Romantic comedies became ubiquitous at the movies during the mid ‘90s, but romantic dramas are a much rarer commodity. While comedies can afford to be a little ironic around the edges, straight romances run the risk of rampant, dew-eyed sentimentality. And it seems that no filmmaker today, no matter how highly they may value the quality of love, wants to be sneeringly compared to a Mills & Boon novelist. Clint Eastwood’s The Bridges of Madison County (1995) was among the few movie events with enough clout to be taken seriously and respectfully as a straight, romantic drama.
Nonetheless, there are still films that fit the old-fashioned mould of the “woman’s weepie”. They come in two types, and are very directly marketed to two specific niche groups: adult women and teenage women. I am not being derogatory or dismissive about this cultural phenomenon – but nor do I think we should be coy or abstract about it, either.
Case in point. I first noticed the existence of Bed of Roses when I saw a poster for it in the window of my local florist. And when I eventually viewed the film, it wasn’t at a solemn critics’ preview in a small, private theaterette (as such things tend to be). It was at a public preview arranged by a magazine for teenage girls, and I was just about the only guy in the crowd – not to mention the only person over the age of 15.
I treasure these kinds of movie viewing experiences that are outside my regular, professional groove – because moviegoing is more and more about niche markets and pre-ordained tracks, and I resent that. If a film isn’t advertised in a certain newspaper; if it doesn’t get highlighted in a particular magazine column or TV program; if it’s not screened at a certain kind of theatre – that means, for some filmgoers, that it doesn’t even exist, just doesn’t register on their consciousness (or their radar, as the saying goes). The alibi for much of this niche-streamlining is business – the business of publicity, marketing, exhibition. But I believe, idealistically, that we should all bust out of our respective niches at least once in a while, to watch something we wouldn’t ever dream normally of consuming. (I guess that’s what I like about the category-jumbled chaos of video/DVD shops, when they still unwittingly encourage this kind of promiscuous film watching.)
Bed of Roses is unabashedly sentimental, and bears many characteristic elements of the modern woman’s weepie. Lisa (Mary Stuart Masterson) is a hard-driven careerist with a murky, melancholic past. This past is murky not only because she doesn’t want to talk about it, but also because the film (which is rated for “general” audiences, i.e., anybody of any age) is weirdly evasive about revealing the true details. There’s a startling flashback to Lisa as a child with her sodden, single parent: not her biological father, but a guy (S.A. Griffin as Stanley) who adopted her and fought in the courts to keep her … before deciding to neglect her. Little Lisa asks when her birthday is and Stanley gruffly replies: “You have no birthday!” Later, back in the present tense, Lisa confesses: “He got drunk, he ...” – and only our feverish imagination can fill in the rest. Bed of Roses begins with Lisa receiving word of her adoptive father’s death, and the ambiguous outpouring of grief at her open apartment window.
The following day, Lisa suddenly receives an anonymous bouquet of flowers, and so she naturally asks her dull boyfriend, Danny (Josh Brolin), whether he is the culprit. He blankly replies: “I wouldn’t have thought of it”. For this moment, at least, we are back in the safe realm of romantic comedy, where bland boyfriends like Danny abound, the type of patsy that a filmmaker can dispense with on a mere plot flicker – as indeed happens here. Lisa’s secret admirer is, in fact, Lewis (Christian Slater). He’s a sensitive, New Age boy right down to his toes, and his nickname is (believe it or not) The King of Plants. Lewis finally fesses up that he saw Lisa crying at her window that night, and felt a fleeting, soulful connection to her. But, Lewis, too, has a sad past – in the form of a failed marriage. Between Lisa’s exaggerated doubts about “committing” and Lewis’ neurotic need to carve out a “perfect” relationship, something’s gotta give. And it does, around about the time that Lewis takes Lisa off to see his effusive, Capraesque family.
I haven’t always liked Slater as an actor, but I definitely admire him for his willingness to appear in movies marketed to 15 year old girls. He did another, earlier film exactly in this mould, Untamed Heart (Tony Bill, 1993), and he gave the same kind of performance as he does here: trembling, tearful, a man forever on the verge of depressive melancholia, consumptive illness or death – just like many a romantic heroine in movies and literature. There’s a lilting, passive, almost masochistic aura to such a character, and many young, contemporary male actors would probably run like lightning from the prospect of trying it on.
Bed of Roses is the directorial debut of Michael Goldenberg; he also wrote it. All up, it’s modest but quite affecting – although it becomes strangely disjointed and anti-climactic in the last twenty minutes, as if Goldenberg isn’t yet terribly skilled at moving us quickly from a dark, dramatic mode to a lighter, redeeming one. While no one is likely, finally, to honour it as any kind of art film, we can jump the market grooves once again and observe that the mid ‘90s release with which it shares the greatest affinity is Wayne Wang’s delightful Smoke (1995).
A friend curtly described Smoke as “sentimental”; I didn’t really grasp what he meant at the time. To me, it is restrained, modernist, sophisticated – literary in the best sense. But when I saw Bed of Roses, I finally realised what was, in fact, sentimental about Smoke. Both films are fantasies about human potential set free in an essentially benevolent, peace-loving world. In both, characters dreamily walk the New York streets at night without getting mugged. In both, people break their daily, workaday routines and learn to see the same, old world in a bright, new way. In both, there is a sweet adventuring to the other side of society: a sunny, sexless vision in which people encounter others from different classes, nationalities, walks of life. And in both, finally, there are even more decisive encounters with perfect strangers – strangers who instantly become bosom buddies or eternal love partners.
Smoke goes deeper than Bed of Roses into the past pain and present irresolution of its characters’ emotional lives. And the former mercifully replaces, with a subdued piano score, the typical Hollywood romantic music that relentlessly fills the latter. But both films emerge from the same wellspring of contemporary, collective yearning, and that makes them equally worth seeing.
© Adrian Martin February 1996