The ‘meet cute’: 10 inventive movie moments when lovers first meet

Screenwriter Tess Morris – best known for recent British romcom Man Up –  celebrates the ‘meet cute’, those amusing scenes when a potentially romantic couple first encounter each other and sparks fly.

Tess Morris

Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife (1938)

Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife (1938)

The cute meet. The meet cute. Whichever order is your preference, this simple phrase is dated back to the time of director Ernst Lubitsch, when it was used to describe how Gary Cooper and Claudette Colbert first encounter each other in Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife (1938). In this now classic screwball comedy, scripted by Billy Wilder, millionaire Michael Brandon (Cooper) is looking for a pair of pajamas but tells the clothes shop assistant that he only needs the top half. A squabble with the staff ensues, until a fellow shopper (Colbert) intercedes: “I’ll take the bottom.” The meet cute is that inciting incident, the one that brings a man and a woman together in a movie, and sets them off on a romantic, comedic path that they never anticipated. Basically, the moment that changes their lives forever. So it had better be a good one.

Moonstruck (1987)

Moonstruck (1987)

Probably one of the most underrated romantic comedies ever, and it always gets left of lists like these, so it’s going first on this one. And what a cute meet it is. Your future husband asks you to go and tell his estranged brother that you’re getting married, and wham bam thank you man, you’re in love! With his estranged brother. This is Nicolas Cage at his best – angry, passionate, a little bit crazy. And Cher at her best too – as conflicted Loretta Castorini – unhinged, resistant to everything and everyone. Their chemistry as soon as they meet is formidable – he threatens to kill himself, she asks if she should come back another time – and in the next scene, they sleep together.

Against a backdrop of steak and opera, Cher lets Cage carry her to bed, only to wake up the next morning, slap him in the face, tell him she’s never going to see him again, and then agree to go to the opera with him that night, so long as he doesn’t come to the wedding. It’s the ultimate sexy complication, with Cage laying down his feelings and Loretta (sort of) rebuffing them immediately. This is an interesting dynamic to set up with – one of them knows exactly how they feel, from the start, the other needs convincing, due to a myriad of reasons such as already being engaged, family-led guilt and the curse of bad luck. And it allows us the question all romantic comedies need – how the hell are these two ever going to get together?

Bringing Up Baby (1938)

Bringing Up Baby (1938)

To quote a phrase invented by romcom guru Billy Mernit, this cute meet on the golf course sets up David (Cary Grant) and Susan’s (Katharine Hepburn) “chemical equation” in a wonderful, screwball fashion. And by this Mernit means “what’s wrong with this picture?”, what is missing from our leading lady and man’s lives, and how can it be fulfilled by the other.

So David is uptight and impatient, trying to get his golf ball back, and Susan is carefree and funny, not caring which ball she uses. And they talk over each other, from the very start, which is a wonderful way of showing us that here’s a couple who are eventually going to listen to each other, but just not right now. And every time they meet from this first cute meet onwards, things escalate and move forward in their interaction and burgeoning relationship. Against all the personality odds, we know that these two characters are going to fill in the missing pieces for each other. And it’s going to be fun finding out how they the hell they’re going to do that.

The Apartment (1960)

The Apartment (1960)

What is so special about the first time we see Bud (Jack Lemmon) and Fran (Shirley MacLaine) on screen together is the seeming lack of chemistry between them… and yet we all know, if you can chat to someone like that, in a crowded elevator, you should probably consider never getting off at your floor.

Of course, Bud and Fran have met many times before, but Wilder gives us a short, simple, beautiful scene that allows us to meet them for the first time, and realise, ah, yes, they’re perfect for each other. They just don’t know it yet. And really, this first beat between them fundamentally lays down the foundations for what is the eventual and beautiful outcome of this film – friendship. Bud and Fran, they’re going to go through a lot of ups and downs together, but they like each other, and then they love each other. “She’s the best operator in the building.” She is indeed, Bud, she is indeed.

Annie Hall (1977)

Annie Hall (1977)

Annie Hall (1977)

“Well lah di dah.” What a phrase for our heroine to utter, and completely own. Diane Keaton/Annie Hall is the kind of kooky, oddball, eccentric leading lady screenwriters have been trying to emulate ever since. Every detail in this cute meet contributes to its success – her outfit, her stance, the words she says, the words she doesn’t say, and Alvy Singer (Woody Allen) is soon to be putty in her accident-prone hands.

But what this cute meet also has, in bucket loads, is an ease between its two leads that you can’t always write. This is when you get that extra bit of lovely luck, when two actors can seemingly move between scripted and unscripted dialogue, adding their own unique touches to a moment, incorporating the chemistry they have off and on screen, romantic or otherwise.

Tootsie (1982)

Tootsie (1982)

Such a great example of a cute meet that isn’t the initial catalyst for the story, and then fast becomes the driving force and motivation for the rest of the film. Oh, and the fact that Julie (Jessica Lange) cute-meets Michael (Dustin Hoffman) when he’s pretending to be a woman. It’s a brief, sexy, funny exchange, where Julie is just being nice, and Michael is like a rabbit in the headlights – wait, who is this woman, and whoa, I’ve now got to audition for this part. We’re 35 minutes into the film at this point, and then wham! The writers Larry Gelbart and Murray Schisgal ramp up the story with some love at first sight. And then ramp it up again by introducing another, subplot cute meet a bit later, between Michael and Julie’s dad. Because of course Julie isn’t thinking about Michael as a possible love interest, more as a very good gal pal, but wouldn’t she/he be perfect for her dad?

We watch as the film moves seamlessly between farce and poignancy, exploring what it’s like to be a woman, fall in love with a woman, and then come clean to the woman you’ve fallen in love with, but as a man. As original, beautifully orchestrated, gender-bender romantic comedy set-ups go, it doesn’t come much better than Tootsie.

When Harry Met Sally (1989)

When Harry Met Sally (1989)

Imagine a road trip where the man and woman don’t know each other in the hands of a lesser writer. Could work. In the hands of the late, great Nora Ephron? Works to perfection. But not just because the dialogue is fantastic, and the cast is amazing, and the direction and production is brilliant, but because of what is set up for us on that road trip, in that car.

“Men and women can never be friends, the sex part always gets in the way.” And so the film begins. Because what all great romcoms need is a question, a central axiom to debate and either prove or disprove. Immediately, as an audience, we’re wondering how Harry and Sally are ever going to get together, with such opposing views on love and friendship? And if they do get together, how’s that ever going to work? Add to that some of the funniest dialogue between a man and women ever written, and you have yourself the perfect cute meet, one that is entirely grounded in character, opinion and chemistry.

Groundhog Day (1993)

Groundhog Day (1993)

The cute meet that keeps on giving. Rita and Phil’s first interaction is nothing particularly special. She’s mucking about on the green screen; Phil softens a little when he first sees her, then proclaims her “not my kind of fun”. But that really is the genius of it – imagine the film if they had some amazing, memorable exchange? Exactly. The very essence of Groundhog Day, in some ways, is one long, big, perfect, hilarious and poignant cute meet. He gets to become a better man for her, over and over again, and she gets to meet this very different man, over and over again, until she finally meets the one she falls for.

Every time they cute meet, we are drawn more and more into Phil’s emotional journey, and although Rita has less of a way to go, emotionally speaking, it is a joy to watch her go from disinterest, to confusion, to hurt, to anger, and finally, to love. It’s the kind of concept writers dream of coming up with, and Danny Rubin did. And I am forever grateful to him for it.

Muriel’s Wedding (1994)

Muriel's Wedding (1994)

A romcom about a female friendship, and the ultimate one at that. Yes, all Muriel (“it’s Mariel”) wants to do is get married, but it’s her cute meet at Hibiscus Island with Rhonda that determines the whole course of the film. Having flown out using a blank cheque her mother wrote, in an attempt to win back her friendship with a bunch of mean girls from school, Muriel finds herself alone on a beautiful tropical island. But not for long. The moment Rhonda pulls down her shades and recognises her at the all-you-can-eat buffet, Muriel’s life changes forever.

From the girl fight by the pool, to their exquisite routine to Abba’s ‘Waterloo’, to the lies Muriel tells Rhonda about her fiancée, it’s the perfect heady mix that is left to magnificently unfold. These two girls fall in and out of friendship love in the funniest, most heartbreaking manner, but it’s those cocktails and dreams they share when they first meet, and the love and support they give each other throughout, that wins through in the end. Goodbye, Porpoise Spit!

As Good as It Gets (1997)

As Good As It Gets (1997)

The cute meet even though they’ve already met. Melvin (Jack Nicholson) and Carol (Helen Hunt) already know each other, but only because she’s his patient, over-worked waitress, and he’s her neurotic, OCD-suffering customer. They are professionally acquainted, but not personally. But this first time that we see them together is – to quote Billy Mernit’s book Writing the Romantic Comedy: “while technically no ‘cute meet’, the catalyst for all that follows”.

Melvin makes a crass, very mean comment about Carol’s son, who is sick, and for Carol, this is one step too far. She makes him apologise – it’s not easy – but more importantly, she makes Melvin feel something. And he hasn’t felt anything in years, and now this is the beginning of him feeling a lot. Mainly for Carol, but also for a dog, and for all the other people he’s been mean to in his life. It’s a great example of a how a cute meet doesn’t have to be a huge, orchestrated moment. Sometimes, it’s just one simple, rather mean sentence that changes everything.

Out of Sight (1998)

Out of Sight (1998)

If there is a sexier hybrid action crime romantic comedy cute meet than this, please immediately direct me to it. As soon as that trunk comes down on Jack Foley (George Clooney) and Karen Sisco (Jennifer Lopez), we are treated to a masterclass of knowing, heightened, off-the-chart screen chemistry that would make sense even if you hadn’t seen the rest of the film. It’s not so much what they talk about, it’s what they don’t talk about – for instance, the fact that he’s a perfect stranger, spooning her in the back of a taxi – and as soon as the chat veers away from the logistics of her being a federal agent and him being a bank robber, we know that these two cats are into each other.

Of course, they’re going to pretend that they’re not, for a while, but we all remember that bath scene…  And Jack’s last attempted line to Karen, when they discuss how they never believed Faye Dunaway and Robert Redford could get together so quickly in Three Days of the Condor (1975)… well, it’s enough to suggest that for the rest of the film, his mind is not going to be entirely on the bank job in hand.

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