SOMEONE once said that all American movies are love stories. Well, it's less true than it used to be, but truer today than a year or two ago. Hollywood romance has always been fraught with problems: Romance in the movies can, and often does, affirm questionable values and promote unfair and unrealistic expectations in relationships. It can be used as an excuse for every kind of weakness, and as a substitute for other valuable forms of affection.
But however limited and false movie romance has so often been, the best romance pictures of the past endure and point toward the meaningful possibilities of love. Love inclines toward the redemption of the hero and/or heroine from the darkness that threatens to close in. It often entails a sacrifice, and something valuable is at stake.
Well, romance is back, thriving with old-fashioned zeal, and a quick glance at your neighborhood marquee might turn up a plethora of romantic adventures in which the hero or heroine is ready to sacrifice all for love. ``Edward Scissorhands,'' ``Green Card,'' ``L.A. Story,'' ``Cyrano De Bergerac,'' ``Russia House,'' ``Once Around,'' and ``Dances with Wolves'' represent a variety of genres. And a slew of new romantic comedies loom on the horizon.
Big box office returns of last year included the surprise hit supernatural-romance ``Ghost'' and the fantasy ``Pretty Woman.'' And love bloomed in such wildly varied fare as ``Stanley and Iris,'' ``Dick Tracy,'' French director Bertrand Tavernier's ``Life and Nothing But,'' and David Lynch's sleaze-and-gore fairy tale, ``Wild at Heart.''
``Russia House'' combines political thriller with old-time romance. What is at stake is the very life of the beloved Katya (Michelle Pfeiffer) and the well-being of her children. Sean Connery stars as the aging hero who risks his life and citizenship rescuing his lady from the machinations of a post-perestroika government.
``Green Card,'' like so many of the old-fashioned romantic comedies of the '30s and '40s, proposes marriage as the logical end of love - marriage is what's at stake. A couple marries in name only so that the man may stay in America and earn a green card (the passport to employment) and the woman may acquire a very special apartment leased only to married couples. Forced to spend several days getting to know each other in order to pass the immigration test, husband (Gerard Depardieu) and wife (Andie MacD owell) fall inadvertently and reluctantly in love.
In the comedies of remarriage, a couple, already married, but separated as a result of some misunderstanding, is reunited. It is always clear that they belong together. So, in ``Green Card,'' the marriage in name only must be rescued by love.
The convention of the permanence of marriage in the movies conferred meaning upon the story - the fate of the lovers mattered in a way difficult to establish today. Promiscuity in the movies, apart from the moral questions it raises, also means the death of romance because it robs the story of urgency - promiscuity removes both urgency and significance from sexuality.
Urgency and significance figure prominently in grand-scale romances splashed in epic color across the screen in two recent costume dramas - ``Dances With Wolves'' and ``Cyrano De Bergerac.''
Living among a band of Lakota Sioux in ``Dances with Wolves,'' Lt. John J. Dunbar (played by Kevin Costner) falls in love with a white woman raised by the Sioux named Stands With A Fist and marries her.
Their passion is undergirded by something substantial - commitment, compassion, respect, understanding and communion. Director Costner manages to convey a sense that love is a permanent condition, not subject to the vagaries of fashion or the whims of sexual obsession. Stands With A Fist is soulmate as much as wife.
``Cyrano De Bergerac'' is a tale of love that's unrequited, finally won, and eventually lost. However flawed the hero, Cyrano's love has a selfless nobility and generosity seldom seen in the movies any more. And that is what touches us, not his tragedy and failure, but his greatness of spirit and his depth of affection.
The romance of fairy tales always identifies romantic love with other virtues like patience, unselfishness, innocence, courage, faith, and kindness. The flawed but haunting fairy tale, ``Edward Scissorhands,'' concerns the innocence of a Frankenstein-like monster, a man-created boy whose hands are made of scissors. Innocence, however, is not enough to protect Edward from the citizens who first accept and then reject him as a freak. Only true love can preserve him. The young woman who defends Edward pres erves him at the expense of her own happiness. Despite problems with this picture (it lacks a true moral center and its depictions of ordinary people are overly spiteful), Edward's character has a child-like sweetness that is appealing.
While the fairy-tale element almost succeeds in ``Scissorhands,'' it is cynically forsaken in ``Pretty Woman.'' Themes of the possibility of caring, of innocence rediscovered, of mutual exploitation transformed into mutual support are hinted at and then betrayed.
A beautiful hooker (the enduringly adorable Julia Roberts), as innocent and vulnerable as a lamb, is raised from the gutter to the princely hall of a big-time financier. The film attempts to humorously convince us that the hooker melts the stony heart of the financier, making him a better person. The filmmakers approach the subject as if it were analogous to Cinderella and to ``Pygmalion.'' But Cinderella is a beautiful tale of virtue rewarded. And George Bernard Shaw's ``Pygmalion'' acknowl edges the fact that the heroine is encumbered by her past, whereas we are asked to believe that everything the heroine of ``Pretty Woman'' has experienced on the street can be neutralized by a change of heart and lifestyle.
It's important to think about ``Pretty Woman'' because it is the clearest example among recent American films of romance gone wrong. The huge popularity of this film stems largely from the mistaken identification of the story with Cinderella (which, incidentally, appears in almost every culture of the world). The performance by Julia Roberts is layered and intricate enough to seduce many viewers. But the viciousness of the film lies in its sentimentalization and romanticization of prostitution - the mos t emphatically antiromantic of all professions.
The filmmakers's attempt to turn the antiromantic into a romantic comedy trips over banalities. Manipulating the viewer to believe that the hooker's vulnerability is actually equal to innocence, the filmmakers show her humiliated over and over. The financier is such an empty character and Richard Gere such a limited actor that not one moment of truth surfaces, and his lame white-knight heroics gall with their creepy phoniness. Does anyone really believe these two can have a wholesome relationship as eas ily as that?
The fact that the vast majority of the women who live by streetwalking have been sexually and psychologically abused since early childhood makes ``Pretty Woman's'' sentimentalization inhumane as well as stupid.
On the other hand, Steve Martin's ``L.A. Story'' is as rollickingly idiosyncratic as ``Pretty Woman'' is degradingly predictable. While the humor is often crass and profane, ``L.A. Story'' nevertheless both parodies Los Angeles-style excess and affirms true love. Nothing means much in Tinsel Town. Still, in this neon atmosphere, director Mick Jackson and Mr. Martin as writer lambaste the gratuitous and the shallow. Finally, when real love comes, it is the gift of grace.
In most of these films, romantic love (not to be confused with sexual obsession `a la film noir) has a redemptive significance for the hero or heroine. And it was ever thus among so many of the great romances of cinema history. Love saves whenever it represents some sense of transcendence over self-absorption, some special communion between the hero and heroine that exalts and liberates them. Thwarted, romantic love could become toxic (as in ``Wuthering Heights'' or ``Cleopatra'' ), but whatever the complications, in the movies, true love requited sometimes deflects death and often renews life.