Well, folks, tomorrow is Valentine’s Day, and–if you’re among those not fortunate enough to currently be in some type of relationship–that means another evening at home trying to avoid the cable TV movie channels, most of which pack their February 14 schedules with all manner of romantic films both serious and comical. “Gee,” you think to yourself, “if only I could be with someone and be like the couple on the screen. How happy and in love they seem!”
That may well be true, but in Hollywood, a twosome’s happiness frequently meant there was someone else who’d been left out in the cold. The history of romance in the cinema is indeed one filled with cute meets, star-crossed sweethearts, tearful break-ups and joyous reunions, but there’s also a lengthy roll call of “third wheels,” guys and gals–sometimes shrews and dim bulbs, sometimes well-meaning innocents–who before the final reel wind up at the wrong vertex of a love triangle. Rather than offer yet another Valentine-themed paean to famous screen duos, I’d like to instead tip my hat and offer a shoulder to cry on to a few of the more memorable characters who loved and, more often than not, lost:
Ashley Wilkes (Leslie Howard), Gone with the Wind – One has to wonder if the romantic construct at the heart of this Oscar-winning 1939 classic could more rightly be called a quadrangle than a triangle, as Howard’s Ashley makes clear to his ever-ardent admirer Scarlett O’Hara (Vivien Leigh) on more than one occasion that it’s his cousin Melanie (Olivia de Havilland), not Scarlett, that he’s in love with, even as the ever-roguish Rhett Butler (Clark Gable) woos her and puts down her doomed pursuit of the Twelve Oaks aristocrat. After the Civil War ends and a destitute Wilkes winds up working for Scarlett (who had married and been widowed twice to this point), he almost agrees to run off with her but–wouldn’t you know?–is just too much of a Southern gentleman to abandon his wife Melanie, leaving Mrs. O’Hara/Hamilton/Kennedy to finally wed Captain Butler. The comeuppance of all this furtive carrying on? Melanie dies, Rhett and Scarlett’s marriage is over, and a heartbroken Ashley is left with no one to blame but himself.
Edgar Linton (David Niven), Wuthering Heights – I know what you’re thinking; “But, wait, Edgar gets the girl, doesn’t he?” Yes, in this 1939 film–as well as the Emily Brontë novel it partially adapts–Niven’s well-to-do and well-intentioned landowner does indeed successfully court and wed the free-spirited Catherine (Merle Oberon). Everyone (except Catherine, it seems) knows, however, that her soul belongs out on the moors with the ever-brooding Heathcliff (Laurence Olivier). “Who soiled your heart?,” Olivier says to Oberon. “Not Heathcliff. Who turns you into a vain, cheap, worldly fool? Linton does. You’ll never love him, but you’ll let yourself be loved because it pleases your stupid, greedy vanity.” What gal could resist sweet talk like that? No wonder it’s Olivier’s arms that Merle literally dies in, with hubby Niven arriving a minute or two too late. Since the film only covers the first half or so of Brontë’s book, here’s hoping that the literary Edgar comes out of all this in a better place than, say, Ashley Wilkes
Bruce Baldwin (Ralph Bellamy), His Girl Friday – Ralph Bellamy’s film career lasted almost 60 years, a resumé that started with a Jean Harlow movie and ended with a Julia Roberts film, but in the first decade or so it seemed as though he was Hollywood’s go-to “other guy” for romantic comedies. In 1940’s His Girl Friday, his character of Albany insurance salesman Bruce Baldwin tries but ultimately fails to pry newsgal Hildy Johnson (Rosalind Russell) away from her typewriter…and her editor/ex-husband, Walter Burns (Cary Grant). Bellamy should have seen this coming; three years earlier, the actor similarly lost another fiancée (Irene Dunne) to a former spouse played by Grant in the screwball gem The Awful Truth. One 1940 movie in which Ralph did come out on top was the Warners gangster spoof Brother Orchid, where he and Ann Sothern wind up together after her former beau, ex-mob boss Edward G. Robinson, leaves his life of crime for “the real class” of growing flowers in a monastery.
Victor Lazlo (Paul Henreid), Casablanca – In an earlier FanFare dissection of Casablanca’s weak points (sorry, but every film’s got ’em), I commented on how the stoic steeliness of Henreid’s Czech-born anti-Nazi freedom fighter sometimes came off as blandness. And yet, at the end of this 1942 classic, it’s Victor Lazlo who’s on a plane bound for Lisbon for the beautiful Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman) and not newly heroic nightclub owner Rick (Humphrey Bogart). That means Henreid’s character came out the winner in this love triangle, right? Come on. No true “rank sentimentalist” thinks that Bergman went off without still having a special place in her heart for Bogie (as Claude Rains‘ Renault says to Rick after the plane leaves, “I know a little about women, my friend. She went, but she knew you were lying.”). And frankly, I’m sure I’m not the only Casablanca fan out there who’s wondered if, within a year of making it to America, Isla and Victor didn’t find themselves the proud parents of a bouncing baby boy who bore more than a passing resemblance to a certain ex-pat saloon keeper.
Midge Wood (Barbara Bel Geddes), Vertigo – Ah, poor, sweet Midge. Amid a sea of cool and aloof Hitchcock Blondes, you stood out by being down to earth, funny and human. And, even behind your ad design drawing board and those “plain girl” eyeglasses, it was obvious that you still carried a torch for your former fiancé of “three whole weeks,” acrophobic ex-San Francisco police detective John “Scottie” Ferguson” (James Stewart). Unfortunately for you, Scottie only had eyes for the married, suicidal–and blonder–Madeliene Elster (Kim Novak). After Madeliene was out of the picture, you did your best to nurse a near-catatonic “Johnny-O” back to health, but even Mozart coudn’t do it, and you walked away…and out of the film…so that he could eventually recover on his own and fall for Judy (Novak again), a complete stranger who just happens to be Madeliene’s double. Well, at least in a European cut of the 1958 thriller there was a tacked-on ending where Midge and Scottie are sharing drinks together and listening to a radio report that police have tracked down Madeliene’s partner in crime, murderous businessman Gavin Elster.
Sandy Lester (Teri Garr), Tootsie – Bel Geddes may have apparently been allowed to reunite with Stewart only in some parts of the moviegoing world, but that was still a kinder fate than what befell Garr’s lovably neurotic New York stage actress Sandy in this hit 1982 comedy. First her friend and acting teacher, Michael Dorsey (Dustin Hoffman), masquerades as a woman and gets the soap opera job for which she had unsuccessfully auditioned. Then she catches Michael in her bedroom half-undressed (he was raiding her closet for wardrobe ideas), and he tells her he’s attracted to her and starts up a relationship, even though he’s really interested in Southwest General co-star Julie (Jessica Lange). And, ultimately, she learns that the actress she’s been jealously watching on TV is none other than her supposed boyfriend. Oh, and in a case of life imitating art, Garr also lost out on a Best Supporting Actress Academy Award (her only nomination to date) to none other than…Jessica Lange. A special “loved and lost” honorable mention must also go to iconic character actor Charles Durning for his performance as Lange’s widower father, who attempts to woo Hoffman’s Dorothy Michaels persona.
Phil “Duckie” Dale (Jon Cryer), Pretty in Pink – “His name is Blane? Oh! That’s a major appliance, that’s not a name!” Folks with at least a passing familiarity with ’80s cinema should recognize that quote as the incredulous cry of bike-riding, juice-box drinking, pompadour-coiffed high school misfit Duckie upon learning the name of the bland-but-popular guy that his best friend and unrequited love interest, Andie Walsh (Molly Ringwald), is attracted to in producer John Hughes’ 1986 teen angst seriocomedy. Linked by their shared outcast status, eclectic fashion sense, and shared musical taste (particularly when it came to “Try a Little Tenderness”), Duckie and Andie seemed to be heading for an eventual pairing by the film’s end, and they originally did…until disapproving preview audiences forced director Howard Deutch and company to re-shoot the finale so that Andie gets her handsome Blane (Andrew McCarthy) at the prom, while Duckie is fobbed off to a previously unseen coed (a pre-Buffy the Vampire Slayer Kristy Swanson). Most everyone who’s seen the film since knows that the original ending (which can be seen on the special edition DVD) was the right one; Hughes and Deutch did too, apparently, because they got it right the following year when Some Kind of Wonderful told the same basic story.
Stathis Borans (John Getz), The Fly – Most of the “third wheels” we’ve looked at so far suffered some degree of mental pain and trauma from putting their emotional eggs in the wrong basket. No one, however, may have suffered as much as Getz’s magazine editor did in David Cronenberg’s wonderfully unsettling 1986 revamping of the ’50s sci-fi favorite. Dismissive when writer/ex-lover Veronica Quaife (Geena Davis) tells him about her new beau, scientist Seth Brundle’s (Jeff Goldblum), teleportation experiments, then fearful when she details Seth’s bizarre metamorphosis after testing the device on himself (“I’m sure Typhoid Mary was a very nice person, too, when you saw her socially.”), Stathis nonetheless tries to rescue a pregnant Veronica after she’s abducted by “Brundlefly.” He more or less succeeds, but loses a hand and a foot in the process thanks to the acidic effects of the transformed Seth’s “vomit drop.” Oh, and as the disappointingly pointless 1989 sequel showed us, he also lost Davis and spent his days in alcohol-fueled isolation.
Knives Chau (Ellen Wong), Scott Pilgrim vs. the World – The “fake high-school girlfriend” of Michael Cera’s title twentysomething slacker, Knives is a perky, 17-year-old Chinese-Canadian girl who enjoys eating pizza, playing Ninja Ninja Revolution, and listening to Scott’s band Sex Bob-omb rehearse. Their relatively chaste relationship already seems to have the aimless Pilgrim looking for the exit when he encounters package-delivering “dream girl” Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) and starts pursuing her, even if doing so means fighting her seven evil exes in mortal combat (not to be confused with Mortal Kombat). Amid all this chaos, Scott still cannot tell poor Knives that he’s fallen for someone else, but she manages to figure it out. Trying to win him back by imitating Ramona and then make him jealous by dating a band mate, she nonetheless helps Scott win his showdown with the final evil ex and then sends him off to be with Ramona (“Go ahead, I’m too cool for you anyway.”), much like Duckie giving his blessing to Andie and Blane in Pretty in Pink. And in fact, just like that film, the original ending to Scott Pilgrim vs. the World featured him and Knives together.
Jacob Back (Taylor Lautner), the Twilight saga – The decades-long Hollywood rivalry between vampires and werewolves reached its zenith with the 2008-12 five-film series based on Stephenie Meyer’s best-selling novels. And central to the books and their big-screen translations was the love triangle that found Washington teenager Bella Swan (Kristen Stewart) torn between two otherworldly protectors/admirers: sparkly bloodsucker Edward Cullen (Robert Pattinson) and lupine Native American shape-shifter Jacob. Despite Bella’s eventually choosing Edward and marrying him, Jacob continues to look out for her and helps the Cullen family defend the couple and their half-human/half-vamp daughter Renesmee from other vampire clans seeking to kill the child. Don’t feel bad for our heroic wolfman, though; in perhaps the strangest resolution to any of the romances featured in this list, Jacob’s animal side leads him to “imprint” on the newborn Renesmee, who grows up at an accelerated rate. This allows Jacob to find his soul mate in the daughter of the woman he was in love with just a few months earlier, a resolution that kind of walks a fine line between “cop out” and “creep out.”