Like many young girls, growing up filmmaker Elizabeth Sankey found romantic comedies positively enchanting. But, for her latest film, Romantic Comedy, which will make its East Coast Premiere at the 2019 Hamptons International Film Festival, she set out to reexamine her relationship with the genre, and as she deconstructed the rom com, Sankey unearthed some surprisingly flawed common threads.
We caught up with Sankey to learn more about the film, her rom com love story, and more.
How has your personal relationship with rom coms evolved over the years?
ES: I started watching rom coms when I was in my early teens, when I had no romantic life whatsoever. I considered rom coms to be a glimpse into my future, the love I would one day experience, the relationships I’d have, the heart pounding moments, so I cherished them. I also used the films as a way to work out how I should behave in these relationships – I treated them as a sort of ‘how to’ guide.
Then after I got married I realized that so many of the films I loved end with a wedding, and so did that mean my romantic life was over now that I was married? It was quite a rude awakening for me to realize that these films maybe weren’t as perfect and as helpful as I had initially thought. However, I still loved them so that was something I needed to reconcile within myself.
What would you consider to be some of the most iconic rom coms and why?
ES: Like all film genres there have been golden ages and…less golden ages. The screwballs of the 30s are brilliant, and so many of them still hold up, the sex comedies of the 50s – Billy Wilder and Marilyn – are fantastic, and I love so many rom coms from the late 80s and early 90s. Goldie Hawn and Meg Ryan did some wonderful work. Personally I love rom coms that focus equally on the journey of both the male and female protagonists. I think When Harry Met Sally did this most successfully, as we see Harry and Sally both grow and change as they get older and experience life. For this reason I also love the Before Sunset trilogy, although those films are probably not considered rom coms by most.
Could you talk about the evolution of women on film?
ES: I am not an expert at all so I am wary of getting too deep into this! However from my research for the film it seems that pre-code, female leads had more sexual agency, they were more equal to their male leads, and quite often the man would be the bumbling mess, while the women were assertive, confident and strident. And they had careers. A great example of this dynamic is Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn in Bringing Up Baby.
During the second World War the powers that be decided it was important to assert more traditional values, so the women became subservient, they dreamed of marriage, not careers, and the men were there to save them, namely by marrying them. In the 50s Marilyn Monroe defied everyone and everything simply by being Marilyn. Her sexual energy and charm was impossible to tame – and why would anyone want to?! – but then she died and Doris Day became the go to lead for rom coms. I love Doris so much but her characters definitely reinforced the idea that female protagonists should be somewhat sexually repressed and very happy to relinquish their careers in the name of love. And to be honest I don’t think we ever really got away from that.
How has the genre progressed – if it has?
ES: I definitely think we are seeing more diversity when it comes to casting, which is wonderful, and more stories are being told that aren’t just about straight, white, middle class people. And I think that’s great because – not only is representation so vitally important – the genre had lost its way because it was just trying to tell the exact same story over and over again with increasingly more unbelievable circumstances.
Would you say that rom coms have become unhealthy relationship role models?
ES: This is very tricky. Speaking personally I know that I definitely picked up some strange ideas about what makes a woman attractive to men from rom coms – the Cool Girl trope for example – but I also think that those ideas are pervasive in all our culture. I don’t think rom coms in particular are guilty of representing unhealthy ideals, and also there are so many brilliant rom coms that do a great job of showing, strong, intelligent women. But since they are the only genre that deals solely with how men and women relate to each other, they are very powerful. I think that power could be harnessed and used in more positive ways by showing us different types of relationships between different types of people, and not just relying on lazy tropes and caricatures.
The film explores men in romantic comedy and how they’re not really talked about. Why are they able to get away with aggressive (like in There’s Something About Mary) or deplorable (like in The Last Kiss) behavior without it being acknowledged?
ES: I think the behavior you’re talking about – men being aggressive in pursuit by stalking, or camping outside their exes house for days – is so easily ignored because for centuries it has been portrayed as romantic. It’s accepted in our culture that in a film when a man turns up at a woman’s work in the rain to tell her he’s madly in love with her, it’s the most heart-warming moment ever! Whereas in reality if someone did that you’d probably feel really awkward in front of your co-workers and annoyed at the interruption to your day. Although saying that, we are a society where women are often asked to make one of the biggest decisions of their lives, “will you marry me?” as a surprise, sometimes in front of other people. We enjoy and are comfortable with romance as a spectacle. And the truth is that when it’s someone you love who is making the grand romantic gesture it’s beautiful and magical. Honestly I think it’s very hard to unpick these things and work out how we feel about them, but I also think it’s an important and fascinating conversation to have.
Could you discuss the idealization of beauty and unrealistic expectations about romance in the rom com?
ES: Idealization of beauty exists everywhere in our culture and I think it’s great that we are talking about how important it is to see different types of people and bodies on screen. And I definitely think rom coms are a great landscape to act out these conversations. However I also think rom coms are supposed to be beautiful and aspirational and somewhat unrealistic. Falling in love is the most magical thing humans do, it’s completely insane and utterly wonderful, and I think it should be portrayed as such. But I don’t see why you can’t be representative and also aspirational, in fact I think the two go perfectly well hand-in-hand.
Why did you decide not to identify interviewees?
ES: I went back and forth on this, but ultimately I wanted the audience to feel like they were listening to friends talking about rom coms, I wanted them to feel like they were part of the conversation, that their opinions were just as important as those of interviewees and mine. I’m a fan more than a critic or expert, and so I liked the democratisation of having it be a chorus of voices.
With such a skewed or narrow representation featured in blockbuster rom coms, where do you hope the genre goes?
ES: It’s great that places like Netflix are making more rom coms, and they’re doing so well, but I really feel like this is a genre that belongs in the cinema. They should be a shared experience. And as a genre primarily aimed at women I can tell you that when I go and see rom coms in the cinema, there are a lot of women there. And they’re loud, and it’s awesome. It’s a very important and powerful genre that deserves respect and good people working in it. And in terms of representation I just want to see people and worlds that I haven’t seen in rom coms before. More queer stories, more interracial couples – because then there are also real conversations you can have about what it’s like to date in 2019 that will keep the genre fresh. Rather than just making it about a bumbling career woman falling for a bad boy with a heart of gold.
What do you hope the audience takes away from Romantic Comedy?
ES: I hope that if they ever felt any guilt about loving rom coms that the film helps to remove that. And I hope that it makes them want to watch more rom coms, especially if it’s a genre they’ve never really connected to before. I want people to fall in love with rom coms all over again, the way I did when I was making the film.
Romantic Comedy can be seen on Friday, October 11 at East Hampton UA2 at 11:15 a.m. and Sunday, October 13 at Southampton Arts Center at 3:15 p.m.
For more information, visit hamptonsfilmfest.org.