Rom-coms are the film equivalent of comfort foods. They may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but their predictable nature and formulaic plots lend themselves well to staying within the bounds of audience expectations. At the end of the day you’ll laugh, cry and sit with the heart-warming feeling of a love story turning out precisely as it should. Now I’m not really a huge fan of the romantic comedy genre, but I’ve begun to realize that it’s not so much the romance that I’m averse to, but the predictability. Nearly all of the great romantic comedies that have stayed with me are the ones that defy these sorts of expectations, wherein the film’s final moments, they simply don’t end up together.
To clarify, I’m not here to rant about the failings of the modern-day rom-com or shame cheesy romance movie lovers, because I promise you I get the appeal. I understand the familiarity of watching a movie you know like the back of your hand, of drifting off on the couch and waking up an hour later without having missed all that much. Evidently, the romance genre excels in this domain of expected endings; most of us have experienced crying our hearts out and sitting with a warm contented feeling in our chest at the sight of the quintessential climactic airport scene or something as wholeheartedly profound as “a girl standing in front of a boy asking him to love her.”
There’s something inherently special to me when a rom-com strays from this path and actively subverts the age-old, tried and true formula. It’s a bold move, one that the writers must recognize as being instinctually upsetting to much of its audience. But when it’s a well-thought-out decision, it almost always feels right, one that I would argue pulls at your heartstrings even more than the cop-out of a last-second death or uncharacteristic proclamation of love. After watching and reading romance after romance that trains you to put your full faith in the inevitable fate of the Hollywood ending and the way things were supposed to turn out, I find myself drawn to the ones that wreak havoc on nearly all of those preconceived notions and let our sorely misplaced projections of romance down.
Some of my earliest movie memories originate from watching Audrey Hepburn (“My Fair Lady”) gracefully glide across the screen, singing about how “the rain in Spain stays mainly in the plain.” In the ’50s classic “Roman Holiday,” Hepburn as Princess Ann plays hooky for the day with an American reporter running around the city of Rome. As a kid, I could never fully appreciate the final scene, the bittersweet longing apparent in her fleeting remark of “Rome, by all means Rome” as she locks eyes with Gregory Peck (“To Kill a Mockingbird”) in the crowd.
At this moment, we’re thrust back into reality as there’s simply no feasible way for it to work out. She’s European royalty, he’s an American journalist, but the omnipotent cinematic hand guiding their encounters innocently kindles that inkling of hope that it could possibly turn out any other way. To this day I still can’t quite shake the resolve of the film’s ending shot of Peck walking away, a sense of finality seeping into the echoes of his very footsteps. It’s a perfect ending to a perfect movie and more importantly, it’s befitting to the fleeting nature of their relationship and gives Ann the capacity to exist outside of the confines of their love story.
With “Roman Holiday,” the ending is tinged with sadness, but is ultimately pragmatic. I cannot say the same for the rollercoaster that is “The Philadelphia Story.” Another early blueprint in the rom-com field, Tracy Lord (Katherine Hepburn, “Bringing Up Baby”) spends the day before her wedding with undercover reporter Mike (James Stewart, “It’s a Wonderful Life”). All the signs point to a Mike and Tracy endgame, yet in quite literally the last 30 seconds of the film she not only jilts her fiancé at the altar, but turns down runner-up Mike too. In a surprise upset by all accounts, she remarries her ex-husband Dexter (Cary Grant, “North by Northwest”) and so concludes a jaw-dropping resolution to a love quadrilateral the audience wasn’t even aware of.
Beyond the shock factor, the ending works so brilliantly because it not only leaves viewers in a state of laughable bewilderment, but aligns with Tracy’s character and flighty nature. Who she marries ultimately matters very little. What does matter is her desire to not be placed upon a pedestal and perceived as a goddess or a queen, which comes to fruition in those final moments as she proclaims to feel “like a human being!” The ending scene preserves rather than detracts from the consistency of her characterization and establishes the significance of having agency over her own love life, charismatic Jimmy Stewart be damned.
But Tracy’s capricious tendencies have got nothing on the icon that is Holly Golightly (Audrey Hepburn, “My Fair Lady”) of “Breakfast at Tiffany’s.” If you’ve seen it, you’re probably shaking your head at the thought of the movie’s ending being surprising in the slightest, because it’s pretty much your standard heartfelt profession of love and a proposal, followed by a dramatic kiss in the rain (they weren’t exactly reinventing the wheel here). The film is adapted from Truman Capote’s short story of the same name, of which there are some minor variations that attest to a far from G-rated interpretation of Holly. Yet the main difference is in the story’s close, in which Holly leaves her cat behind, flies off to South America and is never seen by the protagonist again.
Now hear me out: that is how the film should have ended. The forced Hollywood ending manifested a romance where there wasn’t one and wholly disregarded Holly as a character. Even in the ending taxi scene, her dialogue is line-for-line from the original text as she repeatedly states her desire to not be caged in by a life of personal attachments. But in the film, the protagonist’s response twists her words, causing the audience to read her, albeit unpredictable and careless, actions as a cry for help; as if love was a void in her heart in need of fixing, that she was somehow in need of fixing. Capote’s Holly is an undoubtedly damaged and self-centered person; confining the magnificence that is Hepburn’s performance of a woman of her own devices to that of a helpless heroine is why we sit and watch rom-coms earnestly expecting the female lead to compromise herself, her sense of independence and agency, for the sake of a love story that renders her second-class to the male protagonist’s newfound attachment to her.
I’ll always love “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” but I’ll never be able to content myself with its uncharacteristically over-romanticized ending. Even if it was done purely as an appeal to mass audiences at the time, it’s a dishonor to Capote’s work: an examination of a spectacularly selfish female character that loves and cares for no one but herself. And sure, even in the original we’re delimited to viewing Holly through the lens of a male narrator’s platonic love for her, but for all the iconic kiss in the rain does to Holly, she might as well have been hit by that taxi. It’s the effective death of her character and all that she stands for. Because in terms of the romantic female lead’s worth, that’s all the viewers care about, right? Married or dead?
A similar line of thought manifests in the holy grail of indie rom-coms, “(500) Days of Summer.” It’s questionable as to whether the ending can even be considered a “surprise,” as it is made abundantly clear from the start that “This is not a love story.” When I first watched this I thought it was the greatest thing I’d ever seen (what 16-year-old didn’t, honestly), but I retrospectively and quite generously view it as a take on the fragile “manic pixie dream girl” fantasy too often projected upon female love interests. It’s hard not to align yourself with Tom (Joseph Gordon-Levitt, “Inception”), to feel your heart shatter as he visually plays out his expectations, or rather our expectations of how their interactions should play out. The intricately anachronistic timeline also aids in Tom’s faulty memory of events that culminate in the genuine shock of Summer (Zooey Deschanel, “New Girl”) marrying someone else.
But it’s the appropriate ending all the same, even if it takes Tom quite some time to get to that conclusion. Tom is not in love with Summer; he’s simply in love with the idea of her. With the narrator consistently drowning out Summer’s side of every conversation, Tom disregards her clear disinterest in a relationship with him and compulsively ignores the signs for the sake of the storybook romance he desires. Patterns of romantic tropes instill the notion in Tom, and by consequence us, that her decision to be alone is something he can fix by making her fall in love with him. And so in his misconstrued fantasy reality, no doesn’t actually mean no. He is the troublingly real manifestation of what happens when the romanticization of the Hollywood true love ending turns ugly. The actual ending with Autumn (Minka Kelly, “The Roommate”) indicates that Tom has learned frighteningly little, and so the vicious cycle continues on.
It’s easy to put off the predictability of rom-com endings as lazy writing, but it’s not. It’s a deliberate choice that feeds off of the audience’s views of the female character’s role in her own love life. If we go into the movie expecting a happy couple by the end, we effectively sentence the female love interest to such a fate, regardless of the context. We so easily villainize Summer for turning down Tom’s affections, but don’t pause to consider why her perspective is virtually absent from the story or so often has no place in the rom-coms we know and love.
You might say, a rom-com just isn’t that type of movie, that it’s light-hearted for a reason. And sure, maybe so, but the media and art targeted for women, by women have more of an effect on our views of romance than we’d care to admit. It’s why there’s a significance in Audrey Hepburn’s character in “Roman Holiday” not getting the love story ending we may have hoped for, but feeling resolved in her decision nonetheless. Or how Katherine Hepburn’s hilarious disregard for three men in love with her is indicative of why who she ends up with is relatively inconsequential in comparison to her own happiness. I think about how much of a better film “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” could have been had it stayed true to its original ending. How from the final scene we can gauge whether or not the female character had any impact at all.
Now I don’t think rom-coms need to be eradicated or that outdated notions of love perpetually plague women. But I do think that female leads can be so much more than plot devices in their own love stories. Too often, they get trapped within the narrative, their character arcs so tightly intertwined within the romance that on the rare occasion they do break free, it’s a conceivable shock, a betrayal to everything we’ve come to expect. Yet, real people are not made whole by their romantic counterparts, and if you give us the chance, the female audience these films so desperately seek to appease might just have the mental capacity to comprehend this. I mean, who knows, we might surprise you just yet.
Daily Arts Writer Serena Irani can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.