Films are not reality, we all know that. Yet influences from films sneak into our minds without us realising it, skewing how we look at the world. This series examines some of these ‘Hollywood Frogs‘. This post: The emotional moment.
Life is full of emotional moments. The traditional emotional peaks of birth, falling in love and death have each received the Hollywood treatment. They bear distinctive hallmarks that recur so often in films that they creep into our expectation of how these moments (should) work in real life. But how much resemblance do they bear to reality?
The incredible moment at which a life begins is highly dramatic in Hollywood. It is usually heralded by a gush of waters breaking – not that we ever see this, only the reactions to this event. From then on, labour proceeds apace, triggering a mad dash for the hospital (as, unless it is a historical film, birth naturally takes place in a hospital). There, the baby is born and placed – beautifully clean and pink – into their mother’s arms, who tearfully gazes into the baby’s face and comes out with a touching speech in which she proclaims her deep love and promises to be the best possible mother to her child. The father is on the sidelines, if he has even succeeded in his own dash to the hospital, and hasn’t fainted, died, or been revealed as a rotter.
Brainwashed by Hollywood, I was amazed to discover when I attended prenatal classes that your waters breaking is just one of the possible signs that labour has begun, and only occurs at the start of 15-20% of births – in which it mostly manifests itself as a highly undramatic trickle, often not even noticeable to others. Births – especially first births – take hours and occasionally days. Far from the onset of labour necessitating a panicky sprint to the delivery room, usually hospitals don’t even want to see you until much later. The first stages of labour are spent quietly at home – my first birth took place entirely at home. My second birth did require a trip to the hospital. My partner and I gave our older daughter breakfast and dropped her off at a friend’s house before calmly heading in the direction of the hospital. Granted, I berated my partner for taking the scenic route – but that had more to do with the discomfort of enduring contractions while wearing a seat belt, than any need for speed.
Genuine newborn babies are – for obvious reasons – not used in Hollywood films. The real baby that emerges often resembles some weird little alien more than the rosy Hollywood stereotype. Usually wrinkled and sticky with vernix, sometimes bluish, or with a misshapen head, depending on how the delivery has gone. While both of my babies were laid in my arms immediately, I didn’t have any sentimental monologue to deliver, being too overwhelmed by it all to grasp how I was feeling, let alone formulate it in words. Both times, it was my partner who put on the baby’s first nappy and dressed them in their first (comically oversized) clothes – yes, men actually can do something useful at a birth.
Falling in love
Hollywood romances don’t sneak up on you, they bowl you over with big flashing neon lights. That first significant touch of the hand in close-up, the unexpected collision in the street, the eyes meeting across a crowded room. To leave absolutely no room whatsoever for doubt, the swelling music underscores what is happening. Where the attraction is not immediately admitted to on one side (it is undeniable, of course, that the attraction exists), they are ultimately won over by the highly entertaining attempts of the other to woo them.
These go far beyond the old stand-by of meals at expensive restaurants and bunches of flowers. Hollywood has invented its own romantic speciality – the madcap gesture. Performing a serenade in a stadium, dodging airport security for a kiss goodbye, or standing in the middle of a crowded stadium (stadiums are big in Hollywood) waiting to see if your loved one turns up to give you your first ever kiss, while a billboard counts down to keep up the suspense.
The magical moment finally arrives, and the couple shares their first, incredible kiss. All the stops then have to be pulled out for the wedding proposal. Gathering all the daffodils in five states, writing your own song and performing it on a packed plane, or learning Portuguese and proposing in a crowded restaurant.
I’m sure some people do experience love at first sight, but many don’t. Most of the couples I know have taken a longer time about it. My first teenage kiss, far from being accompanied by violins, was a bit awkward. Actually, that’s not true. It was very awkward. While plenty of my friends were embarrassed by unwanted proclamations of affection from love-struck boys, I don’t know of any cases where the would-be boyfriend persisted after they made their refusal known. I’m glad of that, as it strikes me as quite intimidating behaviour in real life. The would-be lover who never gives up is heart-warming in Hollywood films precisely because of the secret knowledge that we, as the cinemagoer, possess – that they and the object of their affections are a match made in heaven. In real life, that is far from always being the case. And someone who persists in chasing a person who honestly doesn’t return their affection is not sweet – they are terrifying. Just take a look at the satirical Onion article, “Romantic-Comedy Behavior Gets Real-Life Man Arrested”. “No”, in Hollywood means “Try harder”. “No” in reality should simply mean “No”.
In Hollywood, the love is guaranteed to be reciprocal. Yet even then, it strikes me that there never seems to be any thought given as to whether the loved one wants to be surprised in this particular way. Romance, in Hollywood terms, is very one-sided. One person – usually the man – thinks up a plan to win the other. The other is passive, apparently incapable of determining for themselves who they love, to the extent that they often run the risk of ending up with the villain of the piece, should the scheme of their true love fail. That doesn’t reflect the active give-and-take of the healthy romances I see around me.
While it may be the height of romance to some, to me a public proposal seems a nightmare, putting immense pressure on the person being proposed to to say ‘yes’. ‘No’, or even just ‘maybe’ is not socially acceptable, as a rare occurrence in a Hollywood film shows, in ‘Working Girl’. But even when it is kept private, applying the Hollywood ideal of the carefully staged proposal to real life can lead to problems. I have heard of two such occasions even in the small circle of people I know well enough for them to be willing to discuss such private incidents.
The first planned to take his girlfriend up to the top of a mountain to pop the question, on the morning of a wedding they had been invited to, so that they could celebrate their engagement at the party. However, when he suggested going for a walk, she thought he was mad. After all, she had a wedding to get ready for, she had no time for mucking about on mountains! Similarly, when the second took his girlfriend out to celebrate their anniversary and suggested going for a walk to a picturesque bridge before dessert, she was not at all charmed by the idea of going out into the cold when they were sitting so cosily in the restaurant. Both occasions led to a quarrel, the man frustrated at the thwarting of his romantic intentions, the woman not understanding what all the fuss was about a walk. And both led to embarrassing moments when the wedding guests/restaurant staff who had been let in on the secret in advance had to be swiftly informed of the fact that there was no engagement to celebrate. Life, sadly, doesn’t always mirror art.
Deathbeds in Hollywood are another opportunity for beautiful soliloquies, the hand of the dying person clutched firmly but tenderly by their loved one. It’s a chance for reconciliation, confession, a profession of love. There is just enough time to deliver the all-important last words – as is hilariously spoofed in The Naked Gun 2 1/2. Death follows swiftly, and is itself swift, with a minimum of pain, and only aesthetically pleasing symptoms and signs: a slight cut over the brow, a thin trail of blood delicately coughed up, a stain on a shirt.
If the filmmaker doesn’t want to show the messy moment of death itself, it’s also possible to conveniently skip through to the funeral or the graveside, for maximum emotional impact without unpleasant physical details. The mourners are permitted emotional outbursts to show their grief, in an expressive yet dignified way. Noses do not redden and swell, complexions stay perfect. Friends and family know just what to say and do, so that the bereaved person can achieve ‘closure’.
I’ve been fortunate enough not to experience many deaths close to me, but those I have done did not conform to the Hollywood template. One died in an accident, with no chance for anyone to say goodbye. One died after weeks in a coma, so while the family could be at their bedside, conversation was impossible. For the third, death followed after a long illness. We had plenty of time to talk, but mostly talked of small things. On the occasions that we touched on what was to come, it was hard to know what to say. We also had no idea when death would occur, so we never knew which words would turn out to be the last. At times, as the waiting seemed unbearable, a fast-forward to after it was all over would have been very welcome. As it was, we were actually lucky to be there at the final moment. The hospice staff warned us that plenty of families sit for weeks on end at their loved one’s bedside, only to step out to go to the toilet and return to find them gone.
Hollywood conveniently ignores the distressing aspects of the changes in the body of someone who is dying, and what happens when the brain no longer functions properly while the body still lingers. Likewise, Hollywood corpses appear to be sleeping peacefully, neatly sidestepping the agony of seeing eyes that are empty, limbs become rigid, loving hands turned cold and blue.
Emotional outbursts, eloquent or otherwise, did not take place in our case as we were all so busy being strong for each other. Quiet tears at the funeral service is the furthest I have seen anyone go. I can imagine that outbursts do occur, but I assume that these would then be genuine emotional outbursts, minus the scripted words of Hollywood but with the addition of authentic running noses. Snot does not often feature in a director’s vision of grief.
Strangely enough, every funeral I have ever been to was – once the service was over – a cheerful occasion, the joy of seeing friends and family temporarily overcoming the grief. Unlike Hollywood, where the funeral is the emotional moment after which people have ‘closure’ and move on, the funeral was an interval of happiness, a warm bath of support before the tough days, weeks, months and years that followed. Bereavement in real life seems harder to ‘close’ than in the films.
Expressing our emotions, our way
Our genuine emotional moments pale in comparison with Hollywood’s stereotypical treatment. Expect a Hollywood romance and a real relationship is always going to be disappointing. During the long months of lockdown, separated from my UK family, I looked forward to an emotional reunion when we finally saw each other again, just as in the films. But, when the moment came, we greeted each other as we always did. A Hollywood observer would have concluded that we didn’t really care that much. But the joy and relief was there, we just didn’t express it outwardly. We didn’t need to.
Real emotion is not choreographed, it doesn’t follow a script. We have to ad lib our way through, surprised by the reactions of others, struggling to read their emotions whilst wrestling with recognising and expressing our own. The consequent awkwardness, when contrasted with the elegant handling of a Hollywood scene, can make us feel that we are ‘no good’ at emotional situations. The deviation from the expected Hollywood routine heightens the feeling of wrongness. ‘Why is my girlfriend angry with me when I’m doing my best to propose to her in a romantic fashion?’. Or ‘Why did I snivel through the service instead of delivering a composed yet tear-wrenching soliloquy?’. ‘What is wrong with me?’
I think that when we say ‘It’s just a film’, we forget how much films contribute to our experience of emotions. For many of us, emotional moments are something to be kept private, witnessed by as few others as possible and talked about to only a limited circle of trusted confidants. I have seen far more births, romances and deaths on film than I have ever been privy to in real life. It’s not surprising, then, that Hollywood becomes our emotional barometer.
But do we really want these theatrical moments? Or is that what Hollywood has convinced us that we want?
A birth is sufficiently momentous without adding unnecessary drama, the feelings on experiencing new life overwhelming enough without being expected to form – and articulate – an instant bond of love with your child.
Falling in love is about the love we have for each other, not the elaborateness with which we express it. I would be won over far more quickly by someone who truly listens to me and is interested in what I say, than someone who appears on my doorstep with a hundred red roses and a serenade accompanied by a full choir and orchestra.
And, if there is ever a moment that it is hard to orchestrate our emotions, then that is when death occurs. I think it would be better if we knew that chaotic turmoil is normal in such circumstances, rather than pinning our hopes on a touching farewell and a comforting closure.
At these crucial emotional moments in our lives, I think we should be free to concentrate on what really matters – our emotions, and how we can share them with each other. And that should be done in the way that works best for us personally, not the way that works on the big screen. Our emotions, our way.
Next Hollywood Frog: The big change