'Love Affair' has its faults, but it still has that ending

October 21, 1994|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Sun Film Critic

Certain stories are beyond messing up. "A Christmas Carol" is one such tough guy. "Cinderella," you cannot ruin a "Cinderella" with a ball peen hammer. "Beauty and the Beast"? Impervious to man or nature or Disney.

And so it turns out is "Love Affair," as it is currently titled, or "An Affair to Remember" as it was titled in 1957, or even "Love Affair," as it was titled before that (in 1939). Once, it was even called "Sleepless in Seattle." Originally conceived in the late '30s by a very smart comedy structure guy, Leo McCarey (he also made "The Bells of St. Mary's" and "Going My Way" as well as a number of Laurel and Hardy short films), it's a well-knit story that never fails as it slides through its adroit plot points while bonking out resonant chords on the redemptive power of love.

This version also has a potent subtext, as it seems to play ironically with the authentic life of its star. Warren Beatty, who also co-wrote and co-produced, is far more famous for his amorous escapades than for his artistic achievements, which of course is as it should be. Two years back, he met then married Annette Bening, giving up the fast life and consigning himself to the redemptive powers of love. He's even become, in his well-preserved mid-50s, the father of two daughters. Not to put too fine a line on it, but that's exactly the moral trajectory underlying "Love Affair." It's not so much a case of art imitating reality as of the two of them having the same script doctor.

The surprise is that the famous 1957 version of the story, with Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr, which McCarey directed (as he had in 1939), is much more astutely set up than Beatty's glossy new version. Whatever McCarey knew about story construction didn't take with Beatty and his co-writer Robert Towne. In fact, just about every change they make hurts rather than helps.

The McCarey version was essentially a shipboard romance in which an aging playboy and an aging refined lady, each the glamorous plaything of someone richer and more powerful, meet cute and banter snappily and then fall in love. At the end of the journey, they swear to abandon their pampering lovers and pampered lives, spend three months "proving themselves" in the real world -- he as a painter, she as a singer -- and then meet atop the Empire State Building. Each is worthy of the other, but at the last moment fate intervenes to prevent the meeting; a few bitter months later, fate intervenes to reunite them.

Among other things, it's a powerfully alluring fantasy of good WASP behavior, of upper lips stiff as stainless steel and emotional lives as dry as a vodka martini: no blubbering with self-pity, no yielding to the temptations of bitterness, no mongering of self-justifying excuses. It's a snivel-free environment and it's how everybody would like to behave but nobody ever will; furthermore, I defy any sentient human being to look upon the last few minutes without sniffing up a noseful. That magic continues; and in this film, when it becomes clear to Beatty why Bening missed the appointment at the Empire State Building, my nose seemed to turn into a grenade of mucus. I thought it would explode. Of course I didn't cry because, as is well known, real men don't cry.

It is, however, much harder sledding to get to this exquisitely wracking moment. For reasons having to do with the style of Beatty's appeal, the hero (now called Mike Gambril) isn't a swanky cosmopolitan but an ex-NFL quarterback who makes a spurious living as a sports anchor at the behest of his powerful talk-show host fiance (Kate Capshaw, who's hardly in the movie at all.) All that's fine except that a key plot point in the original is that the playboy was a painter. A key prop was a certain painting. Without the painting, there's no story and no movie. So . . . this time through, Warren Beatty is an ex-quarterback who happens, for no known reason, to have painted exactly one picture. Not convincing.

The movie opens on a flight to Sydney, where Mike encounters classy, restrained, quitely self-mocking and unimpressed Terry McKay (Bening). You're thinking: The whole thing is going to play out on a plane? No, it's not. Danger: plot twists ahead. Soon enough the plane is making an emergency landing on a Pacific atoll and the only way out is by slow Russian freighter, where the two fall in love amid comically imagined little people.

It gets more ridiculous. In "An Affair to Remember," Grant was traveling with his grouchy but ingratiating aunt (Cathleen Nesbitt), the one person in the world who believed in him. The aunt was a useful foil for his character so, rather than dispose of her, the new filmmakers discover her, in the guise of Katharine Hepburn, in a mansion in the center of the Fijian wilderness, ready to dispense homilies, bromides, herbal tea and cookies. My god, this frail, elderly woman miles from medical attention? That's supposed to be cute? I kept thinking: What if she breaks her hip?

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