So just the other day I was thinking fondly of one of my favorite movies from the ’80s. (Yes, I know. I’m old. Shut up.) I got a hankering to watch it again, so I checked all the usual suspects—Netflix, iTunes, Amazon Instant Video. And…nothing. I’m going to have to buy the DVD if I want to see it again, so helloooo Amazon’s 1-Click. Because, it occurred to me, this movie played a key role in making me a contemporary romantic comedy writer.
So what is it? See if you recognize it: American Dreamer. I think it’s one of the best examples of a 20th century chick flick, even though it never makes it onto a “best of” list. If you’ve never heard of it, or if you did but can’t quite recall the plot, it goes like this:
Beleaguered suburban housewife Cathy Palmer (JoBeth Williams) lives for her family—her quite dull and condescending husband (he calls her “kid”) and her two adorable, precocious boys. She spends her days running errands, cleaning the house, and cooking meals for the menfolk, but her passion, and her escape, is a book series with a glamorous female James Bond–like main character, Rebecca Ryan. Rebecca is the opposite of Cathy—she’s rich, oozes self-confidence, lives in Paris, and solves international mysteries while wearing haute couture. She has a fabulous love life and a loyal gay best friend sidekick, Dmitri.
Cathy devours these books one after the other and rereads them so often she has all the details memorized. In fact, she knows the Rebecca Ryan books so well that when she sees an advertisement for a contest, “Write in the style of the Rebecca Ryan novels and win a trip for two to Paris, meet the author, and attend a luncheon in your honor,” she fires off a sample chapter easily—and she wins! …And then her jerk of a husband tells her they can’t go because he’s too busy at work.
He thinks he’s laid down the law and she’ll obey, but Cathy rebels and goes without him. Her first day in Paris, however, she gets knocked down by a purse snatcher and hits her head. When she wakes up in the hospital, she has no I.D. and no memory of her suburban life or her family. She thinks she’s Rebecca Ryan.
She marches into the hotel suite that’s Rebecca’s home in the books to find the author’s son, Alan (Tom Conti), who lives there. He thinks she’s an actor sent there as a joke by one of his friends. She thinks he’s Dmitri. She refuses to “break character,” so Alan decides to humor her. Then she finds intrigue around every corner—involving several politicians and ambassadors—and drags Alan along to solve these “mysteries.” Hilarity ensues, as does a romance between Cathy/Rebecca and Alan/Dmitri (in between much running around and dodging bullets).
I swear, this movie is fantastic. It doesn’t take itself seriously, and viewers shouldn’t take it seriously either. It’s just plain fun—and it incorporates every great thing about chick lit and flicks: a main character who’s bored with her life and starts looking for excitement, an adorable and at times frazzled hero (OMG my crush on Tom Conti and his gorgeous hair—!), comedy, action, romance, glamorous settings, fabulous clothes, and a happily ever after. What more could you want? Oh yeah—and it’s got a fake-out ending just to add to the fun.
Back when it was released in 1984 (I said shut up), it was dismissed as a copy of Romancing the Stone. The romance-plus-adventure-in-an-exotic-place combo is similar, but they were released the same year, so it wasn’t like they set out to copy it. At the time, female-centric, romance-tinged adventure movies were actually pretty rare. There were some, of course, but when we talk about the history of chick flicks, we sort of skip a couple of decades, going from Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961) to When Harry Met Sally… (1989). Movies like American Dreamer, Romancing the Stone, Desperately Seeking Susan (1985) (another unhappy housewife with amnesia, come to think of it), and Working Girl (1988) all get forgotten—as chick flicks, at least. And that’s a shame, because those are all great films, and they fit the genre in their own unique ways.
I can’t remember if I saw American Dreamer at the movies or not, but I distinctly remember seeing it on HBO, back when they played certain movies repeatedly until those of us at home on summer vacation had them memorized. (American Dreamer was one; Eddie and the Cruisers was another. All of Me and The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia, too. Oh—and Fame. But I digress. HBO in the ’80s is another blog post entirely.) Anyway, I remember deciding that someday I was going to write something just as fun and funny and silly and romantic as American Dreamer.
I’ve never gotten close to the fast-paced madcap adventures of that movie, but hey—I’ve only got three books under my belt so far. Combining the fun, frivolity, excitement, and adorable romance of American Dreamer is something to work toward! And maybe I’ll give one of my heroes an incredible head of hair in homage to Tom Conti, too.