A Pair of Terrific Romances, Just Not the Kind Some Filmgoers Long For

By Donna Britt
Friday, December 30, 2005

This holiday season, the two most heartfelt romances in movie theaters are between a couple of hunky cowpokes and a big ape and a blonde.

Not that there's anything wrong with that.

Whatever I expected from "King Kong," it wasn't a classic love story. Like most great romances -- "It Happened One Night," "Sayonara," "West Side Story" -- the movie features two beings from separate worlds who become unexpectedly drawn to each other. They're intrigued, then obsessed.

Once he gets past wanting to make a snack of Ann Darrow (Naomi Watts), Kong does everything that a smart suitor can do: He protects her (from a trio of tyrannosauruses), ignores her (a sure-fire attention-getter) and shares with her the most beautiful thing he knows: a sunset from a gorgeous mountaintop.

By the time Kong sacrifices himself for his beloved with the whole world watching, the risks taken by Watts's human love interest -- not to mention his embracing arms -- seem puny.

"Brokeback Mountain" also has everything a great cinematic romance needs: appealing protagonists whose yearning spans decades, immutable forces determined to keep them apart, a knock-your-glasses-off kiss. That the clinched lovers staring at this movie's mountain vistas are male is important -- and frustrating if you're desperate for similarly passionate boy-girl romances.

The love shared by Ennis Del Mar (Heath Ledger) and Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhaal) -- both of whom initially deny being "queer" -- is unlike anything mainstream movie audiences have seen. Tender and brutal, exhilarating and excruciating, it's an adoration that the world and the men's circumstances insist makes no sense -- yet no other real option exists for them.

In other words, "Brokeback" is a real romance rather than a morality play or civil rights lesson. Even moviegoers opposed to same-sex unions might wonder whether the pain inflicted by society -- on the lovers as well as their wives, whose love is mysteriously and distressingly unrequited -- is justified. It's powerful and heartbreaking.

So why aren't there more hetero-themed movies like it? Nell Minow -- the Washington-based "Movie Mom," who is Yahoo's film critic -- is a romantic whose Top 10 list for 2005 included exactly one human boy-girl love story: "Pride and Prejudice." Minow sighs when she cites the year's most romantic scene: King Kong's rapturous slide across the frozen pond at Central Park, the entranced Darrow nestled in his hand.

"It's been a long time since 'Moonstruck,' " she muses.

Try 18 years.

Part of the problem is money. The high school boys who flocked to the "American Pie" and the "Lord of the Rings" trilogies are film studios' most coveted audiences. They aren't "Sense and Sensibility" types. What's more, the doubts, insecurity and cynicism that infect real-life male-female relationships appear to have tainted contemporary films.

What's the last enchanting romance you saw that wasn't set in the past? (Okay, last year's "Before Sunset" was delightful, but the lovers don't even kiss .)

Most women enjoy a good thriller or action flick. But relationships are where we live, in real life and in movies. As a teen in 1973, I swooned with my mom as Barbra Streisand threw herself at Robert Redford in "The Way We Were." Washington filmmaker Aviva Kempner watched "Casablanca" and "Gigi" on Sundays with her mother -- and has continued the tradition with her nieces, Aliza and Piera, of Bethesda.

Such films "are a great way to teach them about love -- with the caveat, 'Life isn't always like that,' " Kempner says. A recent favorite: last year's juvenile-to-geriatric tearjerker "The Notebook." Recalls Piera, 14, "We kind of sat there, silent, tears streaming down our eyes."

Aliza, 17, was similarly moved in 1997 as a fourth-grader watching "Titanic." She suspects that today Hollywood is more wary of romances, especially contemporary ones. "They think a love story set in the past is more believable," she says. Even if 19th-century couples didn't stay in love forever, the popular perception is that they did.

"Now divorce is ubiquitous," she says. "If you're unhappy, you just quit."

Hollywood's avoidance of current-day big screen love stories "insults our intelligence," says Silver Spring native Elizabeth Todd, who is pursuing a master's degree in American history at the University of Chicago. "They seem to think a classic love story is too simple." Todd, who admires the Nia Long-Larenz Tate slam poetry vehicle "Love Jones," thinks "there's a cynicism about love in this day and age."

She laughs. "Yet all my friends have watched Lifetime [a women's network] for five-hour blocks. . . . We all relate to it."

But at the multiplexes, "a love story is just something to squeeze in between things blowing up."

In an era of "generic romantic comedies that are just awful and filmmakers who keep going back to Jane Austen," Minow acknowledges that making believable movies about love is tough. Each year, she recommends movies for couples to rent for Valentine's Day. Each year, she's asked, "Haven't you seen anything more recent than 'The Philadelphia Story'?"

Not much, she admits. Except for "Brokeback Mountain," Minow's 2005 favorites include "almost no grown-up relationship movies."

" 'Roll Bounce' is about teenagers," she says. " 'The Squid and the Whale' is about a marriage's breakup. . . . 'The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill' had a great romance -- but it was parrots . The penguin movie ['March of the Penguins'] was such a hit because of this idea of the incredible devotion between them."

When it came to love stories between adult males and females, Minow concludes, "the penguins, the parrots and the monkey took it."

Come to think of it, there is something terribly wrong with that.

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