Falling in love and getting married are exciting.
But marriage itself? Boring.
That's the theory Jeanine Basinger says Hollywood has long been operating under, and she may be on to something.
Basinger, chairwoman of film studies at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Conn., has carefully researched her book, “I Do and I Don't: A History of Marriage in the Movies,” and her observations sound like common sense to me.
A good story needs conflict. Marriage, of course, has all kinds of potential for conflict, and Basinger parses the most frequently used ones in film into seven basic categories.
There are money problems, such as those Jimmy Stewart and Carole Lombard faced in “Made for Each Other” in 1939. There's the ever-popular infidelity, which has examples too numerous to bother mentioning right up to the present. And family troubles, such as a demonic child or a “Monster-in-Law,” can either scare you or make you laugh.
A gap in social classes, such as in “Love Story,” “The Way We Were” or “Guess Who's Coming to Dinner,” can lead to interesting drama. Addiction, such as Jack Lemmon and Lee Remick struggling with alcoholism in “Days of Wine and Roses,” is also Oscar territory.
And it's rarely a good idea to marry a murderer, as Mike Myers discovered in “So I Married an Axe Murderer” and Michelle Pfeiffer found out in “Married to the Mob.” Long before them, Grace Kelly learned it in “Dial M for Murder,” and Joan Fontaine worried about it in “Suspicion.”
The most enduring and popular conflict within marriage, of course, is incompatibility. Basinger calls bickering “an Olympic sport for married people in the movies.”
Well, it's universally recognizable, too, watching Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn go at it in “Adam's Rib,” or Richard Burton and Liz Taylor in “Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf.” Or even Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie in “Mr. and Mrs. Smith,” two undercover assassins whose explosive tempers bring new meaning to the term marital spat.
But what about the big picture? What about following the arc of a marriage, with all its daily pettiness and drudgeries and years of ambivalence when the magic is gone but nobody's walking out the door?
That, Basinger, says, is what the movie industry has rarely been able to capture in even part of a movie, and what it stays away from like the plague as a central topic of film.
I thought about this. The closest I could come to movies that cover a whole marriage or arc of a relationship aren't really just about marriage. Think of the big-picture sweep of “Gone With the Wind,” as Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh grapple with love, lust and various forms of incompatibility amid pre- and post-Civil War society in the South. Or the horse-centric “Giant,” in which Rock Hudson and Elizabeth Taylor spar over cultural difference, child-rearing, interfering relatives, changing economic circumstances, race prejudice, not-quite infidelity and general hard-headedness. Quite a list.
In a way, and perhaps a sign of changing times, an Oscar-nominated movie from 2010 about a lesbian couple (Annette Bening, Julianne Moore), “The Kids Are All Right,” was as realistic as any in depicting the frictions within a marriage that can, over time, wear it down and tear it apart — though the movie itself covers only a short period of time and ends with a conventional reconciliation. “Blue Valentine,” in which we watch the marriage between Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams slowly die, certainly feels real and detailed — and depressing.
“Mrs. Skeffington,” maybe? No, that was more about a flawed character and Bette Davis than it was about marriage. “The Best Years of Our Lives” covered several versions of marital discord, transition and gaining or losing — or getting back — the spark in a relationship. But it was really about postwar adjustment to civilian life.
The movie industry, and moviegoers, are perpetually interested in romance, courtship and the many complications of love that lead to the altar. It's as if the wedding day were the holy grail of marriage, rather than the long, hard slog of keeping a relationship together and healthy.
But then, which would you rather watch? The studios know, which is why movies about getting married continue to proliferate.
The thing about marriage, as familiar as it is to all of us, is that nobody has the market cornered on explaining it — how it works, or why it doesn't, or all the nutty things people do so they can get married, and then all the nutty things they do that cause them to get unmarried later.
Basinger zeroes in on this, too — the eternal mystery of the institution, including so many who find themselves in it.
Today, of course, marriage is more optional than ever. Hollywood's ambivalence toward the institution mirrors that of many in contemporary society.
Basinger's vote for an honest contemporary depiction goes not to the movies but to television: the coach and his wife on “Friday Night Lights.”
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