Ah, love. Nothing else quite makes our heart soar so high, and nothing else quite draws so much attention to our insecurities and self-made Achilles’ heels than it, either. Even the most eligible among us have something they hate about themselves, that one thing that convinces them they’ll never be attractive to anyone. Edmond Rostand knew this full well when he first penned Cyrano de Bergerac back in 1987, with its themes of love, confidence and the courage to embrace one’s own self that ring so true as to inspire many different later adaptations. Of these, my favorite is Roxanne, Steve Martin’s 1987 rom-com and one of his most enduring movies.
In Roxanne, Steve Martin is Charlie Bates, the beloved and multi-talented fire chief of a sleepy ski resort town in British Columbia. Charlie is a renaissance man whose only real failing is not that he has a cartoonishly large nose, but that he’s so incredibly self-conscious about it. Say one word about it—just one—and Charlie will fly off the handle over it, as a pair of drunken skiiers learn the hard way during one of the movie’s opening scenes. Still, Charlie seems fairly content with his sleepy life until a beautiful astronomer named Roxanne moves into town for the summer, and Charlie is smitten. More than smitten…he is in love. And just as he screws up the courage to maybe approach Roxanne about it, she comes to him for help with figuring out how to approach Chris, a dimwitted hunk who is also one of Charlie’s firefighters. Crushed, Charlie lets himself fade into Roxanne’s background, convinced that yet again, it doesn’t matter whatever else he is or does in life, all people will ever judge him by is his nose. But he soon gets an unusual opportunity he cannot resist. Chris is so thick he can’t figure out what to say to Roxanne, so he seeks out Charlie’s help to ghost-write some romantic letters. Charlie is only too glad to use Chris as a proxy through which to express his unrequited feelings for Roxanne. And while this leads to some pretty funny situations as Charlie tries to maintain this ruse, his arrangement with Chris is neither honest nor sustainable. Eventually, it all comes crashing down when Roxanne learns not only that Chris isn’t the deep-hearted poet she thought he was, but that Charlie had been lying to her all along.
This is a sweet movie that really embraces the notion that real love stems from the heart, and dwells in how people reach out to each other, rather than how they instinctively react to each other. When I first saw this in my late teens—before I had ever really fallen in love or wrangled with the ups and downs of a real relationship—I was naïve enough to think that romance was all about flowery language and grand gestures. And while flowery language and grand gestures still matter (especially on the days when we are most keen to look for them), love works far better for far longer when it’s about how you feel around someone, how they make you feel, and how you make them feel in return. How you choose to share your emotions and energy with them. And how you let them know that for you, things just feel different with them in your life. But love is about honesty, too. And while we can’t help but forgive Charlie for creating this grand romantic fiction between him, Chris and Roxanne, we also know that when Roxanne eventually punches him in the nose for it, he’s got it coming. Some things you really shouldn’t do for love. Lying is one of them, no matter how heartfelt the reason.
My moment of truth in this movie is the scene most folks remember best from it: the 20 insults. One night in the local tavern, while Charlie and Roxanne are still establishing their friendship, a local bully calls out Charlie’s nose in front of the entire place, and everything just goes quiet in anticipation of the assured carnage to follow. Normally, Charlie would have just left the bar or punched the bully out in a fit of rage. But this time, he knows Roxanne is there, so Charlie decides to battle with his wits instead, mocking the bully for such an uninventive insult, and coming up with twenty insults that have more panache than “Hey, big nose!” At first, the scene just feels like a convenient exercise for some one-liners, but as the insults pile up, we see how the townsfolk rally behind Charlie’s verbal dismantling of this bully, as well as a glimpse of real courage from Charlie, to own how he looks instead of hiding from it. He impresses everybody in attendance, but especially Roxanne. Eventually, the bully decides to get physical anyway, and Charlie disposes of him with a few deft blows, but by then, that’s just a cherry on top of the sundae.
Charlie’s real victory was in showing the whole town that yes, he’s imagined how much you can make fun of him more than anybody else has. And after the laughter dies, you imagine that anybody who gave that moment some serious thought realized that Charlie was airing out a lot of loneliness with that verbal display. Anybody who can think of that many ways to mock himself isn’t just witty. He’s unhappy. And afterwards, when Charlie decides upon his genuine, but hare-brained, scheme to woo Roxanne through Chris, you are reminded that everybody does crazy things for love, but especially people in pain. Especially a guy like Charlie Bates. Which is why Roxanne eventually calls out to him with some flowery language and grand gestures of her own. In a movie filled with Charlie’s over-the-top efforts to woo Roxanne with poetic agility, the sweetest and most heartfelt declaration of love comes from Roxanne herself as she tells Charlie all of the things she loves about him, including that big old nose of his. And for the first time, he can hear somebody talk about the thing he hates most about himself and smile.
Everybody wants somebody to talk to them the way that Charlie talks to Roxanne. But if we’re really lucky, if we really find love, what we get is something far more special. We get somebody like Roxanne who loves us not despite our faults, but because they’re part of the person we are. Being somebody’s Charlie is fine, but being somebody’s Roxanne…that’s what really counts.