When is the love story in a romantic comedy funny, and when is it just plain creepy? In Trainwreck, Amy Schumer and Judd Apatow’s spin on the rom-com, they manage to include most of the structural components we’ve learned to expect in the genre: the cute meet; the goofy best friends; the break-up; and the final act reconciliation. As romance grows between Schumer’s lead character of Amy and Aaron (Bill Hader), we also get a classic falling-in-love montage. In the middle of the montage, the movie references this now iconic image from a similar montage in Woody Allen’s critically acclaimed Manhattan (1979):
Trainwreck recreates the shot composition perfectly, albeit in color. In the voice-over joke that accompanies the scene, Schumer comments both on Trainwreck as the latest in a long line of Hollywood rom-coms as well as on the fraught personal reputation of Allen: “I think this is where Woody Allen met Soon-Yi.” The joke references Allen’s relationship with his wife of 18 years, Soon-Yi Previn. They “met” as the result of Allen’s long-time relationship with Mia Farrow in the 1980s. Previn was Farrow’s adopted daughter, and she would have been around eight or nine when Farrow and Allen became a couple.
In 1992, Farrow discovered that Allen and Previn (who was about twenty at the time) had begun a sexual relationship. Allen continued to see Previn, and they married in 1997. Around the same time, Farrow charged Allen with molesting their seven-year old adopted daughter Dylan. The courts determined they could not substantiate the charges, which Allen denies, but Dylan Farrow continues to assert that she was in fact molested by the filmmaker.
What does all of this have to do with the history of the rom-com? The scene in Trainwreck connects this aspect of Allen’s personal life with another aspect of Manhattan: that Woody Allen’s character of Isaac, a man in his early forties, is in a sexual relationship with Tracy, a seventeen year old woman played by Mariel Hemingway, herself seventeen at the time the movie was made. Although the other characters in the movie comment on the age difference between Isaac and Tracy, their relationship is seen as more a symptom of Isaac’s mid-life crisis than by another term we might use to describe this particular plotline—or more accurately, our reaction to this relationship—creepy.
It’s at least in part this creepiness that Schumer means to evoke in her joke, and the fact that this creepiness is associated with a movie widely regarded in 1979 and since as a masterpiece only adds to comic tension created by our attitudes towards the relationship between a man in his forties and a seventeen year old. Towards the end of Trainwreck (spoiler alert here), Schumer adds to the complexity of the joke when her own early-thirties character drunkenly seduces a sixteen-year-old male intern, a “relationship” that decidedly ends not on the wistful note that Isaac and Tracy’s does but in a comic disaster when the intern’s mother walks in on them.
Admittedly, “creepy” is far from a precise theoretical category, but what it lacks in precision it makes up for in emotional impact. And I would argue that one of the questions raised by Trainwreck, deliberately so to my mind, is just what is creepy in a rom-com? Another movie that opened last week, The Diary of a Teenage Girl (Marielle Heller), also provocatively raises this question in a comedy-drama that involves the fifteen-year-old protagonist becoming sexually involved with her mother’s thirty-something boyfriend. The story is set in the 1970s, and this historical dimension of the movie reminds us that creepiness itself is a term and reaction deeply embedded in changing cultural ideas about gender, identity, and sexuality.
Part of the enduring appeal of the rom-com as a movie genre is the idea that love and romance are “timeless” themes. After all, Shakespeare wrote love stories both comic and tragic, and the novels of Jane Austen continue to inspire contemporary adaptations. But all we have to do is remind ourselves of the strangeness of love in Shakespeare to see that the timeless might not be so, well, timeless. You may know that Juliet, for example, is not yet fourteen years old in the play that bears her name, while Romeo’s age is never specified. Yet even those who would endorse the “timelessness” of romantic love might see differences between a relationship involving young teenagers and one involving people in their twenties. And if Romeo is in his twenties and Juliet is thirteen . . . ?
The truth is that love, sex, romance both are and aren’t timeless, and that these are historically and culturally variable and evolving terms. The screen experiences of American cinema provide us with an archive of this evolution, an evolution tied to changing ideas about gender relationships, especially what are seen as socially acceptable opportunities and possibilities for characters identified as women. Juliet’s own life chances are completely circumscribed by her gender identity, her future completely contingent on her making a “successful” marriage. As we watch the history of American movies, we can monitor the creepiness factor in terms of power relationships between men and women.
Consider the “May-December” romance—or is it a more powerful older man taking advantage of a younger, less powerful woman—that marks Manhattan and so many previous rom-coms, especially in the 1950s, the golden age of creepy romance. Tammy and the Bachelor (Joseph Pevney), for example, from 1957, involves a seventeen-year old country girl who falls for the “young” (meaning in his twenties) pilot who crash lands near her bayou home. The star of the movie, Debbie Reynolds, was actually twenty-five playing seventeen, and her romantic lead played by Leslie Nielsen was six years older at thirty-one, but Reynolds made her movie debut at age nineteen in the classic Singin’ in the Rain (Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen 1952) playing opposite a forty-year-old Gene Kelly.
In fact, there were a whole series of movies in the fifties featuring middle-aged dancers and much younger women, from Kelly one year earlier in An American in Paris (Vincente Minelli 1951) romancing twenty-year-old Leslie Caron, who four year later in 1955 would be the twenty-four-year old love interest for a fifty-six-year-old Fred Astaire in Daddy Long Legs (Jean Negulesco).
The ultimate—and most problematic—example might be Caron’s starring role in Gigi (Vincente Minelli 1958), a musical that swept the Oscars. As romantic leads, ten years separated the actors Caron (twenty-seven) and Louis Jordan (thirty-seven), but the title character Caron was playing was only supposed to be fifteen! And in the story, based on a novella by the French writer Colette, Gigi is a “carefree” young girl being raised in the profession of courtesan, a kind of high status form of prostitution involving young women “kept” by older men. The most famous musical number from the musical, sung by the legendary French star Maurice Chevalier (seventy at the time) can be taken as kind of a touchstone for the creepiness factor: “Thank Heaven for Little Girls.”
The creepiness factor also played a major role in the recent Broadway revival of Gigi, where the taken-for-granted sexual fantasy of a man in his mid-thirties for a teenaged girl could no longer be so taken-for-granted.
It was not ever (or only) thus. One distinctive feature of the screwball romantic comedies of the 1930s and 1940s is how often they involved male and female characters in the same age group, as in The Lady Eve (Sturges 1941)—Barbara Stanwyck (34) and Henry Fonda (36)—or Bringing Up Baby (Howard Hawks 1938)—Katherine Hepburn (31) and Cary Grant (34).
One screwball comedy that’s somewhat an exception to this trend, Nothing Sacred (William Wellman 1937)—Carole Lombard (29) and Fredric March (40)—raises another aspect of creepiness in the romantic comedy: violence. In the movie’s crazy and anarchic plotline, Lombard’s character of Hazel Flagg is a small-town woman who fakes a diagnosis of fatal radium poisoning (!) to go on a whirlwind tour of New York in the company of March’s hard-boiled newsman Wally Cook. The plot is too complicated to summarize quickly, but in this scene Wally tries to figure out a convincing way for Hazel to feign illness in a way that will convince a team of expert doctors. His answer? Physical violence!
In a previous blog post, I brought up the prevalence of rape fantasies in the romantic comedy in relationship to the Doris Day and Rock Hudson in Pillow Talk with this scene:
Scenes like this from Nothing Sacred and Pillow Talk, along with “Thank Heaven for Little Girls,” are historical screen experiences that are the most likely to provoke some level of the “creepiness” reaction. One marker of the new feminist cinema, whether Trainwreck or Diary of a Teenage Girl, is the self-conscious use of “creepiness” to make us reflect on how ideas of romantic love, gender, and sexuality are always linked to specific and changing social values and assumptions. For those of us who are students of American cinema, the “creepy” can be a useful starting place to ask questions of just what we mean by love, romance, and sex, and just how we see the line between creepy and funny.