Can ”Sweet November” revive a morbid genre for Valentine’s Day weekend?
Valentine’s Day movies — everything from ”Hannibal” to the three hankie chick flick — can turn out to be truly freakish aphrodisiacs. And if amorous gloom’s more your style, there’s also the Sick Chick Flick — a movie about romance cut short by a woman’s fatal illness. Not quite necrophilia, but almost.
”Sweet November” (opening Feb. 16) is only the latest in a long line of deathbed romances that really began with ”Camille,” Alexandre Dumas (fils)’ 1852 stage play about a Parisian courtesan who’s secretly dying of tuberculosis, consoled only by the knowledge that her demise will ennoble the callow rich youth who adores her. (Written at a time when neurasthenia — congenital exhaustion — was as common a diagnosis as A.D.D., ”Camille” gave rise to a slew of fast-cooking fictional heroines.)
A stage smash, ”Camille”’s spinoffs include Dumas’ own novelization, the Verdi opera ”La Traviata,” and the grandest of all Sick Chick Flicks, the 1937 melodrama starring Greta Garbo. Dressed in tomb ready white lace, Garbo plants a sepulchral kiss on Robert Taylor’s lips and whispers, ”Perhaps it’s better if I live in your heart where the world can’t see me. If I’m dead, there’ll be no stain on our love.” (Or her frock either: Somehow, the consumptive heroine never hits the blood retching stage, but then, how sexy would THAT be?)
But I guess the Sick Chick’s always out to fool us. Consider the foxy but grave bound Bette Davis in ”Dark Victory,” Ali McGraw in ”Love Story,” Julia Roberts in ”Steel Magnolias,” and Winona Ryder in ”Autumn in New York.” Struck down in her cinematic prime by some mysterious but nondisfiguring, noninfectious disease, the Sick Chick is wan and frail yet not averse to, say, vigorous ice skating in Central Park. And though the Sick Chick Flick is nominally a romance, it is rarely explicit: The heroine’s frailty neatly precludes any hard R rated sex scenes. For some reason that I cannot divine, Sick Chicks often display a giddy propensity for clever little beaded hats. Even to the layperson, this kind of headgear is a bad sign, suggesting either a costume designer gone mustang or a soon to be diagnosed brain lesion.
Another common symptom of the Sick Chick Flick: well groomed but unsexy leading men. Think of the anodyne Ryan O’Neal in ”Love Story” or George Brent in ”Dark Victory,” who was outshone by a prestardom Humphrey Bogart, cast in a supporting role as Davis’ leering stableman. Granted, Bogey was affecting a fanciful Irish accent and portraying the heroine’s groping, genuflecting confidant as that most offensive of Hibernian stereotypes: the Irishman as holy savage.
Sick Chick Flick scholars will now have two ”Sweet November”s to compare: The 1970 original, set in pre- AIDS San Francisco, had Sandy Dennis as a hippie who breezily takes a new lover every month. Along comes Mr. November (Anthony Newley), a playboy tycoon in dire need of her mercy lovin’; her big eyed swooning on the divan helplessness reforms him and makes him beg to marry her. Alas, she’s been deceiving him: She is actually fatally ill. Cue violins. Woman die, man sad — but he’s a better man for it. Some fantasy! Mama always told me I should play hard to get; she didn’t say anything about playing dead.
In the trailer for the new ”Sweet November,” the information that Charlize Theron is seriously ill is imparted by her best friend Chaz, played by Jason Isaacs. So why hasn’t the charming Chaz snagged a spot on Theron’s calendar? When EW.com asked Isaacs that very question, during an interview for ”The Patriot” (he played the memorable villain), his overdetailed answer implied to me that this movie was going to absurd lengths to remove Chaz from competition with Keanu Reeves’ hero: Chaz is a homosexual. And a drag queen. And living with his boyfriend. And a Scot, so — I don’t know — verbal communication is too difficult?
Whew! That’s covering all the bases. (Something tells me that early on, there may have been wild talk of forcing Chaz to have thick spectacles, a stutter, and a limp, but in the end cooler heads prevailed.) Or perhaps Chaz is actually some kind of nod to Bogart in ”Dark Victory”: the attractive, unavailable Man Friday with the ostentatious accent and better roles ahead of him.
Anyway, decide for yourself. The Sick Chick’s tragedy is not that she’s terminally ill — she can cope with that. It’s that she has never known true love. And it will be her misfortune to find it with a someone who fails to quickly appreciate both the deep well of her emotions and the meaning of her slate gray complexion and penchant for heavy wool shawls. So take my advice. Next time you meet a woman with a darling hat and a nagging cough, skip the preliminaries and go directly to roses and devotion. It may not be the flu after all.