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''Sense and Sensibility'' lessons

Jane Austen’s hit, as scripted by Emma Thompson, teaches women how to choose men

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If Jane Austen ever decides to come back from the dead, she could undoubtedly make millions writing self-help books. Take Sense and Sensibility. Both the novel and Emma Thompson’s Academy Award-winning screenplay could bear the subtitle Women Who Love Sleazeballs Instead of the Dull Dorks They Should Go For.

Think about it. In Sense, while honorable Edward (Hugh Grant) is pining away for Elinor (Thompson), two men are vying for the affections of her sister, the impetuous drama queen Marianne (Kate Winslet). There’s the slightly devilish Willoughby (Greg Wise) and the slightly homely Colonel Brandon (Alan Rickman). The choice seems obvious, right? Willoughby overflows with what Austen calls ”manly beauty,” while Brandon is as plain as paper. Willoughby gives wildflower bouquets and drives the 19th-century equivalent of a Jaguar XJS convertible (the buggy he and Marianne take for a joyride). And Brandon, well, at least he’s rich. Ah, but here’s the rub. Though Marianne is swept away — at least initially — by the studly young man, moviegoers have been leaving theaters swooning over Rickman’s arguably unhunky Brandon.

In an informal ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY poll of men and women of various ages, Brandon crushed his charming cohort in a landslide 22-to-3 victory. And a similarly informal Hollywood poll proved that Austen’s antihero appealed to celebrity types as well as lay folk. ”[Brandon’s] a much, much better character,” says Kathleen Turner. ”To heck with the others.” And Rosanna Arquette reasons, ”He was really there for Marianne; he’s not some fly-by-night guy.”

How did Austen trick audiences conditioned to drool over himbos into falling for a middle-aged guy with a slight case of rheumatism? Early psychotherapist that she was, Austen steers Marianne (and the rest of us codependents) away from choosing the relationship most likely to land her on Ricki Lake by proving that underneath many a fine face and a suave British demeanor lurks the heart of a cad — just ask Elizabeth Hurley. (It also doesn’t hurt that the movie Brandon got a Hollywood mini-makeover — he heroically rescues Marianne from a storm, an episode conspicuously absent from the book.)

Winslet had no quibble with her character’s final choice: ”I am more the serious Brandon type, and I certainly go for older men,” she notes. While we know which bachelor Thompson would pick (she was spotted sitting on Wise’s lap at one post-Oscar bash), whom would Austen have chosen? ”Oh, Brandon. I don’t think there’s any doubt of that,” says Garnet Bass, president of the Jane Austen Society of North America. ”She might’ve enjoyed flirting with Willoughby, but as far as a long-term commitment I don’t think there’s any doubt. Of course, she might have preferred Edward.”

Sounds like Austen should have read Women Who Love Too Much.