The most romantic gestures in rom-com history

Clockwise from top left: Notting Hill (Universal Pictures), Love & Basketball (New Line Cinema), Amelie (20th Century Fox),Say Anything (UGC-Fox Distribution)
Clockwise from top left: Notting Hill (Universal Pictures), Love & Basketball (New Line Cinema), Amelie (20th Century Fox),Say Anything (UGC-Fox Distribution)
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Running through the airport to stop a lover’s flight. Making a big speech in front of a crowd of strangers. Picking the perfect song for a serenade. These are the kind of classic Grand Gestures that have been perfected throughout the history of the romantic comedy. Not every great rom-com has one, but the ones that do tend to make a lasting impact. Sometimes it’s big—like meeting a stranger at the top of the Empire State Building. Sometimes it’s small—like handing someone a deck of cards. But with the right actors and the right context, a good romantic gesture can elevate a solid rom-com into a true classic. Read on for The A.V. Club’s picks for the best romantic gestures in romantic comedy history.

The final walls of Jericho scene (It Happened One Night, 1934)

Released just months before the widespread enforcement of the notorious Hays Code, Frank Capra’s It Happened One Night simmers with innuendo. Claudette Colbert’s Ellie Andrews shows off some leg while hitchhiking, Clark Gable narrates a strip tease for the unwed Ellie, and when it comes to room and board, the two strangers share a space intended for husband and wife just hours after meeting one another. In order to counteract the salaciousness of the sleeping arrangement, Gable’s Peter Warne hangs up “the wall of Jericho” for privacy—meant to block wandering eyes and squash any ideas of canoodling. This later leads up to the last scene, in which the giddy lovers hang up the walls of Jericho once more, only to tear it down in the insinuating final shot. [Gabrielle Sanchez]

Lucy totals a car to spend the night with Jerry (The Awful Truth, 1937)

After inciting chaos and judgment at a party hosted by her soon-to-be-ex-husband’s new honey, Irene Dunne’s Lucy kicks the madcap antics up a notch by gleefully getting her and Jerry (Cary Grant) pulled over by the police on the way home. In her determination to get her husband back, a drunken Lucy intentionally sends the empty car sailing into a ditch, winning the two of them a police escort to her nearby aunt’s house. Totaling a car just to have a window of reconciliation is dedication, if you ask me. With Jerry out a transportation back to the party, he and Lucy end up in adjoining rooms, giving them the perfect opportunity to reignite their relationship. [Gabrielle Sanchez]

Leon smuggles Ninotchka out of the country (Ninotchka, 1939)

Screwball romantic comedies of the ’30s and ’40s were marvelous because of the great lengths people would go to just to be with the one they love. Take Léon d’Algout (Melvyn Douglas) in Ernst Lubitsch’s Ninotchka, who falls head over heels for the no-nonsense Soviet envoy Nina Ivanovna Yakushova (Greta Garbo). Once Ninotchka’s work in Paris is complete, the two become separated as she returns to Moscow. Without permissions for a visa, Léon concocts a plan with the help of his friends Iranoff, Buljanoff, and Kopalski. After the three stir up trouble in Constantinople, Ninotchka is once again sent to clean up their mess. However, once she arrives, it’s revealed that it was all a scheme to reunite her with Léon, who convinces her to leave her home country and start a new life with him. [Gabrielle Sanchez]

Walter gives Bruce counterfeit cash to make Hildy stay in New York (His Girl Friday, 1940)

Sometimes, it’s the specificity of the gesture that counts. For most, one’s ex-husband being a complete ass to your new fiancé would be far from a turn on. But for Hildy (Rosalind Russell) in His Girl Friday, Walter’s (Cary Grant) constant attempts to undermine Bruce (Ralph Bellamy) are proof that he cares, so much so that when she thinks he’s given up she’s heartbroken. But Walter is no “chump,” and his version of a romantic gesture is slipping Bruce some counterfeit cash to get him picked up by the police. It’s the perfect way to the heart of someone like Hildy, who is, after all, a newspaper man through and through. [Mary Kate Carr]

Yum yum kisses scene (Ball Of Fire, 1941)

Two masters of the form—Howard Hawks and Billy Wilder—teamed up for one of the most charming rom-coms of the ’40s with the Barbara Stanwyck and Gary Cooper-led Ball Of Fire. With Stanwyck controlling the first kiss scene between her Sugarpuss and his Bertram Potts, she stands on a couple of books to reach the tall professor before teaching him all about the meaning of “yum-yum.” A flustered Potts quickly leaves the room and stumbles upstairs, but he soon comes back for more “yum-yum” kisses. [Gabrielle Sanchez]

Joe scraps his story about the princess (Roman Holiday, 1953)

Roman Holiday is the film that made Audrey Hepburn a star, but it’s Gregory Peck who gets the film’s defining romantic gesture. After tricking Princess Ann (Hepburn) into spending time with him in Rome, reporter Joe Bradley (Peck) plans to publish a story on the clandestine chance encounter. Of course, he falls in love with her instead, and ultimately decides not to write a word of their all-too-brief holiday. Not only does he not get the story, he doesn’t get the girl, either, as he’s forced to walk away and allow her to re-assume her royal role. It’s the kind of heartbreaking sacrifice that makes a great romantic gesture. [Mary Kate Carr]

“Shut up and deal” (The Apartment, 1960)

Funny, romantic, and morbid go hand-in-hand in The Apartment, as evidenced by its closing romantic gesture. Bud (Jack Lemmon) gives Fran (Shirley MacLaine) a bit of a fright when she rushes to his apartment after realizing her love, but he ends up beating her to the punch with a romantic declaration. She responds in kind with a gesture built from the connection they’ve forged while spending time together in his apartment playing cards: she tells him to “Shut up and deal,” a sweet, personal way of saying “I love you” and one of the all-time best final lines in a film. [Mary Kate Carr]

Judy sews Howard’s jacket (What’s Up Doc, 1972)

Throughout What’s Up Doc, Judy (Barbra Streisand) does a lot for Howard (Ryan O’Neal), much to his dismay. While many of her gestures are grand—or impulsive, or mischievous, or flawed—perhaps the most romantic is one he never even sees. After accidentally wandering into Howard’s room, she finds the jacket she ripped apart and, as promised, sews it back together and hangs it up for him. A tiny detail, but one that proves she cares sincerely and shows that she’s willing to clean up after her mistakes, even when there’s no one around to credit her for it. [Mary Kate Carr]

Jake celebrates Samantha’s birthday (16 Candles, 1984)

It’s pretty easy to come up with a romantic gesture for a girl whose birthday was forgotten by her entire family: get her a birthday cake! Simple enough, but 16 Candles nevertheless became a classic for fulfilling a high school girl’s wish to really be seen by her crush. There’s a reason so many have imitated that classic image of Sam (Molly Ringwald) and Jake (Michael Schoeffling) on the table leaning over the birthday candles; it’s down-to-earth relatably romantic, the quintessential teen dream from the maestro of the genre, John Hughes. [Mary Kate Carr]

“As you wish” (Princess Bride, 1987)

There is no fantasy romantic comedy better than Princess Bride, which didn’t sacrifice a single swoon-worthy moment amidst its overarching swashbuckling adventure. The film quickly and easily establishes the love between Buttercup (Robin Wright) and Westley (Cary Elwes) by explaining that all the little gestures he’d done, punctuated with an “As you wish,” were his way of saying “I love you.” The phrase takes on more significance later when Buttercup encounters the Dread Pirate Roberts and is astounded to hear the man utter the very same words, revealing himself as her long-lost love. [Mary Kate Carr]

Lloyd’s boombox (Say Anything, 1989)

The ’80s and ’90s are littered with a string of romantic gestures that have transcended the genre and live in the annals of cinema history. For instance: is there any more iconic romantic image than Lloyd (John Cusack) standing outside Diane’s (Ione Skye) window with his boombox in Say Anything? This gesture captured something essential about the era and about young love, its determination, its perseverance, its shared soundtrack. That, plus the subtle sultriness of Diane tossing sleepless in bed while a handsome boy serenades her from afar. (“In Your Eyes” by Peter Gabriel? Swoon!) There’s a reason the boombox scene has been celebrated and parodied so often. There’s a truth in its timelessness. [Mary Kate Carr]

Annie and Sam meet at the top of the Empire State Building (Sleepless In Seattle, 1993)

Sleepless In Seattle is another film with a definitive romantic gesture, and they stole it from a previous romance, An Affair To Remember. Unlike that movie, these lovers (played by classic rom-com partners Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks) managed to make their meeting work. Contextually, it’s a little bit crazy—this is the first time these two have ever met, and they’ve actually communicated far less than their You’ve Got Mail counterparts. But Ryan and Hanks imbue this meeting with such hopefulness and genuine feeling that the Empire State Building has become one of the most romantic buildings in the world. It’s another moment that has been parodied and imitated again and again, as Sam and Annie transform this act from one of a tragic missed connection into a gesture of mutual optimism and romance. [Mary Kate Carr]

Jerry’s declaration of love (Jerry Maguire, 1996)

The “lightning bolt realization, rushing off to declare love” is a time-honored tradition as far as romantic gestures go, but it’s never been more iconic than in Jerry Maguire. Given that this is one of cinema’s most famous speeches, it might surprise a first-time viewer to realize “You complete me” wasn’t an original line from Jerry (Tom Cruise). Instead, it’s all the more romantic because it’s something he learned, a genuine revelation for someone who could never be alone but also never knew how to love fully. And then, because Dorothy (Renee Zellweger) does complete him, she meets him halfway with her own timeless line: “You had me at hello.” This is one of the best examples of how saying the right thing at the right time is the most romantic gesture of all. [Mary Kate Carr]

Michael sucks the ring off of Jules’ finger (My Best Friend’s Wedding, 1997)

My Best Friend’s Wedding is known as something of an anti-romantic comedy, where Julia Roberts’ megawatt charm is employed for villainous means, i.e., breaking up her best friend’s wedding. There is no happy ending for Jules (Roberts) and Michael (Dermot Mulroney), but there is this charged moment in which he removes his fiancé’s (Cameron Diaz) ring from Jules’ finger by putting it in his mouth and sucking it off. The suggestive gesture is an example of how the lines of their friendship have blurred, the casual intimacy they share, and the unfulfilled promise of all that sexual tension between them. It’s a small moment, but enough to send a shiver up your spine. Few romantic gestures are as loaded as this one. [Mary Kate Carr]

Robbie sings “Grow Old With You” on the plane (The Wedding Singer, 1998)

Ah, the serenade. There are a few great ones in romantic comedy history (more than one on this list, even), but it’s hard to beat Robbie’s (Adam Sandler) original song for Julia (Drew Barrymore) in The Wedding Singer. Not only is it one of the most adorable love songs ever written, but Robbie also pulled a truly classic rom-com maneuver by rushing to catch Julia’s plane and stop her before she mistakenly marries another man. The fact that he gets an assist from the actual Billy Idol is just the cherry on top of a romantic gesture so sweet it’ll give you a toothache. [Mary Kate Carr]

Patrick performs “Can’t Take My Eyes Off Of You” (10 Things I Hate About You, 1999)

It doesn’t matter if it’s your first or 20th time watching 10 Things I Hate About You, Patrick crooning “Can’t Take My Eyes Off Of You” is guaranteed to take your breath away. In the iconic scene, he wins Kat’s attention by singing in public, and then goofily running away from the security guards. The gesture may seem over-the-top, but it’s actually the perfect way to let Kat know he cares, public opinion be damned. It’s an oddly intimate moment despite an audience cheering him on. Most importantly: Heath Ledger, may he rest in peace, is a goddamn heartthrob here. [Saloni Gajjar]

The “girl standing in front of a boy” speech (Notting Hill, 1999)

Julia Roberts’ rom-coms remain hit-or-miss for this writer, but of her offerings, Notting Hill is one of the standouts. All of Anna’s missteps throughout the film lead up to the one moment where the standard rom-com script flips as she stands in front of William (Hugh Grant) and asks him to love her. It’s a moment of incredible vulnerability, well done by both parties, and is one of the few times a woman gets to make a big sweeping, proclamation of love to a man, braving the possibility of rejection. Women in rom-coms are often written as the ones who either accept or reject a relationship, not the ones who pursue it. [Gabrielle Sanchez]

The game for Quincy’s heart (Love And Basketball, 2000)

There are a lot of little romantic gestures littered throughout Love And Basketball that show how compatible Monica (Sanaa Lathan) and Quincy (Omar Epps) are: showing up for each other’s games; knowing each other’s stats; icing each other’s injuries. But when Monica dares Quincy to play a game of one-on-one for his heart right before his wedding to another woman, it proves they’re truly meant to be. It works partly because of the shared language of basketball between them, and partly because of the shared history of playing on the very court where they first met as kids. It also shows how Monica is willing to challenge Quincy, something that has always made this golden boy better. And it shows that neither is truly willing to give up on the other, even after all that time apart. A basketball game has never been so heart-thumpingly romantic. [Mary Kate Carr]

“Do you want to meet me?” photos (Amélie, 2001)

The most whimsical romantic gesture from the uncontested queen of whimsy, Amélie (Audrey Tautou). In Amélie, amidst her spate of good deeds, our heroine encounters Nino (Mathieu Kassovitz) and begins to fall in love with him from afar. When she rescues his beloved photo album, she decides to put her crush to the test by turning its return into an elaborate scavenger hunt. The gesture says as much about her (imaginative, creative, and totally dedicated to getting a job done) as it does about him, the original collector of the photos. And doesn’t it just make you sigh with happiness to see this gesture come together? [Mary Kate Carr]

Matt makes a Dream House for Jenna (13 Going On 30, 2004)

One of the most standard endings in the rom-com genre is the moment when we see the happy couple build up a life together behind a picket fence. 13 Going On 30 elevates the form with Jenna and Matt settling down in the rosy pink replication of the “dream home” Matt hand-made Jenna for her 13th birthday. What’s already a sweet expression of love from an adolescent Matt becomes the basis for the rest of their romantic lives, and something they can always look to when thinking about their relationship. It also reiterates the idea that Jenna really got her dream life, and truly is thirty, flirty, and thriving. [Gabrielle Sanchez]

Jane searches for Kevin at weddings all over town (27 Dresses, 2008)

This list wouldn’t be complete without a “crashing the wedding” gesture, of which Jane (Katherine Heigl) from 27 Dressesis the all time champion. After being a bridesmaid at the most weddings ever, she goes on to crash the most weddings ever in search of her beloved wedding columnist Kevin (James Marsden). It’s not even his wedding that she’s crashing, but a wedding he’s covering—luckily the bride is all too happy to give her the mic for her Grand Romantic Speech. It’s simple and classic, with the sweet twist that both characters have already been to enough weddings to last a lifetime … yet they’re still capable of getting swept up in the romance of it. Bonus: this movie articulated one of the smallest but most potent romantic gestures of all time, the first powerful moment the groom sees the bride walking down the aisle. And James Marsden nails it! [Mary Kate Carr]

Max warms up Donna’s butter (Obvious Child, 2014)

Sometimes the tiniest gestures pack the biggest punch. In Obvious Child, Max (Jake Lacy) and Donna (Jenny Slate) have only just started getting to know each other when he presses a pad of butter between his hands and gives it to her for her dinner roll. It shows all over her face just how much this “nice” moment is; it shows how automatically kind Max is, an extra bit of thoughtfulness he categorizes as “just what you do.” That’s who Max is down to his core, as becomes clear later when he accompanies Donna to her abortion. It’s not the fact that he shows up (which is the bare minimum), it’s the inherent tenderness to his actions that this small romantic gesture reveals. [Mary Kate Carr]

Jake teaches Lainey to pleasure herself (Sleeping With Other People 2015)

Normally, a woman being mansplained on how to pleasure herself can be cringe and eye-roll worthy. In Sleeping With Other People, Jake (Jason Sudeikis) and Lainey (Alison Brie) turn it into a sexually charged romantic moment. The two horny BFFs (who lost their virginity to each other in college) decide not to act on their mutual attraction when they reconnect years later. It leads to a lot of sexual tension, let’s just say. Jake’s gesture, and Lainey grasping his visual display, is not necessarily a declaration of love. But it is an ideal and erotic encapsulation of the chemistry they share. It’s also a fun reference to When Harry Met Sally, and who can be mad at that? [Saloni Gajjar]

Nick’s (second) proposal to Rachel (Crazy Rich Asians, 2018)

As we’ve already established, a “rushing to meet at the airport” scene is a classic gesture that can elevate any rom-com. A great proposal is another hallmark of a great rom-com. Combine the two and you get Crazy Rich Asians, a peak entry of the era. But it’s not just great because it checks off tropes. This proposal redux shows that Nick (Henry Golding) listened and learned from his previous attempt. The speech is romantic on its own, but this time, he proves to Rachel (Constance Wu) they can make it work by presenting her with his mother’s (Michelle Yeoh) ring, symbolizing his family’s approval of their relationship and a bright future ahead of them. [Mary Kate Carr]

Peter’s love notes (To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before, 2018)

Lara Jean (Lana Condor) loves a romantic gesture, but she didn’t even recognize the one that was happening right under her nose. Because she and Peter (Noah Centineo) been fake dating throughout To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before, she didn’t realize that the notes he had been writing her all along had evolved into genuine love letters. Peter is actually returning the favor that brought them together in the first place: what better gesture to capture the heart of a prodigious love letter author than penning one himself? [Mary Kate Carr]

Nick’s neon gift for Lucy (The Broken Hearts Gallery, 2020)

The self-aware “grand gesture” at the end of The Broken Hearts Gallery works on a few levels. First, there’s Nick’s (Dacre Montgomery) Big Speech declaring his love to Lucy (Geraldine Viswanathan). Then, there’s the new neon sign, a callback to a previous “date” that helped forge their relationship in the first place. To top it off, he actually renamed his hotel so that it no longer paid tribute to his ex-girlfriend and instead honors the gallery she created in the space that brought them together. It’s a perfect combination of a classic gesture with a personal twist. [Mary Kate Carr]

Will helps Noah shut down Luke’s sex tape (Fire Island, 2022)

If you think there’s no fresh way left to do a contemporary take on Jane Austen, Fire Island will prove you wrong. Andrew Ahn’s breezy 2022 film updates Pride And Prejudice with an enviable slow burn romance between Noah (Joel Kim Booster) and Will (Conrad Ricamora). How do we know these opposites definitely attract? When they find out a common friend was videotaped without consent, they seek revenge on the man responsible. Their hot “I’m going to kill him” vibes make them bond, and it only gets hotter when they threaten legal action together. It’s not a gesture towards one another; it’s a common act to save a friend. Who doesn’t love that? To make it better, Noah and Will succeed in their mission and reward themselves with a romantic beach stroll. We’re sold. [Saloni Gajjar]