Queens of Bad Romance
A truly great movie star has a trademark, a certain special quality that he or she is known for. Romance is one of film’s most enduring genres, and many movie stars have become known as romantic leads. However, a special few are known for being tragic romantic leads, their faces and names evoking close-ups of teary eyes and declarations of revenge. As someone fascinated by movies about heartbreak, obsession, and the dark side of love, I have a soft spot for actresses who consistently choose roles in these types of films. Here are some actresses whose portrayal of complicated romantic leads have earned them places in the Bad Romance Hall of Fame.
“With all my heart, I still love the man I killed!” declares the divine Bette Davis in 1940’s The Letter, a moment that would earn her a place on this list even if she wasn’t also the star of a remarkable string of Bad Romances; Dangerous, Jezebel, Now Voyager, The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex, and Dark Victory are only a few of the films in which Bette loses (or kills!) her man.
No one portrayed heartbreak, loss, and romantic fiendishness better than Bette Davis, so it’s easy to imagine why she was irked to lose the lead in the biggest role of its time, Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With the Wind to our next leading lady…
Vivien Leigh is best known for her portrayal of Scarlett O’Hara, and while her performance deserves all the acclaim it’s received, she is so much more than Scarlett. Her status as a Queen of Bad Romance was cemented by her roles in two subsequent films, Waterloo Bridge and That Hamilton Woman. Waterloo Bridge (1940) is a truly heartbreaking romance, in which miscommunications and misunderstandings lead to Vivien’s downfall. Don’t you hate when that happens? In That Hamilton Woman (1941), Vivien plays Emma Hamilton, the real-life lover of Admiral Nelson, whose affairs leave her a destitute beggar. When Vivien Leigh’s heart breaks onscreen, so will yours.
Elizabeth Taylor is a notorious Queen of Bad Romance both onscreen and off. Her most compelling performances, as Maggie the Cat in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and as Martha in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, show the dark side of marriage, the tension that arises long after the honeymoon is over. Dame Elizabeth knew a lot about this topic herself, having been married eight times. When asked why she married so many times by one reporter, she drolly answered, “I don’t know, honey. It sure beats the hell out of me.”
French actress Jeanne Moreau looks a lot like Bette Davis, and shares the Hollywood star’s penchant for playing complicated women. Moreau worked with nearly every great director of the 60s, becoming known not only as the face of European Art Cinema, but also as a dark romantic heroine, whose screen persona balanced independence and pathos. Especially notable are her roles as a wife plotting to kill her husband in Elevator to the Gallows, a woman who changes her life after an affair in The Lovers (a movie considered so racy at its 1957 release that it sparked a Supreme Court case on obscenity— but it’s only obscenely romantic), and especially her magnificent performance as the free-spirited, beguiling center of a love triangle in 1962’s Jules and Jim, one of the most intoxicating movies ever made (in my opinion, at least).
Isabelle Adjani is criminally little-known in America, but an icon in her native France for her portrayals of women driven by love to the edge of sanity. She’s won a record five Best Actress César awards (the French Oscar), and her combination of intense talent and captivating, Real-Life-Disney-Princess beauty make her a true movie star. You can describe the plot of most of her movies as “Isabelle Adjani goes crazy,” which is why I love her. Characteristic of Adjani’s tragically romantic persona are her roles as a erotomaniac in her debut film, The Story of Adele H. (which I wrote about here, as a wife who sacrifices herself to a vampire to protect her husband in Nosferatu the Vampyre, a woman cheating on both her husband and her lover with a tentacled monster (yep) in Possession, a famous sculptor driven mad by love and art in Camille Claudel, and, as I mentioned in my last post a queen who sensibly carries her dead lover’s decapitated head around with her in Queen Margot. In any Adjani movie, there’s lots of gorgeous crying. Here’s a small sample:
The current generation of movie stars seems bereft of women who play complicated, dark romantic heroines. Are there any you think might become future Queens of Bad Romance?