Fact and Fiction in Relationship Portrayals: BEAUTIFUL GIRLS Meets My Romantic History

The indispensable Internet Movie Database (“IMDb”) informs me the underrated romantic dramedy Beautiful Girls debuted in American movie theaters on February 9, 1996. However, I did not see it until sometime in the last decade or so. I enjoyed it, especially the bravura performance by then-14-year-old Natalie Portman. Her portrayal of Willie Conway’s (Timothy Hutton) “old soul” neighbor Marty (“short for Martin, named for a grandfather I never knew. I believe this name to be the bane of my existence.”) deserved more than Best Supporting Actress and Most Promising Actress nominations by the Chicago Film Critics Association. The handful of short scenes in which Hutton and Portman interact are the highlights of the film – and what I most remembered after the fact.

A few months ago, in the midst of a flurry of “second viewings,” I rewatched Beautiful Girls. If anything, I liked it even more. It is well-written, well-acted and charming in its portrayal of a group of 20- or 30-somethings struggling with questions of love, commitment and fidelity; loss, grief and mental illness lurk around the edges.

And this time, it resonated with me in ways I still find myself unpacking – as I am, to a lesser extent, with the very different films Serendipity and Dead Again. The common thread to me is the notion of “the one,” that person who truly excites you (Beautiful Girls), is your destiny (Serendipity) or with whom you are two halves of the same whole (Dead Again). In reality, these notions are the worst form of hogwash – fairy tale misperceptions of adult relationships best left in childhood. I know because I spent too many years unlearning this epically-bad notion.

My wife Nell’s father used to say that every story begins with someone arriving or somebody leaving. I think it was Nell’s father, anyway. Beautiful Girls opens with Willie – a jazz pianist based in New York City – returning to his boyhood home of “Fictional Lake Town,” Massachusetts. It was actually filmed in Minnesota; locating the town there would not have changed the film one iota. Other than the spontaneous singing of Neil Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline” – a Fenway Park staple – in the local bar/restaurant, that is.

A central plot point of Beautiful Girls is Willie’s indecision about the woman he has been dating for about a year. Tracy Stover – portrayed with understated grace by Annabeth Gish – is successful, intelligent, loving and beautiful. So, what is the problem, his friends – each struggling with her/his own romantic issues – ask, directly or indirectly. The not-so-subtle message is “Dude, you’re like 30 or something. It is time to settle down and commit. She sounds wicked awesome, what’s your deal?” Never mind only one of his four primary male friends is married; one has been with the same woman for six years yet cannot commit, one is with one woman while a married high school flame keeps seducing him, and one is not even in the romantic game as far as I can tell.

In one particularly uncomfortable scene, in fact, two of the latter three friends have Willie rate Tracy – who hovers unseen over the film until the last 15 or so minutes – on various attributes on a scale of 0-10. Willie responds with a series of sevens and eights, while we – from the vantage point of 2021 – squirm and cringe. Director Ted Demme does provide a brilliant counterpoint in a scathing monologue by Gina Barrisano – Rosie O’Donnell at her most comically direct.

For all its misogyny, though, this faux-quantitative cinematic exercise frames Willie’s position well – Tracy is great, but somehow not quite great enough. Complicating matters are his interactions with Marty who represents to me a resetting of the romantic clock – it all still lays ahead for her. As Willie tells her late in the film, when she is despondent about her not-very-exciting Saturday night, “Yeah, you’ve got so many exciting Saturday nights in your future.” Earlier in the film, meanwhile, Marty and Willie have this exchange, perhaps the key exchange in the film:

Marty: So, you going to marry that girl in NYC?

Willie: I don’t know. Why?

Marty: I don’t think you should marry her.

Willie: How come?

Marty: You should wait until you’re ready. You should wait until you meet someone who excites you.

Willie: Yeah, well, you know she may not be out there.

Contrasted with “unformed,” precocious Marty is Andera (Uma Thurman). The cousin of the bar/restaurant’s owner, she is the archetypal “beautiful girl” of the title. She is alluring yet down-to-earth, ingratiating yet unobtainable, sexy yet sensible, confident yet humble. Visiting briefly from Chicago, she turns the head of every man she meets – all while remaining contentedly loyal to her absent boyfriend. Stepping back, though, we see that her allure results primarily from the novelty of her outsider, big-city-ness; she is objectively no more or less “exciting” than the women already in these men’s lives.

Andera particularly bonds with Willie – one big-city resident to another – and they have a revealing conversation one night in an ice-fishing shack (again – Minnesota!) as they share a bottle of something or other:

Willie: You know how it is in the beginnings, when you first fall in love? And you can’t eat, you can’t sleep. And getting a call from her makes your day. It’s like, it’s like you’re seeing a shooting star.

Andera: The best.

Willie: But…inevitably, it goes away, quiets down. So, the, this is my thing, see. Why get married now? Why, why not have two, three more of those beginning things before I, you know, settle into the big fade?

Andera: The big fade? That’s an awful way to put it.

Willie: [After a long pause, as he swills from a bottle] She’s coming tomorrow.

Andera: Mmm, that’s obvious.

Willie: I got no feeling about that. Erm, I got a feeling of overwhelming ambivalence. But, but, I would rather dread her arrival than not give a shit either way.

Willie then proceeds to imagine all of the wonderful things Andera’s boyfriend gets to do with her, to which Andera responds, sagely, that there is a man out there who is jealous that Willie gets to do all of those things with Tracy. Willie responds with a half-hearted attempt at seduction, gently parried by Andera; the scene ends shortly afterward, with Willie more muddled than ever.

To avoid spoiling more of this endearing film, I stop here.

**********

Instead, I use my own checkered romantic history to illustrate my frustration with the message of films like this, beginning in early 1996, the earliest I could have seen Beautiful Girls.

As I wrote here, in June 1993 I began to date a woman – then a Harvard senior – Nell now refers to as my “first wife.” On first meeting, I found her charming, funny, brilliant and very sexy. Not unlike Tracy in fact. What I assumed would be a summer romance quickly became more serious. She graduated then enrolled in the doctoral program in chemistry at MIT. One year later, I abandoned my doctoral program in government at Harvard.

I now faced a momentous decision: return to the Philadelphia area where I had been raised or stay in the Boston area. Geographically, this was a no-brainer: I had fallen in love with the Boston area. But remaining in Boston meant staying with first-wife…which also proved a fairly easy decision. Over the summer, we moved into a two-bedroom apartment barely three blocks from the ugly brown Somerville triple-decker on whose second floor I had lived for nearly six years.

She and I had fallen in love, though perhaps just shy of the way Willie describes it in the shed. In fact, while she was away in the summer of 1994, I very nearly slept with a high school friend with whom I had just reconnected. After spending the evening at a restaurant in Cambridge, she drove me home. Parked in front of my ugly triple-decker, we began to make out rather intensely. Good sense kept her from coming upstairs with me, though it was a close call. Something similar happened the following summer, with a young woman I met in a local Dunkin’ Donuts – again not progressing beyond the front seat of first-wife’s car.

In January 1996, just after first-wife and I spent an uproarious week in Wisconsin celebrating the wedding of a very close friend – we were two of the lucky attendees who managed to snag a hotel room in Madison just as a massive snowstorm shut down the airport[1] – I began a stint as Assistant Registrar at Brandeis University. Thus began five of the worst months of my life. Despite the excessive amount of Scotch I imbibed the day I was fired, sloppily weeping while watching a videocassette of old MTV and VH1 videos, I was genuinely relieved – although I still had no idea what I was going to do with my life.

This overlaps with the release of Beautiful Girls.

Had I seen it then, I would have identified VERY strongly with Willie. I believe it is a 10-year high school reunion, making Willie about 28 years old; I was 29. It was sort of in the air I would marry first-wife eventually. After all, as of June 1996, we had been dating for three years and living together for almost a year. She was pretty exceptional.

And yet…

Setting aside the two incidents discussed above, there were already signs I was 1½ feet in, ½ foot out of this relationship. Determined to complete my doctorate, I applied for – and was awarded – a prestigious Mellon Dissertation Completion Grant. Almost immediately, I began to, umm, joke: “Got the Mellon, can’t elope.” Moreover, even though we lived together for 5½ years – and became MattandFirstWife, one word, to our friends – we always maintained separate bedrooms and never completely unpacked.

That summer, we gave a ride to a young female friend of the groom to his wedding. First-wife picked up on my intense attraction to her right away and was visibly relieved when she mentioned her boyfriend. Still, she and I struck up a friendship of sorts. One night, I journeyed from Somerville to Brookline to help her with – something or other. We went out for ice cream afterward, taking it a nearby park to eat. We then returned to her apartment, where things quickly got very hot and heavy; the boyfriend had since left the picture. That night was the closest I have ever come to sleeping with another woman while in a defined relationship with someone else. It was less about what we did – no clothes even came off – than about where my head was.

By now, it had gotten very late, so I took a cab home to a waiting, unhappy first-wife. Downing a bottle of Molson Golden to – cleanse my breath? – I spun a story about why I was so late. Conflicted, but wanting to believe me, she accepted my lies as truth.

Let us make no mistake. I lied to her face – and no rationalizing about not actually sleeping with groom-friend will change that.

That August, meanwhile, I returned to the Philadelphia suburbs of my childhood for a visit. At one point, first-wife left a phone message for me at my mother’s house, where I was staying, which lovingly began, “Hey cutie.” My mother quite enjoyed relaying that part of the message to me. She was very fond of first-wife, though she never – or rarely – pushed the issue of, umm, next steps.

I, on the other hand, reacted like Willie to the imminent arrival of Tracy: no-feelings-either-way ambivalence. To be fair, I was also revisiting (geographically, at least) an inter-high-school group of friends with whom I shared a memorable sophomore year. In fact, after some false starts, that was the true beginning of my relationship journey: hopelessly attracted to one girl (I heard it was mutual for a time), crushing on another, ultimately having my first romantic kiss with then dating the first girl’s best friend, all while a different girl (allegedly) was very attracted to me. In other words – adolescence happened.

You may sense a theme here: my emotions and perceived attachments were all over the place. Even then I had read too many meet-cute stories, the ones that always seemed to lead to marriage and “happily ever after” in an unrealistically short amount of time. Frankly, I blame dangerously prudish attitudes toward sex and its timing in relationship to marriage. How many of these meet-cutes were just excessive mutual horniness settling for the most socially-acceptable – and, in the days before Griswold v. Connecticut, least physiologically consequential – outlet for those physical urges? Naturally, the quantitative analyst in my brain just said, “Hey, let’s figure out a way to measure that!” Down, boy, down.

The point is, I was as much in love with the idea of that first rush of attraction, the adrenaline rush of discovered mutuality, as I was in actually finding a long-term romantic partner.

I was also deeply insecure and drawn to indifferent, even cruel, women. My two Yale girlfriends treated me with near-contempt at times. Friends literally referred to the second of them – the one who dumped me on Valentine’s Day while riding the commuter rail back from New York City, where I had been dragged to convince the wife of a friend of my girlfriend she was not chasing her husband (*I* was not convinced at the end), then fell asleep with her head in my lap – as “the battleaxe.” Her stated reason for breaking up with me then was so she would not have to sleep with me that night.

Ouch.

And yet, I was devastated when each broke up with me. Some combination of undiagnosed clinical depression, insecurity and – possibly – dominance-fantasy kept me attached to them. Women who were every bit as everything these two women were, but who were both attracted and kind to me, bored and/or confused me.

However, soon after arriving at Harvard, I met and become involved with a doctoral student in economics. This time, though, the roles were reversed. She was most excellent to me, and I was – less so – to her. Not mean, mind you; that is not in my nature. More, I took her for granted, and she let me get away with passive aggressive micro-aggressions. That relationship lasted just over a year, a new record, as she finally had her fill of my behavior. Thinking about our time together later, I landed on this thought: “It was like I concluded, hmm, this brilliant, loving and sexy woman is completely devoted to me. Let’s see who else I can get to feel that way about me!”

As Bugs Bunny might say:

**********

October 1996 was one of the most consequential months of my life. Early that month, I began a research assistant job at now-defunct Health and Addictions Research, Inc. For the first time since early in my time at Harvard, I genuinely loved what I was doing. That particular pressure now eased.

On September 28, at the invitation of groom-friend, I attended a star-studded reelection rally for Senator John Kerry at the Fleet Center in Boston.[2] Afterward, we went out for drinks and clam chowder. I cannot be absolutely certain nearly 25 years later, but I am fairly certain she was trying to lure me away from first-wife; candidly, I was sorely tempted. Two days later, however, first-wife and I celebrated my 30th birthday with a phenomenal meal and night in Boothbay Harbor, Maine.

Some combination of that night and my new career led me to put aside my hesitations and do what Willie’s friends urged him to do: mentally and emotionally commit more fully to my current relationship. In a difficult phone call, I told groom-friend we could no longer be “friends.”

I have no idea whether this was the “correct” decision or not; counterfactuals are very slippery things. On one hand, I genuinely loved first-wife and knew we had something special. On the other hand, what I recall of groom-friend reminds me a lot of my wife Nell. Nonetheless, first-wife and I then proceeded to have the best four years of our relationship.

So…why didn’t I not marry her?

I could stop at the morning I woke up in a cold sweat after dreaming we were married and she was pregnant. Yeah, I had been raised with string of broken and ugly marriages. Yeah, I was immature. Yeah, I was content to drift along as we were – even if that meant careening into Massachusetts common law definitions of “married.”

But the hard and painful truth is that my genuine attraction to, comfort with and desire for first-wife went very far, just not quite far enough. Marty’s words of advice to Willie ring in my ears: “You should wait until you’re ready. You should wait for someone who excites you.”

That point was driven home with a jackhammer in September 2000. Now on my third health-related data analysis gig, I had been sent yet again to my company’s headquarters in Ann Arbor, MI. Walking through a hallway in search of a colleague to whom I wanted to say goodbye, a tall striking woman with dark blonde hair and gray-green eyes, wearing a white turtleneck and black jeans, walked past me.

At that moment, I finally understood what “love at first sight” meant – and what meeting someone who “excites” really feels like. Naturally, the colleague I sought turned out to be in blonde-woman’s cubicle. Suddenly incapable of coherent speech, I essayed a word salad spiced with puerile wordplay.

And that was that, or so I thought.

The universe had other ideas.

The following month, I was sent back to Ann Arbor for at least the fourth time that year. This time blonde-woman and I took a training together, ineluctably bonding in the back of the room. I learned later she had been almost equally taken with me despite my having forgotten how to speak English when we met. She even asked discreetly if I was seeing anyone – then resolved to forget me once she learned I was. The best laid plans of data analysts, however: we now began to talk regularly at the office by phone. One Monday afternoon, after wrestling with my thoughts all weekend, I was alone in the office talking to her. Screwing up my courage, I told her precisely how I felt about her.

Then came the longest – measured in emotional time – pause of my life. I do not remember what she finally said, other than her last words: “Because it’s really mutual.”

The universe has an absurdist sense of humor: at that exact moment first-wife suddenly appeared behind me, ready to drive me home. Luckily, she had heard none of the conversation.

Cutting to the chase: first-wife and I split up at the end of November, though we shared the apartment – avoiding each other as best we could – until early February, when I moved back to Philadelphia. Blonde-woman and I embarked on a rollercoaster relationship doomed by personality conflicts, distance and an inability to live up to the overwhelming intensity of the “beginning thing.”

A month after my mother died in March 2004, driven by grief, frustration and a sense I needed to “get on with things,” I pulled the plug on ANY form of relationship with blonde-woman in the cruelest (on my end) phone conversation I have ever had. I will always be deeply ashamed of how I treated her that day.

And that was that, or so I thought.

Five years later, I reached out to her on Facebook with a cryptic message of regret. A day after her naturally-confused response, I called her from my cellphone while sitting in the parking lot of a Star Market in Medford, MA. I did this despite having married Nell less than two years earlier then having a daughter with her, with another on the way.

After some uncomfortable banter, profuse apology from me (met with a deserved “are you doing this for you, or for me?”) and brief life updates, we began to relax and enjoy the conversation. It did not take to realize we were still in love. We sort of danced around it for a few days more – Nell was away at the time – before acknowledging the painful reality: we could now neither be friends nor lovers. Too much had changed.

We told each other “I love you,” one last time…and that really was that.

I finally told Nell about this brief reconnection about a year or two ago – despite knowing blonde-woman the only intimate partner from my romantic past I had been asked not to contact again.

Nell was…not happy. She eventually forgave me, perhaps because I once told her, “Never worry about anything I tell you. It is the stuff I don’t tell you that should worry you.”

Happily, there is nothing left for me to tell her.

**********

So, having told these tales, how do they relate to Beautiful Girls, inter alia?

One, the meet-cute is not all it is cracked up to be. Nor is the addictive chase after “the beginning thing.” I write that as a sucker for the meet-cute and a recovering addict. I had the darlingest meet-cutes with first-wife and blonde-woman. There were others as well. And “the beginning thing” with blonde-woman? A shooting star of blinding brightness that could not sustain itself.

That said, I had a darling meet-cute and exceptional “beginning thing” with Nell – wow, did she “excite” me. The only difference is that in 2005, I was mentally and emotionally prepared to commit in front of friends and family. First-wife had given me experience with the long haul; there was no “big fade,” just recognition she was not the right marriage partner for me. Blonde-woman altered my opinion of marriage – had a few things gone differently, I would have proposed eventually.[3]

Two, make your own decisions – your own fate, your own destiny. Willie and Tracy, like all of us, must figure it out for themselves. Ask for advice, yes. But take with grains of salt advice foisted upon you, especially from anyone whose own romantic life is a mess or not yet even started. Thankfully, people in my life mostly refrained from nudging me and any of my romantic partners, even if one very close friend, upon meeting blonde-woman, said, “I don’t see any red flags.” They were there, of course; there always will be.

To wit, three, there is no destined partner, perfect match or fated true love. There are only relationships with better- and worse-fitting partners that require constant hard work – the best kind of work if you approach it properly – compromise and willingness to end the relationship, when necessary. No amount of “but we’re SO in love” can fix incompatibility, stubbornness and bad timing. Does the initial “wow” factor fade? Yes, everything has a half-life. But if the person truly “excites” you, s/he will always excite you – just in different ways.

Finally, relationships run on their own clock, not an arbitrary human social calendar. When you are ready to select one person with whom to share the rest of your life, you are ready, full stop – not because unspoken rules say you must be. Some people find that person in high school or earlier, some wait until they have settled into a career, some later in life…and some never do – and no one of these is more right than any other.

I do not remain happily married to Nell because I was cosmically fated to be, or because somebody decided it was time for me to commit to the “good enough” person I happened to be dating at the time. I remain happily married to Nell because every day I choose to be, because I want to be, because I have yet to find anyone so incredibly compelling, I would trash all of what we have built and earned and fought for over the last 16 years. Believe me, I have looked often without consciously intending to – old habits die very hard.

Will Nell and I stay married forever and always, linked unto eternity? Damned if I know, though it is kind of the general plan. Should circumstances change – as they often do – our relationship may change as well. That is life, that is reality.

Still, I rather love this current reality – and Nell. Our daughters are pretty excellent as well.

Until next time…please be safe and healthy – and if you not already done so, please get vaccinated against COVID-19!


[1] Happily, we had a big bottle of red wine, a heated indoor pool and a very good restaurant.

[2] “Kerry says Clinton to visit Boston,” The Boston Globe (Boston, MA), August 28, 1996, pg. A18

[3] Well, I had sort of proposed to my second Yale girlfriend and economics-student, but those were more emotional reactions to a moment than well-considered decisions.

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