What We Can’t Have: Forbidden Love in the Movies

Forbidden love is a drug to film audiences. It pulls us in, pushes the right buttons and can leave an audience elated or bereft. The sight of lovers who have to fight to be together, in the end are torn apart and left emotionally battered is one that movie audiences have embraced since the early days of the movies.

The forbidden is something we crave. We so often want what we can’t have and many movie audiences love going on that trip that can end in ecstasy or disaster. These love stories also often present an ideal version of love. These lovers never have to take out the garbage, wash the dishes, deal with children or pay a bill.Their love is the central theme and the realities of day to day life are rarely seen in the mix.

With that in mind, I’ll take you on a journey through the Areas of the Forbidden that make audiences weep, cringe, and occasionally celebrate when love conquers all.

In the Beginning when love conquers all…almost

Lady and the Tramp seems like such a sweet animated film. What’s more innocent than puppy love? But as we all know it’s just the beginning, just the first taste of the forbidden when the terrier mix from the other side of the tracks and the aristocratic Cocker Spaniel from the good home share a plate of spaghetti by moonlight.

There’s Beauty and the Beast. Tale as old as time indeed – the proof being the great film maker Jean Cocteau put his classic version on film in 1946. The story, of course, ends happily because miraculously the Beast is returned to his rightful shape as a handsome Prince, all because of Beauty’s love.

The world of film is filled with stories of the underdog that wrench our hearts from our chests, make them beat faster and make the tears fall, sometimes because love triumphs and more often because it does not.

Sometimes the Beast doesn’t change and the kiss doesn’t bring the fairytale transformation that allows the forbidden to become acceptable.

In The Hunchback of Notre Dame, the deformed Quasimodo is in love with the gypsy Esmeralda, but to complicate matters the Archdeacon Frollo loves her too and is so ashamed of his forbidden love that he frames her for murder. Quasimodo may end up with the gargoyles, but he saves the love of his misbegotten life.

The Phantom of the Opera has been filmed no less than a dozen times with increasing angst and a variety of facially challenged Phantoms. The latest Phantom, Gerard Butler, still lost his Christine and worse yet, to a guy with bad hair.

But the story of the forbidden love between the cellar-dwelling, deformed musical genius and his young pupil has remained a favorite for audiences who want to shed some tears even to a musical score. And in the end, the Phantom rises to the occasion and releases Christine to marry the rich guy even if it means he’s left alone with his mask and his unpublished operas.

So far I’ve been talking forbidden love that’s pretty mild stuff. Animation, fairy tales, a horror novel turned romance are all fluff compared to more humanistic, real-life examples of the forbidden.

Crossing the Racial Divide

Crossing racial lines has often been as much a taboo in films as it has been for some people in the real world.

In 1957, Joshua Logan’s Sayonara dealt with seriously forbidden liaisons between white US GI’s in post WWII Japan and the Japanese women they fell in love with. Marlon Brando plays a disapproving Captain who discovers life isn’t so simple when he falls in love with a Japanese woman, a beloved entertainer considered beyond his reach.

The lesser known Bridge to the Sun was released four years later starring Carroll Baker and James Shigeta. Baker moves to Japan with her Japanese diplomat husband and experiences culture shock and disapproval from his family. The couple is caught up in WWII with Baker living in a country at war with her own. It’s a nice point of view showing that both sides view the relationship as forbidden and unacceptable.

Watch Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner and you’re likely to wonder what the fuss was about. But in 1967, it was radical. The forbidden relationship between Sidney Poitier and Katharine Houghton’s characters, was a big deal when director Stanley Kramer made the film. But the film has a Happy-Ever-After ending with the dawn of enlightenment between both families, designed to gently teach a feel-good lesson of tolerance.

To see a stark, more realistic view, there’s 1964’s One Potato Two Potato starring Barbara Barrie as a white divorcee with a young daughter. Barrie’s character falls for and marries a black man. They’re a happy family, but Barrie’s ex husband and a family court judge disagree. The forbidden turns tragic and unforgettable as the young girl is taken away by her father with the consent of the courts.

These films range from the idealistic to the realistic in their views of forbidden romance. They enlighten, showing best case and worst case scenarios. The worst case always is a result of the pressures of society, the outside world tearing apart the lives of people whose differences are literally only skin deep.

Til Death Do Us Part

In 1996 director/writer Anthony Minghella scored an Oscar by putting two couples through hell. The English Patient might have bored Elaine of Seinfeld fame to tears of boredom, but for most film goers it tore their hearts out and stomped on them with every frame.

The love between Count Almasy and Katherine is forbidden because she’s a married woman. Their love is so strong that after Katherine is injured in a plane crash Almasy treks through the desert in search for help. And what does he find? The most unsympathetic British soldiers since Lawrence was in Arabia.

The film has a secondary interracial romance between the Sikh Kip and Canadian nurse, Hana. Just in case it didn’t mess with your heartstrings enough. (A side note: if you want to get into the really forbidden pick up the novel by Michael Ondaajte and find out what really happens in that desert cave after Almasy goes to retrieve Katherine’s corpse.)

The next entry in the British sweepstakes of forbidden love is 2007’s Atonement.

Robbie Turner has no social standing; he’s the groundskeeper. And yet, he loves Celia the daughter of his employer. As it turns out Celia loves him. But a misplaced letter, a lie, a rape and a world war all conspire to destroy the two lovers.

Audiences made the film a hit. It’s an interesting film showing differing views of the action including what should have been along with the dismal truth.

On the high seas, of course, there’s the tale of Jack and Rose on the doomed liner Titanic.

James Cameron wasn’t content to merely sink the Titanic. He had to add another layer onto it. The forbidden romance of aristocrat Rose and poor artist Jack became the center of the film.

Why did so many people run to see the poor man woo the rich girl and freeze to death in the end? It was because Jack was a plucky guy who reached beyond his station in life, defied the odds and even though it killed him, he got the girl at least for a little while.

It’s interesting to note that more often than not, the aristocrats, upper crust, whatever you choose to call them, are boorish and stupid while the little guy, the underdog who fights to cross class lines to find love, is intelligent if often doomed.

Forbidden Love at its most Forbidden

In the world of film same sex couples often meet tragic fates.

Boys Don’t Cry, based on the true story of Teena Brandon, a transgender teenage girl living as a male won Hilary Swank her first Oscar. And it left audiences stunned by its stark depiction of what happens when the more insecure among us decide that someone doesn’t deserve to live.

No one ends up happy in Brokeback Mountain, except the filmmakers who found themselves with an unexpected hit on their hands. There was no way of knowing that the low budget film about two cowboys in love would resonate as deeply as it did with audiences.

Why? Though the forbidden element is homosexuality, anyone could relate to having such a powerful love denied. Ennis, Heath Ledger in a performance that earned him an Oscar nomination, is the tightly wound, taciturn Ennis Del Mar. His fears and inability to escape them are the fatal blow to any real happiness he and Jack Twist, played by Jake Gyllenhaal, can find.

And finally, there’s an indie film that mixed up more than one reason for love being forbidden.

In 1993 the film The Ballad of Little Jo delved into class distinctions, racial divides, cross dressing and somehow still managed to have a happy ending.

Little Jo is a society girl who becomes pregnant, gives the baby to her sister and is shunned by her family. Cast out, she decides to seek a new life in the Wild West of the mid 1800’s. Quickly she discovers that being a woman in that world is filled with danger so she disguises herself as a man. Based on a true story, Little Jo ends up with a thriving sheep ranch and a Chinese lover. He sees the woman beneath the “man” and they live out a precarious, though happy life together. It’s a great unknown film populated by terrific performances.

Why do we love Forbidden Love?

We live in a fast paced world. The world rushes by us on a daily basis and perhaps the most elusive prize is true love.

When we watch a film where the lovers are trying to overcome daunting obstacles, maybe, just maybe we see that there’s still hope for love in our more ordinary lives.

Film at its best pulls us into a fictional world that we only have to invest our emotions in for a couple of hours. But in those hours we can find that emotional release in a story that may leave us overcome by tears of sorrow or joy.

These films show us what we already know about the difficult world we live in. But they also give us hope that love is possible if somehow we can hold on and believe even when the odds are stacked against us.

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