The Rom-Com Boom owed Everything to Its Leading Ladies

The Rom-Com Boom owed Everything to Its Leading Ladies ...

Touchstone Pictures, a subsidiary of Disney, began filming what would become the biggest romantic comedy of all-time (at least by the amount of tickets sold). It was also the third-highest grossing film of 1990, and catapulted eventual Oscar nominee Julia Roberts to global fame.

Pretty Woman, a formerly dark and gritty tale about a sex worker who gets hired for a week (and then, of course, falls in love with her).

The film, which was released more than thirty years later, remains a standout form of studio filmmaking in general (it's hard to imagine Disney taking a Sundance Labs script and turning it into a broadly-appealing story about a hooker with a heart of gold ever again) and the romantic comedy in particular. It established Roberts as a star, but the very notion that one of them might be able to carry the entire thing.

Julia Roberts was not an anomaly. During the 1990s, rom-coms had a boom time, but even the best of the bunch didnt have a chance of working without some of the best actresses to ever tackle material this romantic and funny. Who could not help falling in love with them and the genre itself?

Romantic comedies have always been a staple of Hollywood filmmaking (and storytelling itself), and the industry has long gone through various iterations, subgenres, and tropes that fall within the general idea that these two persons will fall in love, and it will be funny. In the earlier days of Hollywood, this was never the case at all (see: It Happened One Night, one of only three films to ever win the big five Oscars).

In the 1990s, it had a major comeback, although the genre has declined from studio attention in recent years, becoming more popular in the streaming world (Netflix, in particular, has had great success with the program, though the streamer tends to focus on stories that are younger.

Courttesy Everett's Collection/Bena Vista Pictures

Roberts ruled the 1990s, as she also concluded the decade with Runaway Bride in the late summer of 1999 (which, adorably enough, re-teamed her with both Marshall and her co-star Richard Gere of Pretty Woman). Both prickly romantic comedy films included Roberts playing complex heroines.

Roberts' trademark huge smile and open-mouthed laugh is best exemplified by a frankly humorous performance in Pretty Woman that was actually the result of Gere's good-natured teasing, but that buoyancy obscures deep human drama.

The headline-worthy gag about a small-town lady (Roberts) who hides her identity crisis obscures a significant inner struggle (what a crazy idea for a rom-com!). In My Best Friends Wedding, Roberts Julianne has convinced herself she is in love with her long-time best friend (Dermot Mulroney), to the point that she is prepared to break up his wedding to his lovely ditzy partner (Cameron Diaz, a rom-com

These aren't healthy, happy stories, but Roberts' inherent likeability binds them together. We love her tough characters because they're unique to her appeal.

Collection of TriStar Pictures and Courttesy Everett

Meg Ryan mastered a similar skill with her many iconic rom-com roles, only to have the whole business become an annoying mess if the wackiest characters were played by anyone else. We cant help but root for her, as in Nora Ephrons groundbreaking Sleepless in Seattle, a woman who obsesses over a guy she has never met, stalks him and her kid, and throws over no less than Bill Pullman while doing it.

Ryan's greatest work was achieved when she was teamed with a familiar leading man. Gere was hired by Ryan, and Hanks was hired by him to direct his Youve Got Mail role, in which he struggles to come across as a temporary cad, each Ryan performance is different from the others. In Joe Versus the Volcano, each plays a different woman with its own worldview.

The inevitableRyan/Hanks romance might conclude the story, but Ryan also discovers new facets for her Kathleen Kelly in the remainder of Ephrons 1998 delight. Ryan is all of these women in one, the rare on-screen heroine who refuses to be defined by just one aspect (or one relationship) in her life.

Ryan was able to be both unheralded winners (French Kiss, in which she was matched with a hilariously fake French Kevin Kline) and massive busts (Prelude to a Kiss, which was icky even after Ryan was willing to give it her all). It's Ryan's special charm, hidden under an uncharacteristically tough exterior, that makes the film so enjoyable.

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Sandra Bullock burst out in Love Potion No. 9, before resorting to misfires that still showed her abilities, such as Two If By Sea and Hope Floats (truly not a rom-com, but a film that is at its finest when it comes to being lighter, mostly thanks to Bullock). Bullock was developed into the kind of sad-sack character normally reserved for male rom-com actors in 1995 While You Were Sleeping.

Bullock, an Oscar winner, is still writing rom-coms today, including huge successes such as The Proposal (again, taking on a typical male role and making it decidedly feminine) and The Lost City (a throwback to the 1980s, like 1984's Romancing the Stone).

Only Andie MacDowell was able to savor the roles of Hugh Grant and Bill Murray in films like Four Weddings and a Funeral and Groundhog Day, which are usually remembered as vehicles for them both during their most challenging times, and MacDowell was able to devote her own name to the largely forgotten The Muse and the sweet Green Card (Other MacDowell also-rans).

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MacDowell is often overlooked, but her reserved charm and understated nature provided a break for several 90s rom-com favorites. Like her contemporaries, MacDowell possessed a special charm that was easy to fall in love with.

These films, despite their aplomb, fell short in one key area: they were all about white women at the heart ofheterosexual love stories. Hollywood may be making representational advances these days, but the 1990s fell short, and there were still several women of color and queer storytellers who got to shine bright in the rom-com industry today, just like the rest of our rom-com queens.

Courttesy Everett's 20thCentFox/Courtesy Everett Collection

Combining through the rom-com archives from the 1990s exposes a number of more varied options. While The Best Man (which featured Long, along with other wonderful actresses like Regina Hall, Sanaa Lathan, Monica Calhoun, and Melissa De Sousa) is an ensemble piece, and Waiting to Exhale (in which Bassett lights up her cheating husband's car and all his belongings) trends a bit darker than the frothy genre standards, both actresses display

Long is the dominant character in Theodore Witchers' steamy Love Jones, who is played by Larenz Tate in a romantic drama that provides some humorous insight into the nature of modern love. In 1998s How Stella Got Her Groove Back, Bassett, one of our most versatile performers, took on the role of the eponymous character with ease and charm, putting the film into the highest echelons of the genre (and it's more sexier than a lot of them

Jamie Babbits' satirical film But Im a Cheerleader is a classic of the genre, an outlier in Hollywood, and a sterling illustration of why Lyonne and DuVall remain so bright lights on the big screen. (DuVall, now a director, directed the 2020 queer Christmas rom-com Happiest Season, which was a hit on Hulu, and proof that things are changing for the better.)

Collection of Lions Gate and Courttesy Everett

From Goldie Hawn (bringing her traditional physical gags to Bird on a Wire), to Robin Givens (Boomerang does not work without her), a wide array of other films became well-known.

Emma Thompson's Shakespearan riffs from Uma Thurman in Shes All That were enthralling; Rachael Leigh Cook's contemporary Cyrano tale The Truth About Cats & Dogs was enthralled by both Gwyneth Paltrow and Alicia Silverstone in Clueless.

This decade saw a Meryl Streep rom-com (Defending Your Life), an Annette Bening rom-com (The American President), and introduced us to Toni Collette (Muriels Wedding) and Juliette Binoche (Sabrina).

Or, as Vivian might have said at the end of Pretty Woman, they resurrected the genre immediately.

This article was published as part of the IndieWires 90s Week special. For more information, visit our 90s Week page.