How did ‘Love Actually’ become a holiday classic?

Published on December 22, 2020

Love is strange. The movie isn’t even 20 years old, but it’s already hailed as a holiday classic. On top of that, Richard Curtis’ ensemble comedy wasn’t nearly as beloved when it came out in theaters. The film was a hit worldwide, but not universally beloved. The film’s writer and the director is a little surprised by the lovefest for his rom-com, too.

The movie is a little messy. Some storylines are more interesting than others. The first cut of the movie, in Curtis’ words, was a depressing disaster. It didn’t work well at all. The spelling on the wall for Love Actually wasn’t great. “It surprises me that Love Actually ever got sold and seen at all,” Curtis once said. “When we finished shooting it, it just didn’t work. And trying to edit it into the shape it’s now in was like playing three-dimensional chess because after every scene, you could go anywhere into any of the other things.”

Every five years, Curtis revisits the film. He always thinks of it as tonally inconsistent movie with 11 stories in one. There’s the prime minister (Hugh Grant), the troubled marriage (Alan Rickman and Emma Watson), the writer (Colin Firth) falling in love, the grieving father (Liam Neeson) and son, and the two lesser subplots, Colin goes to America and the emotional affair involving Andrew Lincoln and Keira Knightley. The list goes on, and there are nine couples in the movie. It’s too much in Curtis’ eyes. To be fair, the writer-director is notoriously hard on himself and his work, but the creator of Love Actually isn’t as over-the-moon about the movie as its most hardcore fans. 

During the holidays, we usually seek comfort from our Christmas movies. Love Actually has its share of heart-warming moments, but it’s also a tough and, for good and bad reasons, cringe-inducing story. Over the years, the scene with the cue cards in the snow, in which a husband’s best friend tries to woo his new bride. The scene is oblivious to the reality of the situation. Even Curtis knew it was a gamble, one that hasn’t aged well. “Retroactively, I’m aware that Andrew’s role was on the edge,” he said. “But I think because Andrew was so openhearted and guileless, we knew we’d get away with it.”

The scene has its haters, as does Love Actually in general. Curtis isn’t surprised. It’s a movie with a lot of sugar, which isn’t for everybody. Even actor Hugh Grant, to some extent, is bewildered by the movie’s heavy rotation in holiday marathons. “I don’t know why Love Actually is still so popular,”  he once said. However, he appreciates people still watch it every Christmas. 

If the people behind the movie are a little puzzled by its enduring success, that raises the question, why is Love Actually so popular? We have our theories. For starters, it’s such a full movie. Most of the stories work, which means it’s sometimes easy to forget about the stories that don’t work. It’s like a great big meal in which all the dishes aren’t great but you only remember the great dishes. 

Since the stories range in variety, there’s a story or couple that can appeal to most people. Some characters are more relatable than others. We all have our favorite and least favorite storylines in the movie. There’s a wide-range of characters to choose from to care about or laugh with, especially Bill Nighy’s wonderful rock star.

Another theory about Love Actually’s success: there’s not that many modern and adult romantic comedies set during the holidays that are actually any good. Love Actually checks boxes plenty of holiday movies don’t these days. It’s a real adult movie, as light as it sometimes is. During the holidays, it’s almost reassuring to watch some real people experience the highs and lows of the holiday season along with you. 

Love Actually is already a Christmas classic, too, because it’s so polarizing. Every Christmas, people talk about how much they love or hate the movie. Good or bad, people still talk about it. The movie just hits people’s buttons because, like the Prime Minister’s big dance scene, Richard Curtis takes swings that either produce a grand slam or a strikeout. 

For the most part, Curtis hit home runs with Love Actually. There is real romance and disappointment to go along with all the fun fluff. Love Actually isn’t one of the greatest romantic comedies or holiday movies of all time, but it was one of the most grown-up holiday classics. Adults need Christmas movies, too, and Love Actually scratches that itch, hence its enduring success.

Now, let’s all watch Love Actually again and laugh, and cringe, and mostly, have a good time.

Jack Giroux is a Staff Writer at Grit Daily. Based in Los Angeles, he is an entertainment journalist who's previously written for Thrillist, Slash Film, Film School Rejects, and The Film Stage.

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