exile of all Asians living in Uganda.

Mississippi Masala opens by capturing the terrifying brutality of that expulsion. Successful lawyer Jay (Roshan Seth), his wife Kinnu (Sharmila Tagore), and their young daughter Mina (Sahira Nair) must leave Uganda with only what they can carry. For Jay, who has always proudly considered himself Ugandan first, the hardest blow is hearing his lifelong best rank Okelo (Konga Mbandu) echo Amin’s propaganda: “Africa is for Africans. Black Africans.” A despondent Jay has no answers for his daughter as she asks where they’re going, how long they’ll be gone, and if they’re ever coming back.

After that tense 15-minute prologue, the film jumps to the present where Mina (now played by Sarita Choudhury) is a bright, beautiful 24-year-old who’s assimilated to American life in Mississippi. Her mother runs a minute liquor store, while Mina and her father work in a family friend’s somewhat seedy motel. While Mina’s parents limit their social circle to Greenwood’s tight-knit Indian-American community, she’s equally sad at a local nightclub where most of the other patrons are black. It’s there that she bumps into Demetrius Williams (Washington), the handsome young man whose van she accidentally rear-ended earlier that day. The accident is easily forgiven as they get to dancing. Mina wants to dump her dud of a parent-approved date while Demetrius wants to make an ex-girlfriend jealous. Soon enough, however, a genuine spark develops between the pair as well.

Demetrius and Mina’s love story is the easy, breezy centerpiece of a movie with big, complex ideas on its mind. Mina is of Indian heritage, but since she was born in Africa and grew up in the U.K. and the U.S., she describes herself as “mix masala,” the Indian term for a blend of spices. (Demetrius briefly mistakes it for a religious denomination.) As Nair explained of her film, “There is this very cerebral belief [at its center]: What was it like to be an African, but of Indian skin who believed India to be a spiritual home without ever having been there and to be living in Mississippi? And what if this world collided with that of black American[s] who believed Africa to be their spiritual home, but had also never been there? It must collide through love, because we must sell tickets!”

A year after Mo’ Better Blues harnessed the mighty of Washington’s sexuality, Mississippi Masala captured the peak of his romantic charisma. Nair—who met her Indian-Ugandan husband while researching the film—was adamant that Washington occupy the “stupor of love” she was feeling at the time. As Nair recalled to The Guardian, “I told him that he couldn’t be rational, he just had to go there and be weak-kneed. He was looking at me really suspect. So I said that the point is that if you’re allowing yourself to be totally vulnerable, no defenses, then the female audiences will just eat you up.” Though Nair’s rank Spike Lee had warned her that Washington would never take his shirt off on veil, Washington was actually the one who suggested he appear shirtless at one point. “I told him that he didn’t have to,” Nair explained. “But he said that it needed it, and by that time he was in a stupor of love, in love with the movie.”

In her first acting role, Choudhury channels her newcomer awkwardness into the feeling of her performance, as Roger Ebert astutely observed in his review. Demetrius and Mina’s love story is a rank blend of sweet and sexy. They’re both smart, practical young people who aren’t swept up in the notion of true love, but aren’t totally immune to it either. Nair and cinematographer Edward Lachman capture the sensuality of the couple’s connection without leaning into exploitation or exoticism. When Demetrius and Mina consummate their relationship during a trip to Biloxi, the camera lovingly highlights their warm skin tones against the white bedsheets.

It’s still rare to see a big veil interracial love story in America that doesn’t involve a white person. And nearly three decades after its release, Mississippi Masala remains one of the few onscreen depictions of an African American/Indian American romance. Demetrius and Mina’s relationship upends the tentative balance that exists among the white, black, and Indian communities in Greenwood. Earlier in the film, an Indian character attempts to prevent Demetrius from suing over the car accident by appealing to racial solidarity: “Black, brown, yellow, Mexican, Puerto Rican: all the same. As long as you’re not white, it means you are colored… All us people of color must stick together.”

But once Demetrius and Mina are discovered in bed together, that solidarity immediately disappears. The Indian motel owners withdraw their business from Demetrius’ carpet cleaning company, while a white woman who earlier bragged about helping Demetrius get a loan from the bank calls to revoke her support after hearing the gossip. The Indian community thinks Mina is dating beneath her, while the black community accuses Demetrius of trying to rise above his station (although not as much as if he were dating a white woman). Nair carefully peppers in dissenting voices as well, to mediate the fact that neither community has a monolithic point of view. But the sense of an unspoken racial hierarchy is palpable. Demetrius’ friend callously warns him, “You better leave them fucking foreigners alone. They ain’t nothing but trouble.”

Though the film explores Demetrius’ world (filled out with some great supporting turns from Charles S. Dutton, Joe Seneca, and Tico Wells), Mississippi Masala is first and foremost interested in the foibles and hypocrisies of Greenwood’s Indian community. They’re victims of racism, but they also perpetuate it, too, even just through colorism in their own community. (One woman gossips of Mina at a wedding, “You can be dark and have money, or you can be fair and have no money.”) While Mina’s father Jay was a progressive defense lawyer in Uganda, his worldview has hardened since his exile. Seeing his daughter with Demetrius stirs up old wounds, eventually forcing him to confront the full truth of his long-held grievances.

Nair was adamant that the film shoot on location, both in Greenwood and in Kampala, and flashbacks to the lush Ugandan countryside make Jay’s longing for his homeland all the more poignant. He’s spent years obsessively petitioning the new Ugandan regime to get back the property he lost in exile. Yet when Jay finally makes the trip back to Kampala, it’s not as cathartic as he expected. Nair isn’t interested in telling a simplistic story in which love easily conquers all. So while there’s hope in Demetrius and Mina’s boundary-breaking relationship, there’s a melancholy ambiguity to Mississippi Masala too.

Mississippi Masala offers a lot to dig into—occasionally too much, in fact. As Ebert put it, “There are really three movies here: the exile from Uganda, the love story, the lives of Indians in the Deep South, and really only screen time enough for one of them.” Yet that also means the movie can support all sorts of different interpretations. Mayukh Sen of Faderfinds optimism in the message Mississippi Masala imparts, whileUniversity Of Tennessee professor Urmila Seshagiri published a bewitching paper on the “limits of hybridity” in Nair’s depiction of cross-cultural romance. As Seshagiri sees it, the happy ending of Mississippi Masala can only take place in a kind of liminal space outside of the world the film has established.

More than anything, Mississippi Masala makes you realize just how rare it is to see a truly recent love story on screen, whether in the romantic comedy or romantic drama genres. It’s a film about everyday people that acknowledges that the lives of those people can be unique. And it’s a shame the film’s not more readily available now, especially given that the mainstream appetite for this kind of story has only grown since the early 1990s.

Thankfully, Nair has a wealth of other films that are easier to find, including her breakthrough 2001 Hindi ensemble drama Monsoon Weddingand her 2006 family drama The Namesake, which stars the late Irrfan Khan. In 2016, Nair returned to her interest in Uganda (where she lives part time) for the fantastic family film Queen Of Katwe, which tells the true-life story of a young chess prodigy from the Kampala slums. And while Mississippi Masala remains something of a hidden gem in the romance genre, it’s a reminder of the diversity of stories waiting to be unearthed by filmmakers willing to look for them.

Next time: Sooner or later, Something’s Gotta Give.


Strange things can happen when you’re stuck in a house with someone. It’s a lesson people all across the world are learning intellectual now, and it’s one Nancy Meyers already taught us way back in her 2003 romantic comedy Something’s Gotta Give. Against her better judgment, brilliant but neurotic fiftysomething playwright Erica Barry (Diane Keaton) falls for chauvinistic sixtysomething playboy Harry Sanborn (Jack Nicholson) after he’s ordered to recuperate from a heart attack at her Hamptons beach house. The two couldn’t be more different, and yet their semi-isolation leads to a passionate affair. Between the pajama parties, midnight pancakes, spontaneous crying sessions, and a salute to medical professionals via Keanu Reeves as one of cinema’s dreamiest doctors, Something’s Gotta Give has never felt more relevant.

Meyers recently became a bit of a quarantine content sensation when she shared an Instagram photo of her real-life kitchen, which had served as inspiration for the one in Something’s Gotta Give. Her films are notorious for their gorgeous production acquire, particularly their kitchens, and the glimpse into Meyers’ real-life cooking arena (complete with two separate islands!) inspired praise, interviews, and even a meditation on wealth and loneliness. That interest in the minutia of Meyers’ life speaks to the fact that she’s one of the few genuine auteurs of the romantic comedy genre. She has a style and a thematic focus clear to even casual viewers. Scorsese has his long takes and gangsters, Spike Lee has his double dolly shots and fourth wall breaks, and Nancy Meyers has her white turtlenecks, giant kitchens, and neurotic divorcées.

Something’s Gotta Give is the film where Meyers’ auteurism first snapped into focus, and it’s also her most personal work. Meyers came up through Hollywood as a screenwriter with her husband and writing partner, Charles Shyer. The duo penned hits such as Private Benjamin, Baby Boom, and Father Of The Bride, many of which Shyer directed. But they divorced mid-production of The Parent Trap, the film where Meyers made her directorial debut. Nervous about striking out on her own, she decided to rewrite and direct an existing script called What Women Want. The 2000 Mel Gibson vehicle became the then-highest-grossing romantic comedy of all time and the highest-grossing film directed by a woman. Empowered by that success, Meyers set out to channel some of her own experiences into a screenplay.

Keaton’s Erica is a rank playwright whose ex-husband directed all her plays. She’s settled into a contented if lonely life as a divorcée—characterized by white turtleneck sweaters that seem to warn the world to keep its distance. But her world is turned upside down when her 29-year-old daughter Marin (Amanda Peet) crashes the family beach house with her new 63-year-old boyfriend Harry, a hip hop label owner who refuses to date anyone over 30 and who was once profiled by New York Magazine for his refusal to settle down. (When Erica is impressed to learn he was once engaged to Diane Sawyer, Harry smirks, “Women your age love that about me.”) Over a tense dinner of impeccably styled clam linguine, Erica’s sister Zoe (Frances McDormand)—a Columbia University women’s studies professor—lays out the thesis of the film:

The whole over-50 dating scene is geared towards men, leaving older women out. And as a result, the women become more and more productive, and therefore, more and more interesting. Which, in turn, makes them even less shapely because, as we all know, men, especially older men, are threatened and deathly afraid of productive and interesting women. It is just so clear. Single older women as a demographic are about as fucked a group as can ever exist.

Meyers acknowledges that grim reality before turning it on its head. As a post-heart attack Harry starts to fall for Erica, so does his dreamy 36-year-old doctor, Julian Mercer (Keanu Reeves). Erica—who’d long thought the sex and love portion of her life was over—suddenly finds herself at the center of a passionate love triangle.

“She’s a pioneer with regard to representing older women,” Keaton explained in a 2009 New York Times profile of Meyers. “She’s the only one delivering the fantasy for women over 55. You’re beautiful, charming, and you get two guys instead of one.” Before Something’s Gotta Give, the romantic comedy genre had long and largely limited itself to teens and twenty- and thirtysomethings, with the occasional spot reserved for an older man. (A few years earlier, Nicholson had won an Oscar for his performance as a misanthropic obsessive-compulsive in the James L. Brooks rom-com, As Good As It Gets.) Meyers used her Hollywood clout to open up a whole new avenue of storytelling. “I just think that people falling in love late in life is as real and powerful as it is when they’re 25,” she explained.

Something’s Gotta Give was a massive box office hit and earned an Oscar nomination for Keaton, launching a third act of her career and paving the way for a whole new genre of over-50 (and -60 and -70) romances, with movies like Book Club and series like Grace And Frankie. Though Meyers has so far only made one other film about an over-50 divorcé (the Meryl Streep-ledIt’s Complicated), her association with late-in-life romances stuck. So even belief her subsequent films like The Holidayand The Internbranched out a bit in their focus (if not the diversity of their casts), Something’s Gotta Give remains the definingNancy Meyers movie.

Meyers wrote the script with her two stars in mind, and their roles riff on their respective public personas—Nicholson as a caddish playboy and Keaton as a neurotic yet independent type. The original draft was 250 pages long, which Meyers eventually pared down to a shaggy two-hour-and-eight-minutes runtime. Like a lot of Meyers’ films, Something Gotta Give defies a conventional three-act structure and goes on about 40 minutes longer than it needs to. Characters and subplots are introduced and dropped at random. Half of Harry’s character arc takes build offscreen during a six-month time jump.

Yet there’s something undeniably cohesive about Meyers’ vision. She’s a famously meticulous director who operates on the François Truffaut philosophy: “Making movies is an accumulation of details.” She works on lengthy timeframes with big budgets, and she shoots a huge amount of coverage to give herself more options in the editing room. She’s famously obsessive about even the smallest aspects of costuming and production design—although her “iron fist in a velvet glove” approach creates a positive, encouraging work environment, rather than a dictatorial one. Her aesthetic favors cream colors, cozy knitwear, and airy environments. Above all, she prioritizes softness, to the expose of digitally erasing every spiky plant from the backyard of It’s Complicated.

While Meyers is often compared to Nora Ephron—the other major female auteur of the rom-com genre—I think a more apt comparison is Richard Curtis, the creative force behind movies like Love Actually, Notting Hill, and Four Weddings And A Funeral. Both filmmakers prefer gloss to grit, and both assume that their wealthy worlds are relatable in a way that can either be charming or off-putting. (Something’s Gotta Give features a oblow of Erica casually speaking French with a cheese monger at the Hampton’s Barefoot Contessa market.) And as with Curtis, Meyers seems to use her love-interest characters to work through a very specific fixation. For Curtis, it’s aloof American women, and for Meyers, it’s old school, Rat Pack-inspired “men’s men,” like Mel Gibson in What Women Want, Alec Baldwin in It’s Complicated, and Robert De Niro in The Intern.

Nicholson’s cigar-chomping, skirt-chasing Harry is the pinnacle of Meyers’ lovable rogues. He’s what A.O. Scott called a “devilish combination of high-spirited rakishness and old-school gallantry.” And while Meyers’ films often force these men to reform, it’s crucial that they don’t change too much either. Though Erica has the chance to be with the model of 21st-century sensitive masculinity in Julian, the heart wants what it wants, and in her case it wants some old-school waddle, or at least someone who’s willing to butt heads with her rather than just fawn over her.

The key to Erica and Harry’s romance is their shared life experience. The film’s best scenes center on the two of them improbably stuck together in her impossibly beautiful house, communicating from separate rooms via Instant Messenger or negotiating boundaries after he accidentally sees her naked. They’re surprised to find that they have things in current, including an inability to sleep through the night and a reliance on reading glasses. Romancing someone his own age means Harry can have an suitable conversation with his paramour for once. (He compliments Erica on being the funniest girl he ever had sex with.) And when he describes her as a flinty, formidable tower of strength, she replies, “I can’t decide if you hate me, or if you’re, like, the only person who ever really got me.”

Something’s Gotta Give very much celebrates the wisdom of age. While Marin is totally out of her depth during Harry’s heart attack, Erica jumps into the fray with the confidence of someone who’s been through many a medical emergency. Before Erica and Harry have sex for the first time, she pauses mid-foreplay to check his blood pressure—something it’s hard to imagine any of his young conquests doing. Yet Meyers turns that moment of practicality into its own kind of romantic fantasy. Erica giddily throws the blood pressure cuff into the air when she sees its encouraging numbers.

Of course, the downside of age is that Harry and Erica are stuck in their ways and well-practiced in their defense mechanisms. Over the course of the film, they have to relearn how to be emotionally vulnerable—him after his gloomy attack forces him to confront his morality and her after their tryst reawakens a part of her she thought was gone forever. “I don’t want my bearings,” Erica shouts at Harry when he tries to pump the breaks on their week-long affair. “I’ve had my bearings my whole goddamn life. I felt something with you that I never really knew existed. Do you know what that’s like, after a 20 year marriage?”

When Harry refuses to commit, Meyers delivers a hilarious montage of Erica sobbing her way through months of playwriting, channeling her newfound emotional openness into the best writing she’s done in years. (Meyers once claimed that sequence was basically a representation of how she wrote the movie itself.) If the film’s nonsensical title means anything at all, it’s that you can’t hide away from life forever. It’s advice Erica passes on to her closed-off daughter in one of the film’s sweetest scenes. “You don’t actually think that you can outsmart getting hurt, do you?” Erica asks. “You can’t hide from love for the rest of your life because maybe it won’t work out, because maybe you’ll become unglued. It’s just not a way to live.”

Meyers’ films are often interested in close parent/child relationships. (She named the twins in The Parent Trap after her own real-life daughters.) But while in any other rom-com, Marin would be the lead and Erica would be the thinly developed supporting character, here it’s the opposite. Of course, that doesn’t entirely erase the weirdness of the fact that Something’s Gotta Give hinges on a mother dating her daughter’s ex-boyfriend. Lest we be too creeped out, Meyers takes three different opportunities to emphasize that Marin and Harry never had sex. But as with a lot of aspects of Meyers’ filmmaking, it’s the sort of thing you just have to be willing to get onboard with if you want to enjoyable the over-the-top fantasy she’s presenting.

As with Richard Curtis, the wish fulfillment of Meyers’ films can seem cloying and ridiculous if you can’t lock into the film’s semi-zany wavelength. (You also have to accept the hotly contested ending of Erica choosing Nicholson’s represent over Reeves’—a decision the film justifies, but just barely.) As in many a classic romantic comedy, Meyers’ women are rewarded with love when they stop looking for it. And that’s one place where her onscreen avatars diverge from her own reality. Meyers has never remarried and recently wrote a slightly bittersweet Modern Love column about the experiencing of becoming friends with her ex-husband again after years apart.

Meyers’ philosophy as a filmmaker is perhaps best summed up by a line she gives to Erica, who says of her latest play, “People need romance like that and if somebody like me doesn’t write it where are they gonna get it? Real life?” There’s an aspirational quality to both the worlds and the love stories of Meyers’ films, although she’s quick to point out that they’re no more aspirational than the dozens of Hollywood comedies that pair an immature man-child with a gorgeous, accomplished woman. The comforting vision of Something’s Gotta Give is yet another thing that makes it a fitting quarantine watch. If you can’t be stuck at home in a Nancy Meyers house, at least you can bring her picture-perfect homes into yours.

Next time: We kick off Pride Month with the cult classic, But I’m A Cheerleader.


“If I were writing a paper about it, I’d say it’s feminization of the camp aesthetic—bringing emotion to something that’s hyperrealized.” That’s director Jamie Babbit in an interview about her 2000 lesbian cult classic, But I’m A Cheerleader. The movie’s blend of high camp and rom-com earnestness made it a hit with audiences on the festival circuit but a source of frustration for critics, who felt that Babbit’s story of a high school cheerleader who falls in love at a gay conversion camp lacked the satirical edge it needed. “Some people say that I’m trying to be John Waters, but the film doesn’t have that bite,” Babbit explained. “But I don’t want it to have that bite… John Waters hates romantic comedies, he thinks they’re cheesy. But there’s a certain part of me that is cheesy. I’m a microscopic town girl when it comes to relationships, and I wanted to tell a conventionally romantic story.”

There’s an element of reclamation to Babbit’s debut feature: “The history of camp has pretty much been defined by gay men, so I wanted to be sure that the film, while laughable camp, also had real emotional moments, that it was a romance.” As Roger Ebert presciently observed in his mostly distinct review, “But I’m a Cheerleader is not a great, breakout comedy, but more the kind of movie that might eventually become a regular on the midnight cult circuit.” But I’m A Cheerleader has indeed spent the past 20 years as a beloved underground classic—a much-needed gem in an era where it was rare to find LGBT love stories that didn’t end in tragedy.

Most of But I’m A Cheerleader takes place at “True Directions,” a rancidly technicolor gay conversion camp. That’s where perky 17-year-old cheerleader Megan (Natasha Lyonne) is sent when her parents deduce that her vegetarianism and Melissa Etheridge poster (a.k.a. “gay iconography”) mean she has same-sex tendencies. While Megan initially rejects the idea on the grounds that she gets good grades, goes to church, and is a proud member of the cheerleading squad, she does have the habit of fantasizing about her female friends while unhappily making out with her boyfriend. So Megan commits herself to completing the camp’s five-step program and becoming “normal.” But things get complicated when she falls for True Directions’ resident bad girl, Graham (Clea DuVall).

The horrors of conversion therapy have become more widely known since But I’m A Cheerleader’s debut, with recent films like The Miseducation Of Cameron Post and Boy Erasedtackling the subject matter through a dramatic lens, and governments finally arresting to abolish the damaging practice. Babbit first learned about conversion therapy through an article in an LGBT newspaper about the now-defunct Exodus International program. She also had experience with a different kind of rehabilitation program: Her mother ran a treatment center called New Directions for teens with drug and alcohol problems, and she’d long felt that kind of setting had a lot of dark comedic potential.

Babbit decided to combine the two ideas, grounding them in her own experiences as a lesbian. She hired recent USC Film School grad Brian Wayne Peterson—openly gay himself—to write the script based on her 10-page treatment. She was able to get funding on the strength of her Sundance short, “Sleeping Beauties,” which centers on a morgue beautician trying to get over her toxic ex-girlfriend. (David Fincher and Michael Douglas helped Babbit gain access to equipment and costuming to make the fretful while she was working as a script supervisor on The Game.)

But I’m A Cheerleader was something of a friends-and-family affair. Babbit’s creative partner and then-girlfriend Andrea Sperling produced the film, while DuVall—who had starred in “Sleeping Beauties”—helped assemble the cast from her network of friends. She connected Babbit to Melanie Lynskey, who plays uptight True Directions attendee Hilary. Lyonne, meanwhile, saw the script in the back of DuVall’s car and asked if she could be in the movie. Babbit liked the idea of casting tough-talking Lyonne against type as a bubbly suburban cheerleader. Plus her splendid choice for the role had turned it down for religious reasons.

But I’m A Cheerleader made Lyonne and DuVall instant icons for the lesbian community. They’ve both gone on to play many more queer women in their respective careers, reuniting as an onscreen couple for DuVall’s directorial debut, The Intervention. And their real-life friendship translates into sparky onscreen chemistry in Megan and Graham’s “opposites attract” love story. In fact, But I’m A Cheerleader is an all-around worship trove of great young performers. Michelle Williams plays a bit role as a cheerleader and Julie Delpy has an almost wordless cameo as a woman at a gay bar. Babbit also wanted to ensure there was racial diversity amongst the True Directions crew. She initially reached out to Arsenio Hall to play “ex-gay” counselor Mike. When Hall turned down the project, she landed on the even more inspired choice of RuPaul (then billed as RuPaul Charles).

The best summation of But I’m A Cheerleader’s comedic ethos is the image of RuPaul bounding out of a hot pink van in a “Straight Is Great” T-shirt to arrange Megan’s intervention. In her heightened satirical way, Babbit zeroes in on the tragedy and horror of the fact that so many gay conversion camps are run by people who have been through the repressive program themselves. At one point, Megan and her fellow campers are forced to serve as anti-gay protestors, showing how cycles of self-hate perpetuate. Yet as Mike extols the virtues of heteronormative living, he can’t keep his eyes off the camp’s hunky groundskeeper, Rock (Eddie Cibrian). In trying to “fix” its charges, True Directions has inadvertently created a horny gay hotbed where every interaction is charged with innuendo.

At the center of it all is the camp founder and Rock’s mother, Mary Brown (Cathy Moriarty), who’s like Nurse Ratched meets Phyllis Schlafly. Her biggest anxiety is keeping her son firmly in the closet. She channels that into an environment that’s both deeply repressive and absolutely obsessed with sex. Her five-step program emphasizes traditional gender roles (the girls wear pink and the boys wear blue) and ultimately ends with a bizarre ritual where the campers simulate heterosexual intercourse while wearing Adam and Eve inspired bodysuits. Of course, it doesn’t take much to mine black comedy from the pseudo-science used in real gay conversion therapy. Asked to identify the “root” of their homosexuality, campers respond: “My mother got married in pants.” “All-girl boarding school.” “I was born in France.”

Babbit is particularly interested in the way that sexual orientation and gender norms are messily conflated with one another. One of the movie’s best reveals is that butch softball player Jan (Katrina Phillips) is actually straight but no one believes her because of how she dresses and acts. While some of the True Directioners fit into gay stereotypes, like exuberant “actor, dancer, homosexual” Andre (Douglas Spain), Babbit peppers her world with a diverse array of gay characters: Dolph (Hook’s Dante Basco) is a bro-y varsity wrestler and Joel Goldberg (Joel Michaely) is a soft-spoken Jewish kid.

Babbit was adamant that Megan retain her sunny, feminine cheerleader persona rather than change her identity in order to self-actualize. When Megan leaves True Directions and finds refuge at a halfway house run by “ex-ex-gays” Larry (Richard Moll) and Lloyd (Wesley Mann), she asks them to teach her how lesbians are supposed to dress and where they’re supposed to live. “There’s not just one way to be a lesbian,” Lloyd gently advises. “You just have to continue to be who you are.” So when it comes time for Megan to make a big romantic gesture, she does so through a cheer.

Along with Legally Blonde, Miss Congeniality, and the fellow cheerleading comedy Bring It On, But I’m A Cheerleader was part of a wave of early 2000s comedies that explicitly celebrated femininity and girliness. That But I’m A Cheerleader does so in a unique context makes it unique, earning the film a legion of young female fans, particularly once the R-rated indie reached a wider teen audience via DVD. The moviewas originally slapped with an NC-17 rating until Babbit shortened a shot of Megan masturbating and re-edited Megan and Graham’s fairly tame sex scene. Since then, Babbit has been outspoken about the MPAA’s double standards, not just with gay subject matter but with female sexuality as well. A year earlier, American Piehad delivered a much raunchier R-rated sex comedy about straight teens (albeit, after its own battle with the MPAA). And even just within her own film, Babbit was able to get away with an oral sex joke arresting the male characters but had to cut one about the female characters.

Thanks to the freedom of independent cinema, however, Babbit was mostly allowed to bring her vision to the screen intact. The weaknesses of But I’m A Cheerleader aren’t due to studio intervention. They’re common to a lot of first features, offering an overabundance of ideas imperfectly executed. The young performers aren’t always able to nail the stiffly stylized ’60s camp tone. And Babbit inelegantly stacks satire on top of satire by contrasting the garishly technicolor world of True Directions with the garishly brown world of Megan’s high school with the garishly rainbow-themed home of Lloyd and Larry. As Ebert affectionately observed, “[But I’m A Cheerleader] feels like an amateur night version of itself, awkward, heartfelt, and sweet.”

Yet if But I’m A Cheerleader’s earnest gay fantasia perhaps felt a little naïve or simplistic back in 2000, it seems more revolutionary in retrospect. The burst of onscreen gay representation in the late 1990s didn’t immediately lead to the seismic shift that Will & Grace, In & Out, and Ellen DeGeneres’ coming out seemed to promise. Though gay teens existed on TV throughout the late ’90s and early ’00s, it wasn’t really until Glee in 2009 that they were positioned as romantic protagonists in fairy-tale high school love stories. And it wasn’t until 2018 that Love, Simonbecame the first major Hollywood studio film centered on a gay teen romance. These days, blockbusters still expect praise for two-second interactions they bill as “exclusively gay moments.”

But I’m A Cheerleader proudly carried the gay teen romance banner at a time when few movies and TV shows were delivering those kinds of stories. The movie also celebrates the power of the LGBT community as a community. True Directions’ co-ed setup inadvertently encourages its young gay men and women to rally together in their shared experiences. Even before Dolph comes to realize he doesn’t have to change his sexuality, he finds relief just being among his peers: “It’s cool to finally talk about [being gay]. I can’t tell any of my friends on the team.”

On one level, the movie is campy rom-com comfort food; on another, it’s a quietly radical celebration of gay love, both platonic and romantic. In fact, But I’m A Cheerleader is a bit like Lloyd and Larry’s home—a rainbow oasis in a challenging world. Through her over-the-top storytelling, Babbit reassures her young audience that there’s a warm, welcoming LGBT community ready to stand alongside them.

Next time: We celebrate the 60th anniversary ofBilly Wilder’s iconic rom-com-dram The Apartment.


The Apartment premiered in the summer of 1960, three years before Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique kicked off second-wave feminism and a decade before Kate Millett popularized the modern usage of the term “patriarchy.” Yet even plan Billy Wilder’s classic Oscar-winning romantic dramedy didn’t have the language to describe the kind of toxic masculinity that flourishes at its central Consolidated Life Insurance company, the film offers a prescient look at the way workplace boys’ clubs can oppress both women and men. Instead of “tear down the patriarchy,” The Apartment’s rallying cry is: “Be a mensch—a human being.”

The Apartment is generally read more as a commentary on toxic corporate culture than toxic masculinity, mostly because protagonist C.C. Baxter (Jack Lemmon) isn’t a particularly patriarchal man. He takes his hat off in the elevator, he’s polite to women, and he doesn’t have the callous masculine swagger of his male higher-ups. Yet despite all that, Baxter still benefits from and uplifts patriarchy. He’s semi-begrudgingly arranged a system where he loans out his apartment for his bosses’ extramarital trysts and they gross to fast-track his promotion. Soon enough he’s got his own office and a key to the executive washroom—so long as he grants his new boss, Jeff D. Sheldrake (Fred MacMurray), use of the apartment, of course.

Wilder got the idea for the film after seeing David Lean’s 1945 melodrama Brief Encounter, in which an extramarital affair carries over into a friend’s apartment. Wilder wrote in his notes, “What about the poor schnook who has to crawl into the still-warm bed of the lovers?” By 1960, Wilder thought he could finally get the idea past the Hays Code censors. He teamed with regular writing partner I. A. L. Diamond to pen the script, creating a lovable nebbish hero who somehow wasn’t the inspiration for comedian Michael Showalter to earn the term “The Baxter.”

Lemmon’s bumbling, well-meaning turn in The Apartment can be seen as the urtext for a whole generation of rom-com leading men, from Tom Hanks to Hugh Grant. Lemmon had worked with Wilder the year before in Some Like It Hot, and The Apartment solidified a creative partnership that would stretch across seven films—right up until Wilder’s final feature, 1981’s Buddy Buddy. The Apartment’s current comic-tragic tone proved Lemmon could handle hefty drama in addition to the light comedy he’d mastered in his earlier roles. His Oscar-nominated performance marked a turning point in his career.

For the splendid half of its runtime, The Apartment is sympathetic to Baxter’s plight. His inability to gross up for himself means he’s kicked out of his own bed in the middle of a wintery night when one of his bosses happens to get lucky. Meanwhile, the non-stop socializing at his apartment causes his neighbors to look down on him as an insatiable Don Juan, when in reality his only company is The Ed Sullivan Show. Baxter is lonely and put-upon, both unseen and unfairly judged. To make matters worse, he discovers that the woman Sheldrake is bringing back to his apartment is actually his office crush, valiant elevator girl Fran Kubelik (Shirley MacLaine). Nice guys, it seems, always finish last.

And then Fran tries to kill herself. It’s a dark turn for a romantic comedy, but not an entirely unexpected one for a Wilder film. The Austrian-born writer/director helped popularize the film noir genre with 1944’s Double Indemnityand curdled old Hollywood glamour into something heinous in 1950’s Sunset Boulevard. Wilder’s 1950s comedies tended to have a subversive edge too—look to the infidelity at the gloomy of The Seven Year Itch or the boundary-breaking drag shenanigans of Some Like It Hot. Even his feather-light rom-com Sabrina features a suicide attempt. For Wilder—who fled to Paris during the rise of the Nazi party and whose mother, grandmother, and stepfather were killed in the Holocaust—lightness seldom exists without darkness.

Fran’s suicide attempt shifts the tone of The Apartment, repositioning her, not Baxter, as its central tragic figure—the one who suffers the most under the patriarchal hierarchy that Baxter can at least sometimes benefit from. Baxter arrives in time to save Fran, enlisting his kindly neighbor Dr. Dreyfuss (Jack Kruschen, also Oscar-nominated) to pump her stomach and work off the after-effects of her sleeping pill overdose. Yet as Baxter sweetly helps the woman he loves, he’s equally focused on protecting the married Sheldrake from public scandal. Baxter just can’t accept that the man who gave him his swanky new promotion could be quite as heartless as his behavior suggests—even as Sheldrake is clearly more focused on ensuring Baxter’s silence than making sure Fran is okay.

The Apartment is at its sharpest when observing the banality of Sheldrake’s cruelty. It isn’t explicitly the story of a powerful man coercing his female subordinates, although there’s an undercurrent of that at play when we learn that Sheldrake has a long history of office affairs, including with the woman he’s dumped as a girlfriend but kept on as his silently suffering secretary (Edie Adams). The Apartment is also frank about the sexual harassment Fran experiences from skeevy executives in her elevator. But Wilder’s focus is first and foremost on Sheldrake’s subtle emotional gaslighting.

Earlier in the film, when Sheldrake asks Fran to meet him at their secret rendezvous restaurant, she’s clear-eyed about the fact that their relationship was just a summer fling while his wife and kids were away. Though she’s still heartbroken about their lickety-posthaste, it’s nothing a new haircut and a little time won’t fix. But then Sheldrake tells her he’s planning to divorce his wife for her and he’s even visited a lawyer about it. So against her better judgment, Fran gets swept back into the affair and right into Baxter’s apartment. It’s this manipulative rekindling that proves near-fatal.

As in Double Indemnity, Wilder casts Fred MacMurray against his wholesome leading-man type, channeling his confident charisma into a morally plain character. (Wilder originally cast Paul Douglas in the role, but the actor died of a heart attack just before filming began.) The morning after re-seducing Fran, Sheldrake conspiratorially complains to Baxter, “You know how it is… You see a girl a couple of times a week, just for laughs, and right away she thinks you’re going to divorce your wife. I ask you, is that fair?” Baxter half-jokingly replies, “No, sir. That’s very unfair—especially to your wife.”

One of Wilder’s central tenets as a filmmaker came from his idol and mentor Ernst Lubitsch, who’d helped Wilder make a name as a Hollywood screenwriter by directing his 1939 comedy Ninotchka. As Wilder advised, “A tip from Lubitsch: Let the audience add up two plus two. They’ll love you forever.” In The Apartment, Baxter silently discovers that Fran is Sheldrake’s lover when she hands him the broken compact mirror he’d just returned to Sheldrake himself. “I like it that way,” Fran notes when Baxter comments on the fractured glass. “Makes me look the way I feel.”

Though Lemmon is its star, MacLaine is the biggest key to The Apartment’s tricky tonal balancing act. Her wry, Oscar-nominated performance locks into the sour-sweet mix Wilder is aiming for. In MacLaine’s hands, Fran is a sometimes wise, sometimes naïve young working woman caught between the conventional values of the Eisenhower era and the swinging sexual revolution to come. When Sheldrake belittles her for not being a “good sport” after he confesses that he doesn’t actually plan to leave his wife, a tear-stricken Fran deadpans, “You’d think I would have learned by now. When you’re in love with a married man, you shouldn’t wear mascara.”

After the harrowing sequence in which Baxter and Dr. Dreyfuss rescue her, The Apartment settles into a surprisingly upbeat third act in which Fran and Baxter play house over a long, cozy holiday weekend. Despite the seriousness of its subject matter, The Apartment is very funny too—sometimes darkly (as when Baxter removes the razor blades from his bathroom before he lets Fran brush her teeth) and sometimes whimsically (like a scene where Baxter strains his spaghetti with a tennis racket).

In fact, The Apartment is hard to classify. It was marketed as a comedy yet shot in dramatic Cinemascope and filmed in sunless and white at a time when color was the preferred medium for comedies. Both choices emphasize starkness and isolation—particularly in a shot where the rows of desks in Baxter’s office seem to stretch so far they disappear into the horizon. (Wilder cleverly achieved the image using forced perspective and placing smaller desks towards the back.) Like While You Were Sleepingseveral decades later, The Apartment understands how painfully lonely the Christmas season can be when you don’t have anyone to consume it with.

As Baxter delights in nursing Fran back to health, he attempts to take a one-foot-in, one-foot-out approach to patriarchy. He wants to win Fran’s love without giving up any of the privileges he’s gained from the boys’ club that oppressed her in the first place. At one point he heads to Sheldrake’s office to negotiate taking Fran off his hands—never mind that Baxter hasn’t talked to her about what she wants in any of this. It’s there that Baxter finally sees firsthand the extent of Sheldrake’s cavalier cruelty.

Like many a rom-com hero, Baxter has to self-actualize before he can prove worthy of his love interest. In this case, that means realizing there’s no way to reform Consolidated Life from within. His only hope at being a mensch is to leave the whole heinous system—including its privileges—behind, and let Fran make her own choices about who she wants to be with. Wilder and Diamond elegantly structure their screenplay so that the comedic embarrassments Baxter suffers throughout the film benefit as a sort of pre-emptive karmic retribution, leaving him deserving of his eventual happy ending. As Wilder once wrote in his guide for screenwriters, “The third act must build, earn, build in tempo and section until the last event, and then—that’s it. Don’t hang around.”

Despite the fact that The Apartment was a box office hit and won five of the 10 Oscars it was nominated for (including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Original Screenplay), it’s less well known by casual film fans today. It’s overshadowed by the sheer number of masterpieces in Wilder’s filmography, plus its genre-bending tone makes it hard to figure out whether to celebrate it as a romantic comedy or a romantic drama. Revisiting it 60 years after its release, however, it’s distinct The Apartment’s influence has rippled through generations of rom-coms, knowing down to the way When Harry Met Sallyseems to directly homage its New Year’s Eve climax.

A year after Wilder delivered one of cinema’s greatest final lines in Some Like It Hot, he almost topped himself with The Apartment’s perfect four-word closer: “Shut up and deal.” The Apartment is simultaneously sweet, cynical, farcical, satirical, and incredibly earnest. That unusual mix divided critics at the time, but makes the film feel all the more timeless today—especially compared to the messy messaging of contemporaneous Doris Day/Rock Hudson comedies. In the same year Psycho turned mental health disorders into awe movie fodder, The Apartment presented an empathetic, hopeful view of Baxter and Fran’s struggles with depression and suicidal ideation. Six decades later, it remains an impressively relevant story of two cogs in a capitalistic, patriarchal machine who decide the only way to truly live a good life is to rush the old system and earn a new one—even if they have to start with nothing more than a bottle of champagne and a deck of playing cards.

Next time: Long before their respective renaissances, Jennifer Lopez andMatthew McConaughey madeThe Wedding Planner.


By 2000, Jennifer Lopez and Matthew McConaughey both wanted a change. She’d burst onto the scene with Selena,found vital acclaim in Out Of Sight, and settled into action/sci-fi fare like Anacondaand The Cell. He’d transitioned his memorable debut in Dazed & Confusedinto dramas like A Time To Kill andU-571, and was fresh off Ron Howard’s satirical flop EDtv. Lopez and McConaughey each thought a nice, light romantic comedy would make for a welcome change of pace. Little did they know that signing onto The Wedding Plannerwould define the course of their respective careers for the next decade.

If Hugh Grant, Meg Ryan, and Julia Roberts ruled the rom-com genre at the height of its 1990s renaissance, Lopez and McConaughey took command of the ship just as it was headed toward choppier waters. Along with actors like Kate Hudson, Reese Witherspoon, and Katherine Heigl, Lopez and McConaughey defined what rom-coms looked liked in the aughts, as the creative highs of the ’90s curdled into something more crassly commercial. Thanks to films like Monster-In-Law and Failure To Launch, both actors were written off as punchlines until their respective career renaissances (him for projects like Magic Mike and True Detective, her for Hustlers) reminded us that, hey, they can actually act. But even in their worst rom-com offerings, it was always clear that Lopez and McConaughey had talent. The problem was, they seldom got material that let them fully show it off.

The inspiration for The Wedding Planner came from an ad for a wedding planning course, which caught the eye of writing duo Michael Ellis and Pamela Falk. They met with real-life wedding planners for research, and became fascinated by a world where fairy tale romance meets logistical precision. In their film, elite wedding planner Mary Fiore (Lopez) is savvy at work but unlucky in love. (“Those who can’t wed, plan,” she jokes.) Then one day, a hunky pediatrician named Steve Edison (McConaughey) saves her life from a runaway dumpster. It seems like love at first neck brace until Mary discovers that—gasp!—Steve is engaged to her nouveau riche client Fran Donnelly (Bridgette Wilson-Sampras). Since Mary needs to land “the Donnelly account” to “make partner” at her, I don’t know, wedding planning firm, she attempts to recommit to the cardinal rule of her industry: “Don’t fall in love with the groom.”

In retrospect, it was perhaps foolish to rotten fate by including a literal runaway dumpster as a plot point. The critical skewering of The Wedding Planner was so severe that director Adam Shankman is still scarred by it today. (The film currently sits at a paltry 16% on Rotten Tomatoes.) Nevertheless, The Wedding Planner opened No. 1 at the box office, and made Lopez the first entertainer in the U.S. to have a No. 1 film and a No. 1 album—her sophomore portray, J.Lo—simultaneously. The Wedding Planner eventually earned a solid $60.4 million domestically and burrowed deep into the rom-com canon as a regular cable staple. It’s even influenced the way people eat M&Ms, thanks to a improper where Steve suggests the brown ones have less artificial coloring. (Multiple deep-dives have proven it’s actually the opposite.)

It’s worth noting that the entire plot of The Wedding Planner wouldn’t exist if men were expected to wear engagement rings—not that sexist double standards are something the film is particularly interested in exploring. In fact, at just about every avenue where The Wedding Planner could become a thoughtful portray piece about love and loyalty, it swerves toward the worst comedic impulses of first-time director Shankman. The dancer-turned-choreographer made a name for himself in Hollywood as a movement coordinator for films like Addams Family Values and Boogie Nights. He got attached to The Wedding Planner thanks to its producers: Jennifer Gibgot is his sister and Peter Abrams had worked with him on She’s All That,the teen rom-com where Shankman inexplicably turned a high school prom into a choreographed group dance.

The Wedding Planner features similarly inexplicable scenes, including a horse chase, a macho fitness contest, and an excruciating sequence where Mary and Steve frantically try to Krazy Glue a statue’s broken penis. As Roger Ebert put it, “When you have seen Jennifer Lopez ungluing marble genitals from the hand of the man she loves, you have more or less seen everything.”

I’ve previously argued that 2003’s How To Lose A Guy In 10 Days marks the turning point where the rom-com genre started to go downhill. But I actually think this earlier McConaughey vehicle is even more of an ur-text for the rom-coms of the aughts. The Wedding Planner prioritizes broad physical comedy over character-building in a way that would prove increasingly disastrous for the genre over the course of the decade. In addition to introducing Lopez and McConaughey to the romantic comedy sphere, The Wedding Planner also gave Judy Greer her first true rom-com best friend role, and helped further the career of Anne Fletcher, Shankman’s friend and assistant choreographer who would go on to direct popular romantic comedies like 27 Dressesand The Proposal. Shankman himself continued to helm rom-com-adjacent fare throughout the aughts, including A Walk To Remember, Bringing Down The House, and the 2007 Hairspraymusical (his best film to date).

In The Wedding Planner, Shankman’s heightened sensibilities are put to good use in a heated tango class where Mary and Steve first hash out his ethical line bending. Shankman also opens the film with an impressive two-and-a-half minute continuous shot in which Mary weaves through a massive church wedding while displaying the precision of a CIA agent, the ingenuity of MacGyver, and the emotional dexterity of a therapist. There are a few places where The Wedding Planner effectively balances its exaggerated comedic tone with originality and characterization. On the whole, however, it struggles to find the right equilibrium.

The Wedding Planner is alsoplagued by massive logic issues, starting with the fact that it uncomfortably whitewashes Puerto Rican American Lopez into the daughter of two white Italian immigrants. In a bizarre subplot, Mary’s overprotective father (Alex Rocco) tries to pawn her off into a pseudo arranged marriage to her exuberant childhood acquaintance, Massimo (future Grey’s Anatomystar Justin Chambers, delivering one of the strangest “Italian” accents ever captured on film). Despite the fact that Mary doesn’t really like Massimo, she for some reason goes along with it when he crashes a wedding planning session claiming to be her fiancé, which leads to an off-putting scene where Steve berates Mary for her own duplicity during their flirtatious meet-cute.

McConaughey is at least able to soften Steve’s morally dubious behavior into something relatively palatable—an always important skill for a male lead in the rom-com genre. Given its uneven filmmaking, The Wedding Planner really lives or dies based on its central performances. McConaughey was brought onboard just four weeks before production began when original star Brendan Fraser had to drop out due to scheduling conflicts with Bedazzled. (Fraser had so enjoyed working with Shankman on George Of The Jungle that he named him his odd choreographer.) Though McConaughey’s role isn’t particularly showy, his laid-back confidence is an effective foil for Lopez’s star turn.

As in almost all of her rom-com work, Lopez has an ineffable appeal that makes you root for her no matter what over-the-top situations her character falls into. She manages to make Mary more than just a collection of type-A quirks, which is impressive given that there’s literally a improper where she vacuums her curtains. (It perhaps helps that Lopez could personally relate to Mary’s workaholism.) Though Lopez’s celebrity persona and music career hinge on glamour and power, as an actor she excels at making her characters feel real and relatable, even within a glossy rom-com context. In her best scene, Lopez turns in an all-time great drunk performance when Mary spirals after running into her ex-fiancé and his pregnant wife.

In the film’s production notes, Shankman lays out a compelling vision of how the four main characters each represent a different viewpoint on love. Mary is cynical, Steve is loyal, Fran is practical, and Massimo is completely openhearted. None of them are villains, they’ve just taken their respective worldviews too far, which has left them out of touch with what they really want from life. (It’s especially nice that The Wedding Planner doesn’t transform Fran into a “rich bitch” standing in Mary’s way.) To hear Shankman tell it, The Wedding Planner is about relatable human foibles and our inability to escape the ruts we get stuck in. The problem is, too little of that comes across in the film itself, which brushes past potentially interesting plot points—like the wounds Mary carries from getting dumped at the altar—to squeeze in more physical comedy hijinks.

In a way, though, it’s almost easier to appreciate Lopez’s and McConaughey’s skills as actors when they’re working with bad rather than good material. The Wedding Planner proved they could keep a rom-com ship afloat, even as it threatened to veer off course. And while Maid In Manhattan and How To Lose A Guy In 10 Daysare the better films in Lopez’s and McConaughey’s respective rom-com oeuvres, we wouldn’t have them without The Wedding Planner as a launching point. As the rom-com genre headed toward its darkest days, it at least buoyed the careers of two of our brightest stars.

Next time: We’retotally buggin’ as Clueless turns 25.


It took Amy Heckerling a while to realize she’d written an Emma homage.Her TV pilot scriptcentered on arich, sunny young woman who approached the world with a can-do attitude—a savvy dumb blonde in the vein of Marilyn Monroe in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. When Heckerling’s agent suggested the project might work better as a feature, she sought narrative inspiration in one of her favorite Jane Austen novels from college. Only then did she realize that her meddling but well-meaning 16-year-old Beverly Hills princess protagonist was really just a riff on “handsome, clever, and rich” Emma Woodhouse, an heiress who “had lived nearly twenty-one years in the world with very little to distress or vex her.” Thanks to an 1815 novel, an iconic 1990s teen movie got its structure.

Clueless , which turns 25 this week, is actually a remarkably faithful Austen adaptation. Not in setting, of course; Austen’s characters were far from computerized closets and “loqued out” Jeep Wranglers. But in terms of tone, portray, and even detailed plot points, writer-director Heckerling translates Austen’s prose for a modern audience with remarkable fidelity. What she understands—and what too many casual consumers of Austen’s work miss—is that in addition to her romantic aims, the author wrote hilarious satires of the moneyed world of England’s landed gentry. Clueless transports that satirical eye to Beverly Hills, with a glossy opening montage in which Cher Horowitz (Alicia Silverstone) earnestly explains, “So okay, you’re probably thinking, ‘Is this, like a Noxzema commercial, or what?’ But seriously, I actually have a way normal life for a teenage girl!”

Heckerling lets the cheeky social satire take center stage without the historical trappings that can prove alienating for some modern audiences. So while Emma would get period adaptations in a 1996 Gwyneth Paltrow film, a 1996 Kate Beckinsale TV movie, a 2009 Romola Garai miniseries, and this year’s charming Autumn de Wilde adaptation starring Anya Taylor-Joy, none have as perfectly captured Austen’s dry comedic voice as Clueless. In fact, Clueless is an ideal primer for those looking to understand Austen’s signature blend of romance, comedy, and social commentary. So it’s only rotten that it hit theaters a few months before Andrew Davies’ Pride And Prejudice miniseries and Ang Lee’s Sense And Sensibility officially kicked off the Austen mania of the ’90s.

Of course, you don’t need to know anything about Emma to appreciate Clueless as a comedic masterpiece in its own right. It became a sleeper hit and a cultural phenomenon in 1995—the rare film that connects with both audiences and critics and then goes on to be embraced by every subsequent generation that comes across it. Clueless singlehandedly revived the teen movie at a time when that genre seemed all but dead thanks to the glut of sex comedies and John Hughes high school romances that had filled the previous decade.

Though Heckerling had kicked off that trend in the first set with her debut feature, 1982’s Fast Times At Ridgemont High, by the mid ’90s she couldn’t find a studio interested in a teen comedy with multiple female leads. Never mind that Heckerling had a proven track record with big hit comedies like National Lampoon’s European Vacation and the nearly $300-million grosser Look Who’s Talking. It took producer Scott Rudin to rescue Clueless from endless turnaround and give it a home at Paramount Pictures.

As Clueless evolved the teen rom-com into its ’90s form, Heckerling took one unexpected point of inspiration from the previous decade. “The most successful character in anything I’d ever done was Jeff Spicoli in Fast Times,” Heckerling told Entertainment Weekly in 2012. “People think that’s because he was stoned and a surfer. But that’s not it. It’s because he’s positive. So I thought, ‘I’m going to write a character who’s positive and happy.’ And that was Cher.”

Though Austen once joked that Emma was “a heroine whom no one but myself will much like,” the key to the novel’s success is the affection Austen clearly feels for her serenely self-delusional protagonist. And that’s exactly how Heckerling feels about Cher, the queen bee of Bronson Alcott High School who wields her powers (mostly) for good. She looks after her father’s health. She fully intends to break for animals. And she views makeovers as the ultimate act of charity. Like Emma, Cher wants to help people. And like Emma, she lacks the humility to keep her worst meddling impulses in check. “The real evils, indeed, of Emma’s situation,” Austen wrote, “were the power of having rather too much her own way, and a disposition to think a little too well of herself.”

Clueless subs in teen cliques for class distinctions and high school ragers for balls, but it otherwise keeps most of Emma’s plot intact. Cher adopts a charity case in the form of a lower-status woman (Brittany Murphy’s brassy transfer student Tai), steers her away from a guy who’s clearly perfect for her (Breckin Meyer’s sweet stoner Travis), and ultimately comes to realize that she’s actually the one who’s totally clueless about matters of the heart, especially her own. Much as Emma discovers “with the speed of an arrow” that she’s in love with her haughty neighbor Mr. Knightley, a glowing fountain punctuates Cher’s own revelation that she’s “majorly, totally, butt-crazy in love” with Josh (Paul Rudd), her pretentious one-time stepbrother.

To her credit, Heckerling goes all-in on the inherent weirdness of the Emma/Knightley pairing—something other adaptations often try to peaceful over. In the book, Knightley is not only Emma’s brother-in-law, he’s also 16 years older than her and has served as a sort of paternal figure since she was born. While Clueless shrinks the age gap, it keeps the vaguely incestuous setup by having Josh and Cher be even more closely entwined in pseudo-siblinghood. It’s a testament to Silverstone and especially Rudd that they’re able to sell the romance despite the strangeness of the setup.

For her teen cast, Heckerling wanted actors with both a worldly maturity and a childlike innocence. She hired 17-year-old Silverstone (then best well-renowned for starring in Aerosmith music videos) after a single lunch meeting because she was charmed by the way the young actress kept leaning down to her straw instead of bringing the drink up to her mouth. Though the hippieish Silverstone originally struggled to connect to a character she found materialistic and annoying, Heckerling could see there was an innate Cher-ness to her. Silverstone’s real-life mispronunciation of the word “Haitians” (and Heckerling’s savvy instinct not to correct her) led to one of the film’s signature comedic moments as Cher demonstrates both her empathy and her privilege while arguing a pro-refugee stance in debate class.

While Clueless adds some archetypes from the teen movie handbook, like Cher’s loyal bestie Dionne (Stacey Dash), frenemy Amber (Elisa Donovan), and Dionne’s puppyish boyfriend Murray (Donald Faison), characters like Jeremy Sisto’s entitled Elton come straight from Emma. (There he’s Mr. Elton, a social climbing vicar.) Elsewhere, Heckerling seamlessly subs in a photo shoot for a painted portrait and some mall hooligans for a gypsy attack. The burden of attending an event thrown by social inferiors becomes Cher scoffing at an invite to a party in the Valley.

In one smart adaptation choice, Heckerling plays around with the novel’s structure a bit. Though Emma opens with its heroine having already made her suited successful match, Clueless follows Cher as she conspires to pair her debate teacher Mr. Hall (Wallace Shawn) with her world history teacher Miss Geist (Twink Caplan, also an associate producer on the film), the better to get some lighter grading. Watching the rush of that first matchmaking success helps us empathize with Cher as she continues to deploy her powers of persuasion with varying degrees of selflessness. Plus it cleverly allows Clueless a traditional Austen wedding ending without sending any of its teen characters down the aisle. (“As if! I am only 16, and this is California, not Kentucky.”)

It’s a testament to Austen’s insightful story that some of it doesn’t need updating at all; sexual harassment in a car is much the same as in a carriage. The hilarious scene where Tai burns mementos from her brief crush on Elton also comes directly from the novel. As does the sweet moment where Josh saves Tai from social embarrassment by asking her to dance, the same way Knightley gallantly does with Emma’s protégé, Harriet Smith.

Heckerling’s most interesting update comes in the form of Christian (Justin Walker), the fashionable, Rat Pack-loving transfer student Cher initially tries to seduce before learning he’s gay. He’s a stand in for Frank Churchill, the dashing visitor who publicly flirts with Emma to cover up the fact that he’s secretly engaged to the lower-born Jane Fairfax. In a way, however, Christian reflects aspects of both Frank and Jane (who doesn’t get a direct counterpoint in the film). Like Frank, Christian is an object of desire for the heroine’s ultimately not-all-that-intense crush. But like Jane, there’s a sympathetic set of high stakes for why he might not immediately reveal where his uncomfortable actually lies.

Clueless’ matter-of-fact treatment of Christian and his sexuality is one of the many places Heckerling maintains the spirit of the novel but updates it for the 1990s. While Emma learns to accept some humility and stop meddling, Cher’s arc is more explicitly about becoming a better, more socially conscious person. She commits to a “makeover of the soul” and volunteers to captain her school’s Pismo Beach disaster relief effort. Even then, however, Heckerling doesn’t lose her satirical bite. The suited thing Cher thinks to donate to the disaster victims are her skis.

Of course, Clueless didn’t really judge the ’90s so much as create a funhouse-mirror version of the decade. Heckerling invented a whole new vernacular with the film’s nonstop slang—some of which she pulled from actual teens but much of which she made up herself. Meanwhile, costume designer Mona May created an unforgettably bonkers high-fashion aesthetic at a time when shapeless grunge fashion was all the rage with real-life high schoolers. As May explained in a immense 2016 interview with Harper’s Bazaar, “Amy’s vision really was to make this movie a girly movie… This movie to me is really a celebration of the girl in all of us—feminine, sweet, fun, flirty, adorable.”

In many ways, the “girl power” branch of ’90s feminism shares a lot in common with the proto-feminism of Austen’s early-19th-century novels. Austen and Heckerling subversively celebrate the intelligent inner lives of young women who society might be inclined to look down upon. (Cher’s knowledge of Hamlet may come courtesy of Mel Gibson, but she knows her Polonius quotes.) Yet Emma and Clueless also tell stories of women who are happy to live within their prescribed social roles, rather than challenge the system.

Though there’s a progressive edge to the way Austen’s heroines assert their independence in their determination to marry for love, the fact that they’re rewarded with financially prudent, socially acceptable matches means Austen’s satires are ultimately loving and a little conservative, rather than caustic and rebellious. That’s very much how Heckerling approaches Clueless’ over-the-top world of teenage privilege too. Unlike the darkly satirical Heathers, there are no real villains in Clueless. Even Cher’s frightful litigator father is a sweetheart when it comes to his beloved daughter. (Heckerling wanted to cast the role with “someone who might play a hitman in other movies,” which eventually led her to the pitch-perfect Dan Hedaya, who considers the project one of his favorite moviemaking experiences.)

Ironically, the sunniness of Clueless was literally manufactured. It rained for four weeks straight during the shoot, so cinematographer Bill Pope (a go-to collaborator for Sam Raimi and the Wachowskis) had to fake the California sunshine. It’s an apt metaphor for the loving, can-do spirit that fueled the whole film, which served as a launching display for pretty much all of its young stars. Brittany Murphy’s untimely death in 2009 has given Clueless even more poignancy now, as her effervescently guileless performance is key to so much of what makes the film work. (In a 10th-anniversary featurette, Murphy laughingly revealed that at the time she delivered Tai’s iconic insult, “You’re a virgin who can’t drive,” both of those descriptors applied to her.) As Breckin Meyer sweetly recalled during a 2012 reunion, “I didn’t have to act being in love with her. Once you met her, you couldn’t help it.”

As a touchstone for everything from Halloween costumes to Iggy Azalea videos, Clueless is at no risk of losing its exalted place in pop culture history. Yet even so, it doesn’t always get the credit it deserves for its massive influence on the next two-and-a-half decades of pop culture. You can most obviously see its impact in the subsequent wave of literary-inspired teen comedies like She’s All That,10 Things I Hate About You, She’s The Man, and Easy A. But Clueless also helped launch a whole new subgenre of upbeat, sneakily smart “girl power” comedies like Legally Blonde, Josie And The Pussycats, Bring It On, Romy And Michele’s High School Reunion, and Mean Girls. Heckerling proved a lighthearted comedy aimed at teenage girls didn’t have to speak down to its audience. That had a ripple effect that’s still ongoing today.

Just as the romantic comedy genre would look a whole lot different without Jane Austen, movies, TV, and even fashion would look a whole lot different without Clueless. In the same way that Emma subconsciously seeped into Heckerling’s initial script, Clueless has no doubt influenced generations of filmmakers who grew up watching and rewatching it. Like so much of Austen’s work, Clueless is both deeply of its time and yet somehow entirely timeless. It’s “classic,” to quote Cher, and, most importantly, you don’t have to be a snob and a half to delight in it.

Next time: From Austen to Shakespeare: Kenneth Branagh made The Bard a hit with 1993’s Much Ado About Nothing.

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