DIRECTOR: Leo McCarey
KEY ACTORS: Cary Grant, Deborah Kerr
IMDB SCORE: 7.5
ROTTEN TOMATOES SCORE: 62%
SEX SCORE: 5/5
✔️ Of course I want to fuck the cast. It’s Cary Grant at his suave best!
✔️ It’s definitely rewatchable – it’s a simple story but it still keeps me enthralled right to the end. And it makes me cry every time!
✔️ Considering the restrictions of the Hays Code, I think it is sex positive – although their implied sexual transgressions add a complexity to their choices, I didn’t feel the film judged them. It simply accepted them as stumbling blocks.
✔️ I’m going to say that it does pass the Bechdel test, although it’s surprisingly controversial. The website I use to check says it fails but Terry and Janou at least talk about a scarf so I’d say that’s a pass!
✔️ And it did inspire romantic fantasies! Who doesn’t want the person they thought had jilted them to still love them after all? Who wouldn’t want their hopes of reunion to be fulfilled in such a satisfying fashion?
As always, this contains spoilers so watch the film before you read on…
STREAMING: Amazon Prime (rent £3.49, buy £5.99), YouTube (rent £3.99, buy £6.99). For a full list of streaming options, check out JustWatch.com
I chose An Affair to Remember for this post between Christmas and New Year because I had a stronger memory of its connection with the holiday season – it does appear on a lot of Top Holiday movies lists but I’d thought that this was because they’d planned to meet on the top of the Empire State Building at New Year’s Eve at the end, rather than because that’s where the movie starts. I’d remembered it having a Harry Met Sally style ending where the general celebration merges with their personal delight, but the truth is actually much more wonderful.
An Affair to Remember tells the story of Nickie Ferrante (Grant) and Terry McKay (Kerr) who are both on a cruise, exploring Europe and then sailing across the Atlantic over New Year to meet up with their respective fiancés. During this voyage, they get to know each other and fall in love, having that eponymous affair to remember, but they have a lot of admin to sort out before they can be together – they need to break up with their fiancés who currently finance their lifestyles and find alternate sources of income to keep them in the manner to which they’ve become accustomed – so they agree to meet in six months, on top of the Empire State Building. Devastatingly, Terry is hit by a taxi on the way there and paralysed. She is much too proud to explain why she didn’t show so Nickie thinks she jilted him. And he doesn’t learn the truth for many many months, until he sees her at the theatre and confronts her at her home later. The realisation and discovery that they do indeed love each other is just so beautiful that it makes me cry every time. Every. Time.
Before I get properly into it, can I quickly take a moment to comment on how beautiful Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr are in this movie? Oh my! Grant’s elegance is off the scale and he is so charming and suave that I swoon to think of him. The Guardian claims that ‘it’s hard to believe George Clooney didn’t spend the 90s watching reruns o￼f this’ but Clooney really has nothing on Grant. Kerr is also beautiful and witty and able to give as good as she gets, never succumbing to Grant’s charms in way that feels like she’s been manipulated. ‘My mother told me not to enter a man’s room in months that end in R,’ she says, smiling at him before letting him anyway. Their chemistry and obvious desire for each other is so hot!
I wonder if that’s why it remains a strangely timeless love story despite how dated much of the plot structure is. The whole concept of being ‘kept’ by a partner is something that isn’t acknowledged anymore and it certainly wouldn’t be so easily accepted as a stumbling block for true love. As questioned by Common Sense Media, ‘if they love each other so much, why not just be poor for a while and make a new life together?’ But a ‘relentlessly heart-tugging tale of two soulmates whose love even great tragedy cannot tear asunder’ is something we can all relate to, all yearn for, and all cry along with – as in that famous weeping scene in Sleepless in Seattle.
The Sleepless in Seattle connection is interesting as all the women characters love An Affair to Remember and the men don’t get it. This has been described as ‘classic Nora Ephron: a woman passionately describing an emotional connection to a film while the men look on in confusion and horror’ but statements that men generally don’t understand this movie are not uncommon. ‘Come to think of it, I remember only men complaining of the implausibility,’ ponders James Bowman in his essay on the ethics of the film.
Is this really a thing, or is it just a movie trope to highlight the differences between how men and women approach romance? That women love a weepy love story and men would rather something more, I don’t know, substantial? It does seem like a simple reinforcement of negative stereotypes, but it is possible that there’s something in it.
Because there is a reading of the story that does emphasise how much higher the stakes are for Terry; how much more she has to lose and how much more vulnerable she is than Nickie. Their reunion doesn’t only save their love and mend his broken heart; it literally saves her from financial and social ruin. Of course women are going to cry more! Even now, we know that vulnerability, that risk, so are likely to feel her joy in redemption even harder.
This inequality between Terry and Nickie is perhaps always present, but it took an appreciation of the restrictions around motion pictures in 1957 and an understanding of some of the subtler implications for me to see it clearly.
The Hays Code, or more accurately the Motion Picture Production Code, was in full force when this movie was made, and it’s restrictions on sexual content were pretty severe. It’s why Terry and Nickie were both engaged, rather than married, so they could have the thrill of infidelity without actually showing an extramarital affair. It’s why their great kiss occurred just off screen. The Hays Code limited any behaviour that risked ‘lowering the moral standards of those who see it’ and meant that no actions considered morally corrupt or that undermined ‘traditional’ relationships could be shown as beautiful or go unpunished.
And so, in similar ways to queer coding – a practice where characters are given ‘a series of characteristics that are traditionally associated with queerness…even if their sexual orientation is never a part of their story’ – it is possible to read into small comments and use them to make inferences about these characters and their pasts without these being explicitly stated or confirmed.
On the surface, Nickie is simply a ‘European gadabout headed to New York for a celebrity wedding to his heiress fiancé’ and Terry is a ‘nightclub singer returning to her sugar daddy’ but these statements have much bigger implications when considering the social context.
Terry is the mistress of a rich benefactor and it is implied that she’s had a sexual relationship with him, and perhaps with previous men so she is ‘damaged goods in the romantic market.’ In our current modern times, this sounds ridiculous but in 1957, Terry’s options would have been much more limited. She would have considered herself lucky to have found someone who would marry her at all and she couldn’t afford to give that up for love. Lucrative employment was also hard to come by for women in general, let alone one with a tainted reputation – the cliche that women who don’t marry end up as teachers is perpetuated here, and the moral lesson is made clearer as this role was found for Terry by a priest. She is a fallen woman who must now accept her lot in life and it certainly isn’t the life of cocktails and furs that she had before.
Nickie isn’t completely safe from the damaging effects of this patriarchal society, but I think it’s fair to say that he is less affected by it – as men usually are by slights on their reputation. Nickie may be a sort of ageing playboy, who one review even described as a gigolo, leaving a trail of broken hearts behind him as he moves from one wealthy lover to the next, but he is unlikely to become an outcast. In fact, he is still able to use his connections and social standing to develop a career as an artist, whereas Terry is relegated to teacher. The suggestion that Nickie fucks the women he is involved with is also even stronger – how else do you explain the ‘three unforgettable nights aboard Gabriella…that’s her yacht!’ joke?
But in someways, Nickie is in as vulnerable a position as Terry. He cannot afford his own lifestyle either, freely admitting to never working a day in his life, and is relying on his future wife for everything. Although he doesn’t get the same moral lesson, Nickie is as financially ruined by love as Terry. Plus, he is burdened with providing them with a source of income if they do want to be together. The patriarchy sucks for everyone!
All of this means that I find their love story even more affecting. It isn’t as simple as Empire’s ‘single, probing question: when you are in love, can you still fall in love?’ because the answer to that is obviously yes! Even if I wasn’t polyamorous, I would still understand that you can fall in love twice at the same time – it’s just that monogamy requires you to choose between them.
But Nickie and Terry’s love story is so all consuming and emotionally charged because agreeing to be together meant choosing the harder path, the less glamorous and less socially acceptable path, and yet they choose it anyway. Being together meant that they loved each other more than the trappings of society that had already seduced them. They loved each other enough to risk ruin, and if they were to be together they would have to run headlong into ruin but trust that they could make it through together. They loved each other more than the easy security and comfort they already had, and more than society’s expectations of how they should behave. What a love that is!
So I’m not disappointed that An Affair to Remember doesn’t have the New Year ending that I’d thought it had. There is something even better about the fact that their romance begins with New Year. It begins with a new start, with a realisation that perhaps there is a love worth risking everything for. And perhaps there is a love that will encourage them to be the best versions of themselves – not one that requires them to forget their pasts or have to settle less because of them, but one that accepts them as they are, flaws and indiscretions and everything.
And it ends in reality. Not a declaration that is buoyed up by holiday spirits or false promises. It ends with the discovery that their love really can survive anything.
Excuse me, I seem to have something in my eye…
Next week: A BREAK FOR NEW YEAR!!
I’ll be back on 12th January with Hitch