Frank Capra once said, “Embrace happy marriage in real life, but keep away from it on screen.” As Jeanine Basinger notes in I Do and I Don’t: A History of Marriage in the Movies, fellow movie scholars warned her the subject was an unwieldy one. But thanks to her impeccable research and thoroughly entertaining prose, Basinger — whose previous works include A Woman’s View: How Hollywood Spoke to Women, 1930–1960 and Silent Stars — provides a take on matrimony that is never less than fascinating. Nimbly moving through history, she illustrates the lengths to which Hollywood has gone in order to make the institution of marriage exciting enough to attract audiences looking for escapism — no easy task, given that many moviegoers bring their own baggage (divorce, infidelity, heartbreak) to the theater.
Basinger deconstructs cautionary tales, such as Cecil B. DeMille’s The Cheat and 2002’s Unfaithful; movies about the wedding day itself (Bride Wars, Bridesmaids, Margot at the Wedding); and films about marriages where spouses are waging actual battles (Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, The War of the Roses, Mr. & Mrs. Smith). She examines the increasingly ambiguous endings filmmakers have given their love stories over time (Blue Valentine, The Kids Are All Right). Interestingly, Basinger says the most honest pop culture marriage portrayal is found not on the big screen but on the small one: that of Coach Taylor and his wife on NBC’s Friday Night Lights.
Viewing movies through this particular lens, as it turns out, is a riveting lesson in history and pop psychology, one that will appeal to film buffs of just about every stripe, not only those interested in happily ever after. A-