It’s Valentine’s Day: the perfect time to catalogue the most iconic couples in all their romantic glory. But for most of us, coupled up or not, Valentine’s never quite seems to live up to the movie magic. With so much else going on and a lack of funds for fireworks, sky-writing or diamond rings, who has time to make big gestures and run desperately through airports?
So, instead of listing off the romance films with the best central romance, it is time to pull the focus away from the spotlight and on to the people we can actually identify with: the romances (or non-romances) of the supporting characters.
For every Harry and Sally, there’s a Marie and Jess who are just trying to find the right coffee table, not waste time with a will-they-won’t-they. While Casablanca’s Rick and Ilsa grapple with their epic doomed love for each other, there’s a Victor Lazslo who is just trying to survive. Supporting characters are arguably where the test of the romance movie lies because, like the rest of us, they’re usually the ones actually having to deal with the dull minutiae and disappointments of day-to-day life.
Romantic comedies are often guilty of relegating their supporting characters to mere cheerleaders, catering to their better looking friends’ every emotional beat. It’s an obvious way to ensure the audience remains as focused as possible on the main couple. That’s fair enough; romance movies work better as heightened reality after all.
But not being realistic doesn’t excuse a lazy use of tropes which deny supporting characters of their worth. All too often, a previously sympathetic side character is suddenly revealed to be in some way flawed, paving the way for the two leads to be together without judgement. Witness the usually adorable Adam Scott become the bad guy in Leap Year when Amy Adams realises he was only marrying her to impress his boss.
Alternatively, some romantic movies opt for completely ignoring a side character, having the leads trample all over them without repercussions or judgement. When Patrick Dempsey realises his love for his best friend in Made of Honor and comes rushing into her wedding on horseback, neither he nor Hannah pause to think of her poor, abandoned fiancé Colin, forced to watch his bride-to-be kiss another man in the church where they were supposed to marry. Now, no one – not even a movie character – is entitled to love just because they want it, but even so, it’s sloppy writing to let your supposedly-sympathetic leads be so thoughtlessly heartless.
The best of a supporting character’s romantic exploits come when they get to exist outside of the lives of the leads. 27 Dresses sees Katherine Heigl lust after her admittedly perfect boss. But when it turns out they just aren’t right for each other, he gets back together with her sister and she gets to hook up with James Marsden, making both her sister and her boss more than just plot points in her story.
Similarly though more unhappily, Kristin Scott-Thomas’ quiet confession to Hugh Grant in Four Weddings and a Funeral that it’s him she longs for doesn’t make her any less of a character. The confession isn’t there to prop up Charles, or to push him towards the insufferable Carrie. It’s a true moment of pathos for a fantastic character who the audience surely identifies more with than the infuriatingly enigmatic Andie MacDowell.
In a way, Love Actually is the ultimate test of the supporting character love story, its ensemble approach making each of its couples side characters in the others’ lives. By showing their own understandable self-absorption and the idiosyncrasies of each pairing against the others, they all become so much more endearing.
Having a well-developed supporting character romance also works fantastically when set against the main love story. As the previously-mentioned Harry and Sally bumble through their own developing romance, the certainty and stability of their best friends’ marriage not only gives their characters fulfillment, but is also a nice foreshadowing of Harry and Sally’s own future. Notting Hill might be famous for a red door and a painting of a goat playing the cello, but Max (Tim McInnerny) and Bella’s (Gina McKee) marriage is a real thing of beauty. Full of humour, warmth and caring, their love for each other throws Hugh Grant’s loneliness and pining for Anna (Julia Roberts) into relief, again giving insight into what William and Anna are hopefully headed towards.
Though many won’t be settling down this Valentine’s Day to watch a romance film for its supporting characters, there’s much to be gained from paying them a little more attention. From showing the audience from the beginning how a successful love story should go, to giving the audience someone to empathise with as they suffer through unrequited love, they are often the most thankfully grounding aspect of a deliciously unrealistic genre.
So, happy Valentine’s Day to you all out there, whether you have a leading man/lady in your life or not!