My Best Friend's Wedding
At 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.
Robert 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.
When 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.
Julianne 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.
The 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.
But 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.
What 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.
The 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).
This 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.
And 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, non-demonstrative creature?
Second 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.
This 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.
The 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.
I 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.
Don’t 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.
There’s 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