The 1997 romantic comedy My Best Friend’s Wedding is filled with memorable scenes (an ensemble performance of I Say a Little Prayer in a lobster shack; Cameron Diaz singing karaoke, terribly, while wearing a baby pink twinset). But there’s one in particular that gets at the heart of what makes the Julia Roberts’ character, Julianne, so oddly appealing—despite being the kind of asshole who spends a large portion of the film’s 95 minutes trying to break up a happy couple.
The scene opens in Julianne’s hotel room. It’s the morning. She rolls out of bed to the sound of someone pounding on the door. The camera pans over the minibar (fridge wide open, shelves pillaged) and her bed (littered with half-eaten chocolate bars and empty airplane bottles of Absolut). In the background, the TV is on, playing an old movie at low volume. As she opens the door to her friend George, who has swooped in from New York to save her from herself, it is unceremoniously revealed that last night’s clay mask is still plastered to her face.
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George helps her rinse off the mask (a thick, viscous purple substance that looks like a cross between bubblegum and the rubbery gunk you’d use to create a waterproof seal on a window ledge). It looks almost painful as it comes off in thick flakes, turning the water in the sink a murky, Gatorade Frost shade of lilac. Then, just like that, she immediately lights a cigarette and launches back into her scheming. The whole scene is a mess. She is a mess. But she’s also central to the most realistic depiction of a woman using beauty products I’ve ever seen on screen—because her complexion, outlook and attitude remain pretty much the same as they did the day before.
The romantic comedy genre is littered with examples of the magical, transformative power of self-care: the infamous catalogue of makeover montages. If you take Hollywood’s word for it, beautification might be occasionally uncomfortable, but it’s always decadent and always life-changing. Mia Thermopolis gets de-frizzed and plucked to perfection in The Princess Diaries. Sandra Bullock’s frump-to-beauty-queen metamorphosis in Miss Congeniality is canon. Even Crazy Rich Asians has one, when Peik Lin Goh helps Rachel gets glammed up before that bonkers wedding scene. Afterwards, the female protagonist always re-emerges more beautiful (i.e. smoother) than ever, ready to make someone fall in love with her.
Don’t get me wrong, I love a good makeover montage. But has your self-care ritual ever looked anything like any of that? Personally, I’ve never walked out of a spa in slow motion. And I’ve always been a little uncomfortable with the idea that drastically changing your appearance is integral to securing your desired romantic partner.
That’s what makes the masking scene in My Best Friend’s Wedding so refreshing. There’s no peppy music. No cucumber slices on her eyelids. She doesn’t rinse it off and become a new, better person who gets the guy. She doesn’t even get the guy! She’s just doing what a lot of us do, slathering some nice-smelling slime on her face, hoping it might be enough to get us through a bad day (or, in her case, a full-on quarter-life crisis).
Julianne is unapologetically driven, selfish, and impulsive to the point of being destructive, but she never tries to change herself or how she looks to get Michael (a brooding Dermot Mulroney) to fall in love with her. Her haphazardly applied, inconsequential face-masking bypasses that rom-com stereotype. It’s endearing because it’s real. And I know it’s real because I’m about to go watch an old rom-com and put on a face mask. The only “result” I expect is a mess.
Feature photo by © TriStar Pictures via Everett Collection.