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Kiss & tell: George’s top 14 movie romances

February 12, 2011

Lovers in a cold climate: Omar Sharif and Julie Christie positively sizzled against the icy backdrop of revolutionary Russia as Doctor Zhivago’s all-time classic, star-crossed pair

So, next Monday is good old Valentine’s Day – the one day of the year when loved ones stress themselves out in finding and booking a table-for-two at a restaurant not already full to the brim with other couples doing exactly the same thing and then desperately try to finish work early so they can actually make it in time, while lonely hearts, well, wish the whole thing would just go away as soon as it starts. Still, like Crimbo, with each passing year the Valentine palaver seems no less popular when it swings around. Especially with card vendors and flower sellers, no doubt.

In which case then, there can surely be no better reason – nor a better time of year – for me to regale this very blog with my countdown of the greatest romances to have graced the silver screen. Admittedly, you’ll no doubt feel there’s one or two discrepencies here (no Brief Encounter?), but, may I stress, this is a list according to merely my tastes and take on quality amorous cinema.

So, without further ado, let’s let Cupid fire that fateful arrow of his and get this rundown of the 14 – for, yes, February 14 – greatest film romances underway (do click on each of the character/ film titles for something a little extra, won’t you?)…

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14. Oliver Barret IV and Jennifer Cavilleri (Ryan O’Neal and Ali McGraw) ~

Love Story (1970)

According to the tagline of the monster box-office hit that was Love Story, ‘love means never having to say you’re sorry’; well, folks, I’m not sorry for kicking-off the list with this shamelessly sentimental, as-mainstream-as-The-X-Factor tearjerker. Nopes, I’m not. And the reason why? Because, although I’d rather not admit it in civilised society, this tale of a beautiful little rich boy falling for a beautiful little poor girl only to lose her at the inevitable doomed denouement is, in fact, not the stuff of utter cliché one may expect or recall. O’Neal and McGraw were perfectly cast opposite one another and make for effective (for the time) thoroughly modern lovers, trading as many barbs as smooches. Francis Lai’s haunting theme (later put to lyrics to become the song Where Do I Begin?) helps too, of course. What can I say, every time I come across this one on the telly, I seem to end up watching it to the end.

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13. Benjamin Braddock and Elaine Robinson (Dustin Hoffman & Katharine Ross) ~

The Graduate (1967)

On the surface, this romance from the cast-iron classic The Graduate appears something of a retread of Oliver and Jenny’s from Love Story – its participants are both young, WASP-ish, recently graduated students of the late-’60s looking to make their way in the world. Yet, what I love about Benjamin and Elaine’s tale is its sheer, well, perversity. Growing out of the burning embers of the former’s affair with the latter’s mother – and, inevitably, crippled by it – this one was never going to be normal from the start. Like everything in this film, it’s a bit f*cked up. Indeed, the couple’s first date is in the company of a stripper whose jiggling bosoms Benjamin exclaims is ‘a great effect’. In spite of this mis-start and many highly amusing mis-steps, the two find a simple unspoken commonality in the face of the whirling confusion of the adult world they’re hurtling towards – and, with any amount of luck, they may just end up in it together…

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12. Cyrano de Bergerac and Roxane (Gérard Depardieu and Anne Brochet) ~

Cyrano de Bergerac (1990)

If you’re being pedantic, then it’s probably not exactly right to describe as a romance what happens between the two main protagonists of Jean-Paul Rappeneau’s adaptation of Edmond Rostand’s play about the real-life 17th Century French hero. For really this is a story of unrequited love – big time. Such a huge heart does the eponymous Cyrano with his enormous honker have that he hides his love for the delicate Roxane (in fear she would reject him for his appearance) and instead helps dashing new recruit to the regiment he captains, Christian de Neuvillette, to woo her using his words of poetry and impromptu genius. The sumptuous production and deliciously rich writing, directing and acting (especially from Depardieu) ensure this is an utterly entertaining, unforgettable romantic drama – and the ending is … well, if you don’t know the story or have never seen the film, let’s  just say you’ll find out.

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11. Carl and Ellie Fredricksen ~ Up (2009)

The true genius of the romance featured in Pixar’s outstanding Up is underlined by how much of the film’s running-time it takes up – just the first 10 of its total 90 minutes. Yes, it’s small, but most perfectly formed. As the starter to the balloon-flight-fuelled feast that is Up, it’s the tale of old, crusty curmudgeon-to-be Carl and his wife Ellie’s lives together. Warm, witty, colourful, poignant and overfilling with charming and brilliant detail, this 10-minute sequence may just be the best Pixar’s ever come up with. And not least because it’s profoundly moving – genuinely so. Oh, and its wordless too. Yes, neither character speaks. Hats off indeed then to composer Michael Giacchino, whose music exquisitely fits with the animators’ oh-so impressive visuals. In short, romantic cinema rarely reaches these giddy heights.

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10. E.T. and Elliot (Henry Thomas) ~ E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (1982)

Strictly speaking, of course, E.T. doesn’t feature a romance; more a ‘bromance’ – and an intergalatic one at that. Yet, it would take a hard heart to deny that the relationship between 10-year-old Elliot and his podgy pal with the Stretch Armstrong-like neck is as – if not more – moving than any other you care to mention. Here’s an ordinary young boy from a ‘broken home’ in suburban America who finds a simple, unquestioned connection with a super-intelligent lifeform whose home is light-years away from Earth, but who also, critically, is lost, vulnerable and in need of a chum. The friendship – nay, near brotherhood – between little Elliot and this ugly-cute alien is innocent, sweet, delightful and rather beautiful. And that’s why it’s captivated and touched fellow lonely – and fulfilled – hearts across the globe for nigh-on three decades.

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9. Scarlett O’Hara and Rhett Butler (Vivian Leigh and Clark Gable) ~

Gone With The Wind (1939)

Ah, Scarlett and Rhett; one of Hollywood’s best loved couples. So why aren’t they higher on this list? After all, their romance had it all – caustic, terrific lines, tempestuous rows and passionate smooching? Yes, but there’s something that, given its status as one of the ‘great romances’, has always rankled with me when it comes to the O’Hara/ Butler hook-up. Namely, that it’s not the only romance in its film and, in fact, because of that it’s arguably not even a romance for the majority of the movie. Yes, it’s not until Scarlett gets the rather dippy Ashley out of her head that, for the flick’s last third, she realises she can’t live with(out) the blaggard Butler. Still, it is then, of course, that Gone With The Wind truly turns into The Scarlett and Rhett Show and the sparks between the awesome Vivien Leigh and perfectly cast Clark Gable turn to fireworks. And, for sure, they’re fireworks that’d grace any Bonfire Night – or the burning of Atlanta.

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8. Alvy Singer and Annie Hall (Woody Allen and Diane Keaton) ~

Annie Hall (1977)

Make no mistake, the relationship at the heart of Woody Allen’s signature picture is pretty much the standard for modern movie romances. Unlike those that graced many a Hollywood effort before the studio system’s break-up, its emphasis was much more on naturalism rather than, say, the empathetic drama or, if you prefer, melodrama of theirs. Sure, the story of nebbish paranoiac Alvy Singer and the titular Annie Hall features a lot of comedy, but much of it is rooted in the natural realities faced by two people coming together, living together and trying to stay together. Indeed, owing to Diane Keaton going stratospheric after winning the Best Actress Oscar for her wonderfully charming performance as the unfashionably chipper and, yes, unfashionably dressed title characer, she often finds herself the focus of acclaim for this flick nowadays, rather than its romance (or Allen’s writing, directing and own acting). Ah well, la-di-da, eh?

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7. Salvatore Di Vita and Elena Mendola (Marco Leonardi and Agnese Nano) ~

Nuovo cinema Paradiso (1988)

To my mind, Cinema Paradiso has to be one of the most romantic films ever made. Sure, one could say that much of its romance concerns filmmaking itself, as its plot focuses on the makeshift upbringing of young Salvatore/ Toto in an isolated but somewhat idyllic Sicilian town by father figure Alfredo, a gruff but loving cinema owner. As the boy grows up he falls in love with cinema, as so many of us do, and eventually becomes a big-time movie director. Yet, and importantly so for the plot, this isn’t the only love affair of the flick; just as captivating and moving is the teenage Salvatore’s discovery, incredibly patient but agonising pursuit and wonderful capture of the beautiful Elena. Throw in the picture’s off-the-scale nostalgia factor and Ennio Morricone’s extraodinarily romantic score and you’ve got a heart-melting love story here as moving as Romeo and Juliet and as Italian as, well, Romeo and Juliet.

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6. Harry Burns and Sally Albright (Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan) ~

When Harry Met Sally… (1989)

There’s no doubt there’s a lot of Woody Allen channelled in Rob Reiner’s (director) and Nora Ephron’s (screenwriter) When Harry Met Sally… Yet, I’d argue, so good does it do it that this iconic late-’80s rom-com actually manages to out-Annie Hall Annie Hall. Why? Because I find myself caring more for the plight of its two protagonists, the over-thinking, over-witty, over-motor-mouthed Harry Burns (a brilliant Billy Crystal) and the modern, charmy and a wee bit ditzy Sally Allbright (a delightful Meg Ryan), than I do for Alvy and Annie. Yes, perhaps they’re simply a more accessible and likeable couple; everybody loved When Harry Met Sally…, it seemed to be the floodgates for the saccharine-scented ocean that is the modern Hollywood rom-com genre. But as well as being an amusing and entertaining relationship, theirs is also honest and frank – friends first and (less successfully?) lovers later. Perhaps, in the end, Annie Hall is funny and very smart, but When Harry Met Sally… is smart and very funny.

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5. David Lean and The Desert ~ Lawrence Of Arabia (1962)

Ah, the love that dare not speak it’s name… man and, er, sand. Yes, this entry may not be what you expected to find on a run-down of the greatest film romances, let alone in its top five, but surely cinema knows few greater love affairs than that legendary Brit director David Lean enjoyed with the desert while making one of the great films, Lawrence Of Arabia. Although very much a one-way love affair (given that sand, well, is inanimate and not capable of emotions), it was big stuff for Big Dave. Yes, so obsessed with filming in the deserts of Jordan, Morocco and Spain was the usually reserved Lean that he spent nearly two years creating shots of dawns and sunsets, painstakingly combing back the sand so it looked pristine for re-take after re-take and, most obviously of all, capturing Omar Sharif’s movie entrance from what looks like a mile away. It’s said had he been able to stay out there and film forever he would have. Maybe that’s true; after all, he never seemed to find balance in his home life – he was married six times.

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4. Holly Golightly and Paul Varjak (Audrey Hepburn and George Peppard) ~

Breakfast At Tiffany’s (1961)

Surely no list of top cinematic romances would be complete without that of arguably the most adored rom-com of them all. The angelic Audrey Hepurn’s Holly Golightly is a dream of a creation – an awfully adventurous, ultimately lonely and utterly irresistble kook. She’s the unquestioned template for the modern rom-com heroine; so much so that that type of character is nowadays close to cliché. But this one’s the original and unequivocably the best. By contrast, although cool, caring and very handsome, Peppard’s Varjak is rather bland, but nonetheless an effective point of identification for the audience. When examining it closely, one may come to the conclusion that their romance – if not their attraction – is rather unlikely (surely Holly would inevitably dump Paul/ ‘Fred’ for one of her ‘rats’; indeed, in Truman Capote’s original novella he was a gay observer like Cabaret‘s Brian Roberts), yet if any film is the stuff of Tinseltown fairytale then it’s Breakfast At Tiffany’s. And like Holly Golightly, it does it with so much style, beauty, humour and humanity it could fill the whole of Fifth Avenue.

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3. Yuri Zhivago and Lara Antipova (Omar Sharif and Julie Christie) ~

Doctor Zhivago (1965)


Yes, it’s Lean again, but this time one of the most enduringly popular fictions of his films. And when you’re talking about Yuri and Lara in Doctor Zhivago you’re talking epic romance. Spanning several years and thousands of miles of the often snowy landscape of Russia and enduring the interferences and contrivances of revolution, war, other loved ones and powerful political brokers, their romance is undeniably difficult, arguably tortured. It’s probably fair to say both would be better off had they never met, but you can’t choose the one you fall in love with. Indeed, for all the obstacles like giant Soviet ice sculptures thrown in their way, their time together is actually – and rather wonderfully – brief, understated and melancholic. It’s doomed love then told intimately with tiny brushstrokes set against a gigantic backdrop, therefore terrifically illustrating how huge, radical, society-changing events toss about innocent, beautiful individuals who find themselves at the heart of them. And to think The Sound Of Music won the Best Picture Oscar that year – that’s certainly something to write a balalaika lament about.

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2. Rick Blaine and Ilsa Lund (Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman) ~

Casablanca (1942)

What on earth’s left to impart to a reader about Bogie and Bergman and Casablanca? They’ve been written about for years and years – and rightly so. Film fans must by now know all they’ll ever need to know about its production, reception and effect on wider filmmaking (its romance is surely the one by which all Hollywood – and maybe worldwide – cinema romances are measured). Even the fact that good old Humph had to wear platform shoes to appear taller than the oh-so lovely Ingrid in their shots together onscreen, like the one above, is pretty common knowledge. Yet, what’s perhaps less considered is that the love affair itself between hard-as-flint-on-the-outside/ soft-as-sponge-on-the-inside Rick and the delectable Ilsa actually doesn’t feature much in the film. Aside from the flashback scenes (‘We’ll always have Paris’), the romance is all about suppression; the protagonists’ feelings for each other being expressed through misty looks into the mid-distance, glaring stares and snappety sniping. Except, that is, for the ending. Ah, yes, it’s all about that ending really, isn’t it? Everything comes out and is resolved between our hero and his gal at the airport. And, although the sacrifice made is by now an enormous cliché, it’s still a sacrifice – a beautiful friendship is something, but it’s no substitute for true love.

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1. Joanna and Mark Wallace (Audrey Hepburn and Albert Finney) ~

Two For The Road (1967)

So, a surprise Number One? Well, to my mind, it shouldn’t be. That is to say, for me, many, many more film fans out there should be familiar with these two outstanding characters and Stanley Donen’s evergreen Swinging ’60s rom-com in which they appear. Never heard of it? Not that familiar with it? Haven’t seen it in yonks? Well, you should put that right as soon as possible. Seriously. Because this is a marvellous movie with a terrific romance at its heart. Indeed, a romance that’s so bittersweet it could be filed in a dictionary under the term ‘bittersweet’. It tells the tale of two young British lovers in the ’60s through the device of looking back and forth at their holidays together – and with others and eventually with their daugher – in the south of France.  Tiffs, trifles, tribulations and turbulations come their way as young ‘uns meeting and falling in love, then as newlyweds and finally as young parents with wandering eyes. But, throughout, they’re a charming, beautiful, witty and winning couple that are as stylish, fun and funny as many of us would no doubt like to be and as foolish, natural and human as we all are. Rumours abound that stars Hepburn and Finney had an affair while filming this flick and, watching it, it’s easy to believe that’s true, for their chemistry is utterly electric. And the movie romance they created, thanks to Donen’s fine direction and Frederick ‘Darling‘ Raphael’s brilliant script, is one to treasure for all-time.

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So, there you go, peeps, that’s my pick of cinema’s top amorous associations. Hope it’s put you in the right mood for February 14, or at least made you consider giving one of those above movies a watch again. Either way, trust you all have a good Valentine’s Day – whatever you do and with whomever you spend it.

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