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Sid And Nancy

Just in Time For Valentine’s Day: 5 Dysfunctional Love Stories

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Love, exciting and new… Wait sorry, that’s the intro to The Love Boat. Love is what this upcoming commercial holiday is allegedly framed around, yet real life manifestations of it are often much more complex than what might be conveyed by Hallmark. One only need look around at how often we see healthy, idyllic, mutually beneficial romantic relationships that are to be admired and how often we see… relationships of a different sort. In the domain of cinema, where everything is larger than life, sometimes imperfect love stories can be soothing because they more accurately reflect reality than the age-old trope where everyone is happy as we fade to black. No human being or real relationship, with all of its foibles, can live up to such perfection, but it’s an illusion anyway, because we can’t even see past this moment into the next one (except with a brilliant film like The Graduate, where Mike Nichols does in fact keep his camera lingering on his onscreen couple a moment or two too long and we watch their triumphant bliss of an ending start to bend into uncertainty.)

Here are some rocky cinematic examples to enjoy this holiday season while eating candy out of an oversized cardboard heart. All of them came out in the ’80s or ’90s and two of them star Gary Oldman, who also has a rocky real-life love history. Coincidence?

Three of the five films here are based on true stories, and a fourth features a character inspired by a real-life historical figure, reminding us of the old adage that real life is stranger than fiction. Perhaps real life is more deliciously, entertainingly dysfunctional, anyway!

Tom & VivTom & Viv (1994)

This story is of real-life poet and playwright T.S. Eliot and his first wife, Vivienne Haigh-Wood. Their love is true, but he wants to put her in a nuthouse. She melts chocolate and pours it through his office mail slot (to the screams of his secretary) in order to get his attention. What could be more perfect for Valentine’s Day?

Elliot (Willem Dafoe) and Haigh-Wood, played here with great acclaim by Miranda Richardson, married in 1915, less than three months after meeting.

Richardson’s Vivian is haywire and unpredictable, seemingly manic depressive, prone to impulsivity and frequent inappropriate outbursts in polite society. Tom seems conflicted. He loves her, but he is warned by multiple friends throughout the film that her behavior will ruin him (and more specifically, presumably, his career).

In real life, T.S. Eliot’s relationship with his wife sounded colder and more brutal than it’s portrayed in this film, one that is visually reminiscent of a Merchant-Ivory production set in the 1920s. In reality, Tom hid from Viv after their separation and possibly only married her in the first place in order to remain in England.

Yet in the film, much is made of their love. She even defends him passionately when questioned about her incarceration by him into an asylum against her will for nine years, until her death in 1947. The real-life facts were more ambiguous: she was committed only by her brother but apparently upon receiving the news by telephone of his wife’s death, a scene which is not depicted in the movie, Eliot exclaimed, “Oh God, oh God.”

This film echoes the film we will talk about next, Prick Up Your Ears, in that both partners begin more in creative collaboration, and then one rises to acclaim, in many ways leaving the other behind.

Viv is eventually shut out from Tom’s work life altogether, prompting the melted chocolate incident mentioned above. She offers to help him type and he replies coldly, “I have a secretary who does all that.”

The lines become blurred between what is a symptom of her mental illness and what is in fact an understandable reaction to the way she is being treated by society and her husband.

As Tom summarizes in the film, “I’m married to a woman that I love. But everything we do together falls apart.”

Prick Up Your EarsPrick Up Your Ears (1987)

The ultimate codependent love story culminating in murder. (This is not actually a spoiler, as the film begins in the immediate aftermath of this tragedy while the majority of the rest is told in flashback, piecing together how we arrived at such an untimely end. It’s a narrative structure successfully employed by movies like Sunset Boulevard, and a format that can be traced throughout film history: a movie that opens with its own tragic climax. (Sunset is even narrated by its own deceased main character.)

In this instance, the film is about real-life gay British playwright Joe Orton (Gary Oldman), who was famously murdered at the age of 34 by his partner, Kenneth Halliwell (Alfred Molina), who then took his own life.

It’s a story that illustrates the dynamic, often played out in real life, as in the tragic case of Phil Hartman, of two romantic partners where one enjoys tremendous success while the other continues to toil away in obscurity and the mounting tension this creates.

In the case of Halliwell, feeling romantically grown out of and professionally left behind by the lover he initially mentored, stirring in his own battles with mental instability creates a dangerous recipe.

Orton initially meets Halliwell at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. When they’re miming the passing around of an invisible “cat” during an in-class acting exercise, Halliwell, in a bit of foreshadowing (and perhaps an illustration of his general character) pretends to strangle it while the other classmates look on in horror. Orton grins.

The thing that the film hits home, even mirroring it in the husband-and-wife team who interview Orton’s agent post-mortem, is the trope of the frustrated supportive housewife: a thankless role which Halliwell ultimately carries to its ghastly conclusion.

You can observe this dynamic even in their physicality in the photo above, Orton confident and out to topple the world, Halliwell doddering behind the scenes, sublimating his own needs in a quiet repression that is waiting to explode. The situation is all too commonplace, yet we see what it can tragically lead to in the most extreme of circumstances.

Sid And Nancy PosterSid and Nancy (1986)

Okay, I was wrong about the above film being the “ultimate,” as here is another sublime codependent love story culminating in murder! (Even the tagline for this movie is “Love Kills.”) This film is similar to Prick Up Your Ears, not only in the sharing of its lead actor, but also in its employing the same storytelling structure: the aftermath of a violent murder with the rest of the movie flashing back to the events leading up to it. This is not a spoiler, in part because the film opens with this but also because this story is a famous one. It was never proven who actually killed Nancy Spungen; Sid Vicious (Gary Oldman) died a mere four months later of a heroin overdose before he could even stand trial.

A love story in hair dye, this movie is sad, hauntingly beautiful, and heroin-laced. The cinematography by Roger Deakins, who coincidentally also shot the last entry here, Barton Fink, is gorgeous when matched with the film’s melancholy ’80s synth score.

One gets the feeling the actors playing these figures have more depth than their real-life counterparts. Or at least more charisma. Chloe Webb gives a powerhouse performance in a role that Courtney Love, who plays a small part, famously wanted.

That these real-life stories begin with their endings is perhaps a nod to the fact that a portion of the audience already knows how such tragic love stories end. Perhaps the outcome of these sorts of situations is predictable even if the stories were not famous and true.

Despite their bleak lives and violent ends, this movie really underlines the love story between Sid and Nancy, in this life, and the film implies, the next one. They’re like two lost souls here, holding onto each other to keep from drowning in the surf. Neither ultimately survives, but it’s a romantic image. Yet one is left to wonder if their real-life counterparts had such passion or were just hanging in there for the fame and the drugs.

Dangerous Liaisons PosterDangerous Liaisons (1988)

This movie contains twisted love on a delightfully operatic scale (indeed, the story was originally based on a 1782 French novel that was at one point adapted into an opera!) Yes, there are other American film adaptations: Valmont, Cruel Intentions, but this was the first English-language film adaptation of the novel and arguably the most delicious. This could be due to acting powerhouses Glenn Close and Steppenwolf Theatre founder John Malkovich, both of whom, particularly Malkovich, appear to be having a ball.

The film’s two lead characters, the Marquise de Merteuil (Close) and the Vicomte de Valmont (Malkovich), former lovers themselves, are involved in a game of… chess, for lack of a better metaphor. In essence, they are using other people and their romantic lives and conquests as the playing pieces in a game they seem to be playing with each other.

This game ultimately backfires in a myriad of ways, not the least of which is one of them accidentally conjuring a love they hadn’t anticipated, in real life as well as in the film: Malkovich became involved with his other leading lady, Michelle Pfeiffer, on set, and although they did not remain together, he inevitably split with his wife soon after!

To say that no one gets hurt in a game of love is a lie. Everyone gets hurt! These are love games, the kind that Noel Fielding as Old Gregg in The Mighty Boosh sings about, on a grand scale.

One might ask whether playing games with other people’s hearts and minds in order to outdo each other constitutes love, but in this mangled world, and judging by Close’s emotional reactions much later on in the film, it is.

A good time, if one is looking for clever and conniving operatic tragedy, with a touch of wicked humor, in their love stories.

Barton FinkBarton Fink (1991)

While not the film’s lead characters — neither of them even appears in its first half hour — Judy Davis and the wonderful late Chicago actor John Mahoney in Barton Fink have a beautiful, dysfunctional relationship. Mahoney plays W.P. Mayhew, who is said to be loosely based on William Faulkner, the Southern writer who rose to prominence writing novels and then went on to write for Hollywood, contributing to around 50 films between 1932 and 1954.

Even sans relationship, Mayhew would be dysfunctional all on his own. As his secretary, Audrey Taylor, played by Davis, explains it, “When he can’t write, he drinks.” Interestingly, the film itself was conceived when the Coen Brothers were suffering from their own writer’s block during the writing of their 1990 film, Miller’s Crossing.

Mayhew gets wasted and screams “Where’s ma honey?!” while ravaging his office bungalow from behind the slightly open door as Taylor dutifully stands in its doorway, blocking Fink from view while apologizing on Mayhew’s behalf. She covers up his extreme alcoholism by ghostwriting for him and generally acting as all-around mommy. Apparently, they’re not even married, as he has a “disturbed” wife in Fayetteville, Estelle, who shares a first name with William Faulkner’s real-life wife. Faulkner was also supposed to have had an affair with his secretary, though the movie takes this subplot down a much darker path.

Needless to say, Taylor seems to have a soft spot for writers in trouble. She also seems to fit the classic mold of alcoholic enabler. It’s implied that she collaborates… er, “co-authors,” when he’s otherwise incapacitated, which is often. But because it happens after his rise to fame and not before it, she is not squeezed out like some of the romantic partners outlined in the films above. Rather, she keeps him afloat.

This film is a great one overall, walking away with the Palme d’Or at Cannes, but the performances of Davis and Mahoney in it are particularly delightful and their relationship and “Where’s ma honey?!” will stick with you.



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