Romancing the Dead
by Blair Campbell
“Live people can’t compete with dead ones. Ask anybody.”
never mind the accuracy of that statement—uttered by the requisite wisecracking neighbor in a forgettable film called To Gillian on Her 37th Birthday. True or not, it’s a message that somebody’s been whispering in the ears of Hollywood studio executives for years. Ghost romances are everywhere, dating back even earlier than 1947’s charming, Oscar-nominated The Ghost and Mrs. Muir and perhaps peaking—at least at the box office and the Academy Awards—in 1990, with Ghost itself.
The conceit of these films generally falls into one of two categories—the first being that the dead have stuck around to deal with their unfinished business. Real estate often plays a big role here; the grim reaper is apparently no match for a house-proud ghost with pillows yet to fluff.
In the second category, the dead themselves are the unfinished business of the lover they’ve left behind—and the ghost’s reappearance usually serves to let the grief-stricken lover recall his or her flaws and ultimately move on. Such is the case in one of the best ghost romances, Truly Madly Deeply (1991), the first film from English Patient and Cold Mountain director Anthony Minghella. Truly Madly Deeply stars Juliet Stevenson as the bereft Nina and Alan Rickman as her long-dead lover Jamie, who returns to Nina in spectral form and introduces her to the eclectic cast of characters he’s met in the afterlife.
For the most part, Jamie’s undead friends are a bunch of slackers with a penchant for all-night film fests and loud political debate. But one particularly poignant moment comes when Jamie tells Nina about a little-girl ghost he’s met named Alice. Alice’s parents, it seems, donated funds to her favorite playground after her death, and they’ve had a plaque engraved on the park’s swing set that reads: “In memory of Alice, who used to play here.” Jamie tells Nina of visiting the park and watching parents read this plaque as they’re lifting their children off the swings. When the reality of what they’re reading sinks in, he says, they’re moved to clutch their children with a desperation and intensity that wasn’t there before.
Love the living, is the message here. The late and lamented are only the messengers.
films to watch
(and some to skip)
The Ghost and Mrs. Muir 1947, dir. Joseph L. Mankiewicz. Starring Gene Tierney and Rex Harrison.
A young widow moves into a seaside cottage to start life anew and finds herself cohabitating with the ghost of a curmudgeonly old sea captain. The captain, played by Harrison with his trademark comic subtlety, eventually brings the widow fame and fortune when he helps her write a novel based on his life. An early feminist parable with a twist—the ghost gets the girl. Grade: A
Kiss Me Goodbye 1982, dir. Robert Mulligan. Starring Sally Field, James Caan, and Jeff Bridges.
More Gidget than Godfather, this film’s distinctly ’80s sensibility may be more to blame for its cringe-worthy moments than the actors or the script. Caan plays a famous choreographer who tap-dances his way into an emotional ménage ŕ trois with his widow and her stuffy fiancé—just as the two new lovers are beginning their life together in her now-haunted home. Grade: C+
Ghost 1991, dir. Jerry Zucker. Starring Patrick Swayze, Demi Moore, and Whoopi Goldberg.
There’s more than meets the eye to the street mugging that takes the life of an investment banker named Sam, played by Swayze. The plot twists that follow the spectral Sam’s discovery of his murder’s true motive render the film equal parts suspenseful thriller and entertaining romance. A career-changer for all three lead actors—not to mention what it did for the Righteous Brothers and ceramicists everywhere. Grade: B+
Truly Madly Deeply 1991, dir. Anthony Minghella. Starring Alan Rickman and Juliet Stevenson.
BAFTA (British Oscar) award-winner for best original screenplay, and Stevenson and Rickman were both nominated for their raw, real, and immensely likable performances. Grade: A
Heaven’s a Drag 1994, dir. Peter Mackenzie Litten. Starring Thomas Arklie and Ian Williams.
Man about town loses his drag-queen boyfriend to AIDS and is then haunted until he gives up cruising. Despite an interesting premise, the film walks an unsteady line between drama and comedy—with a grating soundtrack that would test the mettle of even the most devoted show-tune fans. Grade: B-
To Gillian on her 37th Birthday 1996, dir. Michael Pressman. Starring Peter Gallagher, Michelle Pfeiffer, Claire Danes, and Kathy Baker.
Pfeiffer plays a ghost whose still-living husband (Gallagher) continues to have a relationship with her after her death—until the antics of some well-meaning friends finally snap him out of it. “Find me a real estate broker and a good therapist!” cries the jubilant widower in a final scene where he emerges from his grief—just one of the film’s many redemptive zingers. Grade: C+
My Left Eye Sees Ghosts 2002, dir. Johnny To and Ka-Fai Wai. Starring Sammi Cheng and Ching Wan Lau.
A Hong Kong farce about a slacker heiress who gains the unwelcome ability to see ghosts after her husband dies in a diving accident on their honeymoon. Saved from its meandering script by Cheng’s high-energy, hilarious performance. Grade: B
Just Like Heaven 2005, dir. Mark Waters. Starring Mark Ruffalo and Reese Witherspoon.
In a bewildering bit of casting, Witherspoon plays a workaholic doctor with no social life. She finally gives in to her sister’s urgings to go on a blind date—only to have a car accident en route that leaves her in a coma. Ruffalo plays the guy she stands up—a widower in his own metaphorical coma who just happens to sublet his would-be date’s apartment, which is now occupied only by her plucky, anal-retentive spirit. Grade: C
Blair Campbell is a senior editor at On the Page.