Thursday, February 24, 2011

Oscar Week: From The English Patient to American Beauty

How the Media Portrays Love, Romance, and Marriage Throughout the Ages

In the year 1997, the film The English Patient won Best Picture. The 1998 winner (Titanic) and 1999 winner (Shakespeare in Love) were similar in form of film: a period piece about two people deeply in love which features a great deal of swoon-worthy romance. In 2000, however, the film American Beauty walked away with four of the big five (Hillary Swank ROBBED Annette Bening of her Best Actress Oscar), and yet there isn't much romance found in this least not the type that women flock to the theater to experience. (I don't believe I've ever heard a woman utter the words, "I hope my creepy neighbor starts constantly filming me and then we'll fall in love.")

The English Patient takes place during World War II (the beginning and the end...the beginning pieces are through flashbacks while our hero is on his death bed). As Count Laszlo de Almasy (Ralph Fiennes) is dying, he is remembering the only woman he ever truly loved, Katharine Clifton (Kristen Scott Thomas). It is one of those love stories where I don't really understand how the two fell in love. I think Katharine was supposed to be appealing because she's fiercely independent and doesn't do what her husband (Colin Firth, because we are supposed to believe someone would choose Ralph Fiennes over Mr. Darcy) or society expects of her. However, I figured it was just because she was one of the only women in Africa, where the Count was stationed. I have absolutely no idea why she fell for him, but somehow she does and we watch as they have this "beautifully romantic" affair.

When Titanic was first released, I was nine and I saw the film four times in the theaters. Naturally, I had a crush on Leonardo DiCaprio and even begged my parents to let me legally change my name to Rose (and a big thank you to mom and dad for telling me I had to wait until I was eighteen). However, watching it at twenty-two, I am unimpressed. Jack is attractive because he doesn't care where he'll be from day to day or what he'll be doing. Nothing in his life is planned. This is appealing to Rose (Kate Winslet) because her entire life is planned for her, including her engagement to a total jerk who happens to be rich. They begin a romance that is as big as an iceberg and their passion is fueled by the fact that they may not make it out alive. I find there tends to be a connection between the depth of love and romance in a film when there is a possibility of one or both characters dying. After all, it is far easier to fight for a short-lived romance than to actually commit to a lifetime with someone.

If you ever wish to watch a film that will make you think Shakespeare was not a genius and actually stole all of his brilliant works, watch Shakespeare in Love. Seriously. Terrible. Dialogue. The film is about William Shakespeare (Joseph Fiennes) as he works on his masterpiece Romeo and Juliet and falls for Viola De Lesseps (Gwyneth Paltrow), who dresses like a man to be cast in the play. I'd like to clarify that this story is totally fictionalized. Naturally, Viola is betrothed to Lord Wessex (Colin Firth, because we're supposed to believe someone would choose Ralph Fienne's brother over Mr. Darcy), but she does not love him, and loves the penniless Shakespeare instead. Shocker, a rich woman with some title (I honestly can't remember what it is) falls for a poor poet who woos her with mediocre words (except when the words were sonnets written by the actual Shakespeare). Cue swooning.

And then there is American Beauty, which is one of my favorite films because it is an amazing work of art. Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey) realizes that he has reached a slump. He is bored with his mediocre job. His daughter, Jane (Thora Birch), and his wife, Carolyn (Annette Bening), hate him. He enters into a midlife crisis which includes sexually fantasizing about Jane's friend, Angela (Mena Suvari), leaving his job for one with far less pressure, and smoking a lot of weed. Meanwhile, Jane starts a romance with the next door neighbor and Carolyn begins to have an affair with the local real estate king, one that is not glorified in romance. The whole story is told in a way that requires you to follow the directions of the tagline and "look closer."

The first three films seem to show a love that is based on infidelity and a different time period, yet we cringe as we watch the view of the modern marriage. Where is true love? We love the idea of being swept off our feet, but what happens once you're in the air? Who is there to catch you? We enjoy watching films of a woman being saved from her terrible spouse/fiance and being swept into the arms of another man, if only for a while, yet we never watch beyond the affair. After all, Lester asks Carolyn in American Beauty what happened to the girl he fell in love with. People change and butterflies don't last forever. The true romance is what's there when your feet hit the ground again. Hopefully it's a strong foundation with a great guy or girl who tries to bring about those butterflies in between bill payments.

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