My Best Friend's Wedding
least twice a year, there’s an experience that I like to have with popular
cinema, some big, successful, mainstream movie. I may not necessarily like the
film – perhaps I really dislike it – but, for some reason that I am compelled
to fathom, it gets to me, gets under my skin. It stirs something vague and
troubling inside me – and presumably also inside a lot of other people, which
is why, partly at least, the film becomes such a success.
Zemeckis’ Forrest Gump (1994) was like that for me, and two years later, Cameron
Crowe’s Jerry Maguire (1996). I have
now encountered the big worry-bead film of 1997, one disturbed me no end. It’s My Best Friend’s Wedding, the first
Hollywood outing for Australia’s own P. J. Hogan, of Muriel’s Wedding (1994) fame.
I say that this film disturbed me, I don’t mean that (in my opinion) it’s a bad
movie. On the contrary, My Best Friend’s
Wedding is impressive in many ways and in many departments: well directed, well
acted. Hogan gives it a garish pastel colour scheme and big set-pieces centred
around the singing of songs – perhaps there’s some overkill on the colour and
the singing – and the writer, Ronald Bass, gives us a superior romantic comedy
script with many fast moves. Ultimately, I think it’s the smoothness, this very
skill that helps insinuate it into our hearts and skulls, where it stays lodged
like a bit of a bad dream. And so, the niggling question that this film had me
pondering for a couple of weeks: what on earth is it saying, what is its
message (conscious or unconscious) about love, friendships and relationships in
the modern world?
My Best Friend’s
Wedding has a simple, winning premise, instantly conjuring many possibilities. Julianne
(Julia Roberts) is told by her best male buddy, Michael (Dermot Mulroney), that
he’s about to marry an excitable girl he just met, Kimmy (Cameron Diaz). This
news triggers an emotional crisis inside Julianne; she realises pretty soon
that she’s always loved Michael, and that’s she willing to do anything – any
nasty, sneaky thing at all – to win him back from Kimmy.
is a special kind of movie heroine; I need to go on a brief detour to explain
why exactly this is so. Many viewers and reviewers have commented on how cruel,
how underhanded, how unlikable Julianne is at one level – surprisingly cruel,
for the lead star of a supposedly sunny romantic comedy. Part of the appeal,
the tension and difficulty of this movie come from just this juxtaposition of
sunniness and nastiness. The first link to be made here is between Julianne and
the starring women in a string of fascinating mid 1990s movies, including Shanghai Triad (Zhang Yimou, 1995), To Die For (Gus Van Sant, 1995) and I Shot Andy Warhol (Mary Harron, 1996): films that, in an unapologetic and
casually confronting way, present us with evil women, bad girls. Women who lie
and murder, cheat and steal; and/or women who are wild, unsocialisable,
untameable in some way. Yet none of them is presented to us purely and simply
as a villain, as a cartoon grotesquerie or a monster – although they all loudly
exhibit clearly monstrous aspects.
point and the dare of this film cycle is to shove these anti-heroines in our
face – and for us then to treat them with the same complex, rough respect that
we regularly accord to flawed anti-heroes. I recall the words of the great director Nicholas Ray cited in A Personal Journey with Martin Scorsese
Through American Movies (1995): Ray said, in no uncertain terms, that “the
hero has to be just as screwed up as you or me so that I can identify with
him”. And Julianne is, at the very least, just as screwed up as you or me.
there’s another, older, deeper tradition that feeds into My Best Friend’s Wedding, giving it some of its troubling power as
high-wire emotional entertainment. I can’t exactly put a name or a label to
this tradition, but I’m thinking of Henry James’ The Portrait of a Lady, and Jane
Campion’s very flawed 1997 film of
that book; some of Ingmar Bergman’s very intense psychological studies of
women, or Roberto Rossellini’s films of the 1950s starring his then-partner
Ingrid Bergman; Carl Dreyer’s final masterpiece Gertrud (1964); or Krzysztof Kieślowski’s French productions
of the 1990s centered on radiant young women. It’s a somewhat old-fashioned
tradition that male artists/writers/filmmakers don’t practice so much these
days, probably because they are (rightly) scared to; P. J. Hogan gets by inside
this tradition precisely because he uses the alibi of comedy, rather than
serious, introspective drama.
am I thinking of here? The type of intense, dramatic cinema story where we see
a woman constantly behind the eight-ball: she struggles to affirm herself, to speak
for herself, to make herself heard and seen in what is essentially a man’s
world, run on male privilege. Yet, at every turn, as soon as she manages to
stand up for a moment, she gets slapped back down – by other characters, and by
the way of her world. And she usually ends up as some kind of almost voluptuous
or sublime victim – finally, a prisoner of her own emotions, convictions and
mistakes. Her foolish heart betrays her every time, and so does her idealism.
She usually ends up alone, infirm or insane – or is last seen vacillating
between impossible options, like Nicole Kidman as Isabel Archer at the end of The Portrait of a Lady.
intense and fascinating aspect of this tradition in fiction is precisely the
relation of the artist – of the “great male artist” type, whether they’re
actually great or not – to his female subject. On the one hand, clearly, the
artist identifies with this woman, because she is the symbol, the very
embodiment, of life, will and passion. It’s a trans-gender identification: a
man seeing his mirror image in a woman – and that can be, sometimes, an
incredibly powerful and poignant process. Who can deny it, when faced with the
masterpieces of suffering-cinema by Kenji Mizoguchi et al? But there’s a limit, a brake or down-side that often
accompanies this process. Because it can seem as if it’s the artist himself who
is slapping and punishing the female lead for her will, her defiance and her
foolish heart. There’s a kind of moralistic finger-wagging that puts an abrupt
end to the mirror-identification on the male artist’s side, installing in its
place a rather unpleasant critical, judgemental distance. Lars von Trier is
already firmly on this queasy double-path with Breaking the Waves (1996).
weighty reflection might seem to be taking us very far from My Best Friend’s Wedding. But just look
at Julia Roberts, who is so present, so vibrant here, its emotional core in
every respect: look at those long, spectacular close-ups that study every
flicker of emotion and nuance of thought that crosses her face. Roberts is
truly a movie star here; she shines, absorbing and reflecting everything that
is going on inside the story. The film venerates her, idolises her – including
all her harsh foibles. But then consider how the plot treats her. Its brutal,
relentless logic is to ensure that, at every point, at every turn, Julianne
loses – whatever she tries, she loses. When she tries to be nasty, it rebounds
on her; when she tries to be nice, it rebounds on her. When she lies, she ends
badly; and when she tells the truth and spills what’s in her heart, she ends
badly. There is no way in the world that this film is going to let her win – to
win anybody or anything.
why does this flawed, screwed-up heroine deserve her prime, eternal place
behind the eight-ball? Mainly (from what I could tell) it comes down to two
things. First reason: Julianne doesn’t like to hug people – her boyfriend, in
particular – in public places. The film makes a lot of this; it’s a big deal
for Michael, and one of the main reasons, it seems, that he goes for Kimmy instead.
So Julianne’s got her principles, her defenses – let’s even call them, matter-of-factly,
her neuroses. But is it so monstrous of her, really, to be this non-hugging,
reason: there’s a scene – its most extraordinary scene – where Michael gives
Julianne an instant ultimatum. He’s talking again about the need to be
demonstrative, to say what’s in one’s heart, to declare one’s feelings of love,
etc. He talks about seizing the moment – and the horrifying flip-side of that,
which is losing the moment, losing
the one moment where such a declaration could change and shape someone’s
romantic life-destiny forever. As he talks, the camera is on Julianne’s face,
and the boat they are on passes under a bridge that casts a momentary darkness.
And then we know that, for her, that moment, that one chance, has gone –
utterly gone, never to return.
scene, quite brilliantly staged by Hogan, started to yoke true, melodramatic
tears of from me and many other people in the audience with which I saw it.
It’s melodrama because, from that scene on, and right through to the end, My Best Friend’s Wedding presses heavily
on a certain pathos of the impossible:
Julianne’s furious longing for love, but the near-certain impossibility that
she’ll ever get it – at least, in the way that she wants it.
film tries to pull a daring manoeuvre to save Julianne (and all us weepy
romantics in the crowd) from this pathos. The manoeuvre is an attempt to change
the general orientation, quite late in the piece, from a being a tale of
thwarted romantic love to a tale of friendship: the redeeming, transcendental
joys of friendship. And I can’t think of a film which has produced such a
painfully ambivalent feeling in me about this complex thing in the real world
that we call friendship.
haven’t said much in this review so far about the role of George, Julianne’s close
gay friend, played with much wit and style by Rupert Everett. It’s not being
too crude to say that, in a very real sense, George – sweet, charming,
sparkling George – is the compensation, the second-place prize that the film
gives Julianne once every other door to happiness has been slammed in her face.
On this level, My Best Friend’s Wedding is blatantly and brazenly a film selling the imaginable joy of being a fag-hag
(let’s not mince words here!) to troubled, complex , single, straight women.
get me wrong. Some have taken My Best
Friend’s Wedding as a vital, progressive statement about friendship – about
fluid, playful friendships that are very loving, almost like romantic love, in
fact: friendships that toss aside defensive, paranoid distinctions between gay
and straight, male and female. Well, one part of me says: hallelujah to that;
friendship is indeed a great and fascinating modern theme. But another part of
me says: no, friendship is not the same thing as romantic love, finally – neither
necessarily better nor worse, but fundamentally different; and, while Julianne’s
fun with George is all well and good, it’s not the thing of which she dreams
and for which she yearns.
a line – actually the very final line – where George speaks these immortal
words to Julianne: “There may not be marriage – there may not be sex – but, by
god, there’ll be dancing!” It’s meant to be an affirmative, even euphoric
testament. But to me, sinking down into a deep blue funk as the final music
played, the sentiment summed up in these words was bittersweet, at best. As a
matter of fact, I found it downright depressing.
© Adrian Martin October 1997