The romantic comedy has proved an enduring genre for the silver screen, from the screwball comedy of the 30s to its peak in the 90s, and resurgent popularity in the 2010s. Set The Tape presents Rom-Com Rewind, a series looking at the history of the genre and how it has developed over the course of nearly a hundred years of movie history.
The way the rom-com genre works is that if any character in the story is trying to scupper a wedding or the big day that the narrative is building up to, then that character is the antagonist. In fact, anyone that stands in the way of potential true love and the happily ever after is a threat that must be removed by any (non-violent, obviously) means necessary.
However, the joyous thing about P.J. Hogan’s My Best Friend’s Wedding is how it subverts your expectations a little by putting such a character front and centre and making them the lead and then casting one of America’s Sweethearts and a rom-com favourite as that character.
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It gives My Best Friend’s Wedding a brilliant charge that still makes it a joy to revisit twenty-four years after its initial release. When it premiered back in 1997, it did so during an interesting period in Julia Roberts’ career. While her career exploded at the start of the decade thanks to Pretty Woman, Flatliners and Sleeping with the Enemy (the latter very much not a rom-com despite the fact that it features Van Morrison’s ‘Brown Eyed Girl’ on the soundtrack), and having done so after building up notable performances amongst the ensembles of Steel Magnolias and Mystic Pizza during the latter part of the 80s, her filmography after the start of the decade had not seen a massive run of hits for the actress.
It might seem strange to look back on it in such a way now, but My Best Friend’s Wedding was very much seen as Roberts getting her career back on track. There would be two other Rom-Com Rewind Hall of Fame entries still to come (one of which would reunite her with her Pretty Woman co-star) and she would fall into the stock company of big-name actors who would collaborate with Steven Soderbergh during his career renaissance during the late 90s and 2000s, but it hadn’t all been smooth sailing for Roberts during the decade that she became synonymous with.
Joel Schumacher’s Dying Young, Lasse Hallstrom’s Something to Talk About (with a script from Thelma and Louise’s Callie Khouri) and the high profile disappointment of Steven Spielberg’s Peter Pan reinterpretation Hook had all been met with mixed reviews and lower than expected box office, especially Hook which is seen as one of the rare flops of Spielberg’s career. Sure, there was The Pelican Brief, one of the many John Grisham adaptations produced by Warner Bros. that filled out multiplexes during the decade, but there was a feeling from many that her post-1990/1991 breakout had not quite lived up to expectations.
A return to what seemed like a more classical style of American rom-com seemed just the ticket and My Best Friend’s Wedding was met with great reviews and box office during 1997, and yet make no mistake, this isn’t a typical rom-com. The film takes the one part of a love triangle trying to stop true love from becoming a thing by turning that character into a fun borderline anti-heroic lead. The casting of Roberts, however, is the masterstroke. It could be hard to make a seemingly selfish character loveable or sympathetic, but if you make that character one played by the lead from Pretty Woman, then that’s a different story.
Don’t let its upbeat and quirky credit sequence lull you into thinking it’s a certain type of film. This isn’t a film the revels too much in the obvious cliches of its story, but instead compels you to find sympathy and humour in a character who basically is trying to ruin the life of her best friend but for her own benefits because she doesn’t want to be alone. On paper it sounds like the type of film that might prove problematic in 2021, and yes there are some obvious character tropes here, including one that would become a recurring thing throughout the 2000s and early 2010s, but it’s also fun just to watch a film that under lesser hands could have been mean-spirited or borderline nihilistic and which ends up becoming glossy 90s fun.
Director P.J. Hogan had scored a massive hit a few years before in his native Australia with Muriel’s Wedding, similarly a film that subverted expectations. Don’t be fooled by the poster of that film. Centred on a star-making performance from Toni Collette, the poster displays its lead character in a blissfully happy state in a wedding dress and yet, heavily marketed as a feel-good film, not to mention part of the movement of Australian media that was a minor dominating force of the 80s and 90s (Australian soap-operas pretty much filled up every inch of daytime British television schedules), the film had a darker heart to it hidden within its Abba-soundtracked trailers.
Similarly nuptial themed, My Best Friend’s Wedding never strays too dark, but it has its moments of emotional clarity, further enhanced by brilliant performances from Roberts, Dylan McDermott and Cameron Diaz. The film goes to town with set pieces that run from riotously funny to cringe, and revels in its emotional crescendos and reveals, particularly towards the climax, while a lot of the more overt humour and laugh out loud moments stems from Rupert Everett’s performance as gay best friend George.
The gay best friend trope has since become a recurring aspect of many comedically flavoured films, and would even be a recurring presence in Sex and the City. Having a gay character in a mainstream film was frequently regarded as something groundbreaking at the time, but it also has its own set of problems because a character like George is only ever there in support of the heterosexual female lead, has no relationship of his own and is never seen kissing someone of his own gender.
While Four Weddings and a Funeral had a gay couple as part of its ensemble, arguably it’s a prime example of the even more poisonous ‘bury your gays’ trope because one half of its couple forms the funeral part of the title. Part of me really wants to critique the trope as it pertains to My Best Friend’s Wedding, but it’s also hard to be too negative primarily because Rupert Everett is a lot of fun here and you can’t help but love his performance every time he shows up. We only get a quick glimpse of his life away from Roberts’ character, and that’s in service to an answering machine joke involving Roberts’ character ranting about her situation, but it’s still hard to hate the film and Everett’s performance when he chews up the scenery with gusto.
While the trope itself is a cliche, it did show a willingness in mainstream cinema to acknowledge characters that weren’t heterosexual. This, after all, was the decade of Philadelphia and The Birdcage, groundbreaking films but which also relied on well known heterosexual actors such as Tom Hanks and Robin Williams to play gay men (although The Birdcage did cast Nathan Lane as one of the leads).
However, outside a few rare examples and some prominent independent productions such as But I’m a Cheerleader and Kissing Jessica Stein, it would feel like a long time before a gay character would take the lead in their own romantic comedy, and for the most part you couldn’t help but feel that mainstream Hollywood didn’t take any notice if you were gay unless you had AIDS or could simply be the gay best friend.