Valentine's Day: let's hear it for Hollywood's odd couples

Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant, Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine – romcoms used to be anything but bland

With this year's Oscar-nominated Silver Linings Playbook, Hollywood is attempting to get down and dirty with real people and real problems. But US films are notoriously bad at this. I Give It a Year is a British comedy about falling out of love – not a romcom, more of a romp-incomp. But whatever happened to the simple idea of the innocently zany finding love?

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Being abnormal used to be normal. In movies such as The Apartment (1960), it was redemptive. CC Baxter (Jack Lemmon) and Fran Kubelik (Shirley MacLaine) are outsiders who've missed the boat, careerwise and hopewise. She's wasting her time on a married man, while Baxter is caught in a sexual vortex established by his superiors, who have clandestine trysts in his apartment while "Buddy Boy" gets nothing but colds and TV dinners. It's when they both decide to ditch the self-hatred and take more of a risk that things start looking up, romancewise.

There are a million films in which the staid and stable (but wrong) choice of mate loses out in battle with the dynamic and volatile. As in Cinderella and Jane Eyre, in these stories the hare, not the tortoise, wins. Some hare escapades tragically fail: in Brief Encounter (1945), Laura (Celia Johnson) relinquishes Alec (Trevor Howard) for the sake of her amiable but dull husband and children. But in screwball comedies, risk-taking often pays. In Bringing Up Baby (1938), Cary Grant is swept off his feet by zany Katharine Hepburn, and thereby saved from a sexless marriage to a woman interested only in dinosaur bones.

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We try to formalise it with weddings and His and Hers towels, but love is a childish, dreamlike state and that's what's so good about it. Bringing Up Baby, The Philadelphia Story (1940), and Holiday (1938) – all starring that odd pair, Hepburn and Grant – are comedies of mismatch, in which oil must be separated from vinegar, in that the childlike hero or heroine must be prevented from collapsing into the arms of some treadmill adult. In these plots, conformity is a cul-de-sac that can't accommodate real emotions. The supposedly stable alliance falls flat on its face, while the farcical candidate from leftfield emerges as the winner. "Our relationship has been a series of misadventures from beginning to end," Grant tells Hepburn in Bringing Up Baby. But we want him saved, essentially from adulthood – all work and bank balances and Gradgrindian facts.

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In The Philadelphia Story, it's Hepburn who's about to marry the wrong guy, having divorced Grant out of pique. But at the start of Holiday, Johnny (Grant) is in a pickle, newly engaged to a creep. He rushes over to tell his friends, Nick and Susan, whose own eccentricity is displayed in their unAmerican reluctance to answer the door (in TV shows devoted to conformism, Fred MacMurray and Mary Tyler Moore always answered the door). "She's sweet, intelligent, the perfect playmate," he tells them. No she ain't. The first thing his fiancee Julia does is scold him about his hair and his tie. She's rich, self-satisfied, conventional, and in love with money, not him. It's Hepburn as Linda, Julia's aimless sister, the black sheep of the family, who perfectly comprehends Johnny's aversion to business, security and stolidness, his aversion to America itself. Their love is celebrated by leaving the country. Catastrophe averted, they catch a boat with Nick and Susan, creating their own Fun Squad. It's a triumph of eccentricity over the perversity of normal.

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In the more kindly form of romcom (none of them very recent), looks don't count and weirdness wins the day. Green Card (1990) has the "nice" Brontë (Andie MacDowell) confront with distaste the French "oaf", Georges Fauré (Gérard Depardieu). At first, she's all effortful serenity: a beautiful NY apartment, charitable gardening work, occasionally seeing her "nice" vegetarian, environmentalist boyfriend. Salvation comes when she relaxes and takes on the chaotic and unpredictable, in the form of the more human, if ungainly, Georges. One of the thrills of this movie is its plea for foreignness, even making the case for economic migrants in search of green cards. But mainly it's about francophilia – the solution to much American ennui has after all been to head for Paris.

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France feeds Julie and Julia (2009) too, that misshapen movie about Julia Child (Meryl Streep) and her culinary stalker, Julie Powell (Amy Adams). Compare these two marriages. Julia Child's is a late-in-life pairing, but happy. Child talks funny, looks funny, is very tall and awkward – but every day after lunch she and Paul jump into bed (the secret of marital happiness). In Paris. "What if you hadn't fallen in love with me?" Julia asks Paul sombrely at one point. "But I did," he answers.

Julie Powell and her husband in Queens never convincingly congeal; they're just playing house. Because they're in their 20s and have been brought up on bad movies and no books, they have no emotional vocabulary. There's something objectionable about the dime-store morality of Julie French-cooking her way out of her job in a call centre helping victims of 9/11. The only proper response to other people's tragedies may well be to stuff oneself with butter, but at least have the grace to do it in France.

Powell's self-improvement route to fulfilment is also promulgated by Eat Pray Love (2010). In this abysmal Julia Roberts vehicle, Roberts, as Elizabeth Gilbert, checks out gurus all over the world in a quest to regain her joie de vivre, leaving quite a carbon footprint behind her in every anorexia-ashram she visits. Never mind the film's obnoxiousness about religion, paternalism and, most shamefully, Italy. The worst thing about it is the implicit instruction that, to deserve a man, women must now transform themselves spiritually and psychologically, as well as physically. Gilbert's mystical retreat is really just the latest form of charm or finishing school, like carrying a book around on your head. But what are the men doing to make themselves acceptable to Gilbert? Drinking beer and crashing cars. As usual.

Two recent French films differ in their interpretations of eccentric love. Delicacy (2012) offers a skewed, cruel adult sphere in which everyone misconstrues what's important, and pursues their offensive goals in a confusion shared by the audience; The Fairy (2012) dumps notions of conformity for a surreal, childlike, more innocent world where love is not barred to the unprepossessing. In the first, an ordinary-looking man woos a pretty girl. Big deal, you'd think. But oh the consternation this causes. The friends of Nathalie (Audrey Tautou) express horror about her going out with someone they regard as not handsome. Isn't this the sort of adolescent nonsense we all try to leave behind as soon as possible? But there's no real questioning of the status quo in this movie. We're left as perplexed as her pals about Nathalie's choice.

Delicacy chooses to address the issue of male beauty, but we all know the pressure is on women in terms of beauty. Now everybody's supposed to be beautiful. So we're stuck with plastic surgery, sun beds, cosmetics bills, sadness and disappointment. Whatever happened to love among the real?

The Fairy takes a more compassionate look at the rights and desires of the funny-looking. Fiona Gordon, as the fairy, displays her long, sinewy legs as if the human body – any human body – were beautiful, a revolutionary idea in this age of artifice. All seems comically dismal at first. A miserable hotel receptionist (Dominique Abel), down on his luck, nearly chokes to death on a ketchup bottle top hidden in his sandwich, and is saved by a strange woman (Gordon) who may have just escaped from the mad house. But their love is transformative, as you see when these two sad sacks suddenly start to dance – underwater. And the jokes keep coming: at one point, Abel is in the foreground moaning about a cut finger while Gordon is in the final stages of giving birth to their baby in the background; just as a Bandaid is applied to Abel's wound, the baby pops out, as if the two torments are equivalent.

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At the end of Some Like It Hot (1959) gender no longer seems a relevant concern. Another endearing relationship is depicted in Harvey, an anthem to eccentricity and probably the first and last American movie in which the pleasures of alcoholism are given their due. James Stewart plays Elwood P Dowd, and Harvey is his love object, an invisible 6ft white rabbit sometimes described as a "pooka", a sort of sprite who can make your dreams come true. There isn't a single character, whether confined to the asylum, or working there, or driving a cab, or singing an aria at a tea party, who doesn't display an array of unusual behaviours. In the midst of trying to get her brother Elwood committed, Veta (the wonderful Josephine Hull) is constantly readjusting her girdle, flirting with a judge, and wondering when she can go upstairs to bed and just "let go". Her spinster daughter, Myrtle Mae, finally attracts the attentions of a psychiatric orderly on the strength of her egg and onion sandwiches. The head of the hospital wants to avail himself of Harvey's magical powers so he can have a three-week break in Akron, Ohio, being patted on the hand by a mysterious young woman. But as the Laingian shrink in Bringing Up Baby says, sporting a startling facial tic, "All people who behave strangely are not insane."

The heroine of my new novel, Mimi, is plump, middle-aged and menopausal. She has hot flushes, big feet and a big mouth. She's not the narrator Harrison's type at all. He's a New York plastic surgeon fully persuaded that physical appearance can be usefully adulterated. Despite all this, he and Mimi fall in love. I offer this improbable romance, in contravention of all the crap that our culture tries to instil in us about who deserves love.

• Lucy Ellmann's novel Mimi is published by Bloomsbury Circus, RRP £12.99. To order it for £10.39 with free UK p&p call Guardian book service on 0330 333 6846 or go to


Lucy Ellmann

The GuardianTramp

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