Pop quiz: What's the most heart-pounding chase sequence in the history of film?
Is it A) Gene Hackman turning the streets of New York into a NASCAR strip during "The French Connection"? B) Indiana Jones's race to escape the world's largest ball-bearing in "Raiders of the Lost Ark"? or C) Billy Crystal's frantic sprint to a New Year's eve party so that he can declare his love to Meg Ryan in "When Harry Met Sally"?
The answer is surely C). Harry wins for sheer endurance after waiting a whole movie to propose. Romance films, after all, are all about the thrill of the chase. They're a chance to vicariously experience the sheer giddiness of meeting someone special, and then successfully wooing them. Ultimately, romance films are love letters to the process of courtship.
As dating rules have changed over the decades, so, consequently, have depictions of courtship in film. Brad Pitt woos his leading ladies far differently than Cary Grant did. (Only James Bond, it seems, has defied cultural evolution. Nineteen films and four decades after the original, Bond still accomplishes his mission with a mere "Bond, James Bond" greeting at the roulette table.) Each decade of film reveals how Hollywood's script for love has changed.
In 1939, the film adaptation of "Gone With the Wind" became the "Titanic" of its day, except that the leading man of the former was actually old enough to grow facial hair. The poster for "Gone With the Wind" best captured the relationship between Rhett Butler and Scarlet O'Hara. With the fires of the Civil war raging behind them, an open-shirted Butler cradles a heavily-cleavaged Scarlett in his arms. Audiences - and Harlequin Romance novel cover art - were wildly affected.
At a time when male prerogatives stil ruled supreme, Vivien Leigh's Scarlett was a new kind of protagonist. Feisty, strong-willed, and, yes, selfish, Scarlett bucks traditions of courtship by chasing the man she desires to marry - even when he is set upon marrying another woman.
A year later Katherine Hepburn showed a similar steely resolve in "The Philadelphia Story." As a wealthy divorcée equipped with a frosty sarcastic barb, Hepburn revels in her ability to shape her own marital destiny. Even her parents kowtow to her wishes! Of course, Cary Grant and Jimmy Stewart still find ways to woo her and etch away her icy exterior to reveal a vulnerable heart she's hidden away. Though "The Philadelphia Story" wasn't quite willing to overturn a traditional model of courtship, Katherine Hepburn - along with actresses such as Betty Davis, Lauren Bacall, and Barbara Stanwyck - presented a new era of cinematic goddess: one that men both worshipped and feared. These women were aware of their sexuality. They didn't order Betty Crocker recipes. And, unlike a 1930s actress like Olivia De Havilland, they wouldn't automatically swoon when the leading actor came up to the roulette table - even if he said his name was Bogart, Humphrey Bogart.
The '50s, seemingly, invented teenage dating - and the parental anxiety that often accompanied it. Picture this typical movie scene: Boy takes girl to the Drive-In movie theater; back at home, pops paces around the living room anxiously hoping his daughter will be back before pumpkin hour. Few movies capture this sort of angst quite like the 1950 comedy, "Father of the Bride." Spencer Tracy stars as a doting father reluctanct to see his only daughter (played by Elizabeth Taylor) on her way to the wedding altar. Sure, the young, upstart, groom-to-be comes home to pay his respects to the parents. But there's little doubt that it's the couple - not the parents - calling the shots, much to Tracy's dismay.
Bound by the Hays code, which detailed film "no-no's," mainstream American cinema in the 1950s remained chaste in its depiction of dating. Well, outwardly at least. Subtext and innuendo whispered of changes in a social order. After all, didn't Grace Kelly pack an overnight bag and nightgown when she came over to wheelchair-bound Jimmy Stewart in 1954's "Rear Window?" In that movie, Ms. Kelly unabashedly spends half the movie trying to convince commitment-shy Stewart that a diamond really is a girl's best friend.
While some '50s movies such as "Rebel Without a Cause" hinted at dark undercurrents of teenage sexuality, it was only later that movies such as "The Last American Picture Show" (1971) and, more recently, "Pleasantville" (1999) dealt more explicitly with teenage dating and illicit sexual relationships of the era.
Like Kelly and Stewart, the lovers of "An Affair to Remember" (1957) didn't rush into marriage in their twenties. Cary Grant plays a handsome playboy aboard a cruise ship, en route to meet his fiancée. While on board, he falls in love with a nightclub singer (Deborah Kerr), who is also engaged. The film remains a favorite romance film for many, and even inspired parts of the film "Sleepless in Seattle" (1994). What's the secret to the enduring popularity of "An Affair to Remember?" Apart from the glamor, the great chemistry, and acts of self-sacrifice that define the movie, this film is a depiction of two equals meeting on equal terms. Seldom has courtship been idealized so beautifully and compellingly.
Is anyone surprised that the decade of "free love" was heralded by a 1960 movie called "Where the Boys Are"? The film, about four girls looking for boyfriends in Ft. Lauderdale during Spring Break, hinted at a new sexual equality: It was OK for girls to play the role of pursuer. The "Gidget" movies, too, featured a title character chasing after surf boys in a way that might have been described as "innocent," and "coquettish" before Britney Spears went and confused everyone as to what those words meant.
Attitudes toward dating in the '60s are best seen in two of the decade's landmark films. In "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner," Spencer Tracy yet again deals with an independently minded daughter. When she brings her new boyfriend home, they discover he's black! The message: Parental approval would be nice, but is hardly necessary.
In "The Graduate," a young Dustin Hoffman says a very friendly hello to Mrs. Robinson, falls in love with her already engaged daughter, and then pulls the bride-to-be out of the wedding ceremony before she can be married. "The Graduate" pointed towards an era of more open relationships where marriage wasn't necessarily the end goal.
If movies from the past 25 years are to be believed, modern romance isn't easy. (Or maybe it just seems that way because there's a new Woody Allen movie released every year.) With career-oriented yuppies opting for long-term partnerships or short flings instead of marriage, Hollywood produced a deluge of movies examining confused young couples (see "The Last Days of Disco," "Reality Bites" or "Singles," for example).
Other films, such as the delightful "While You Were Sleeping" and "Crossing Delancey" played with the idea of a return to a traditional form of courtship. In the latter film, a Jewish Grandmother gets her daughter (Amy Irving) into a pickle when she tries to set her up with a Jewish pickle salesmen. This traditional approach to dating initially doesn't sit well with the daughter, but she is eventually won over. Similarly, in "Say Anything," a crusty father (Frasier's John Mahoney) tries to discourage his valedictorian daughter from fraternizing with a scruffy kickboxer who seems like an underachiever. More recently, Ben Stiller made audiences laugh - and squirm - at his ordeal at having to "Meet the Parents."
Among the multi-faceted romance tales that have emerged over the past two decades, the most surprising, perhaps, are movies that nod toward the past. Period pieces about traditional courtship, such as Merchant Ivory's "A Room With a View," Martin Scorcese's "The Age of Innocence," and Gillian Armstrong's "Little Women" sat side by side with Jane Austen adaptations at the cineplex. The appeal of these pictures lay in the depiction of desires suppressed by the cordial customs of courtship from centuries past. Audiences rediscovered the intrigue of coy sideway glances and simmering passions. After all, if romance movies are fueled by the thrill of the chase, then here were decathlons with the sort of hurdles that only the most gallant of romantic athletes could overcome. While few viewers wished for a return to the courtship of those days, more than a few women would admit to the allure of being the pursued - especially if the pursuer was Jane Austen's character, Mr. Darcy.
That's certainly true of "Bridget Jones's Diary," which slyly modeled itself after "Pride and Prejudice." At age 32, modern woman Bridget faces a seeming shortage of a few good men. After a disastrous pursuit of her boss, she meets her own Mr. Darcy (Colin Firth) just in time.
Despite all the changes on the silver screen, one formula hasn't changed much. Dinner and a movie still make a great first date. But... who pays?