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Sometimes a buzz phrase captures a new addition to the cultural arsenal. Just as often, such a coining describes a phenomenon that was always there but that nobody bothered (or dared) to mention. In 1889 Arthur Conan Doyle and Oscar Wilde met for a famous dinner at the Langham Hotel in London. The evening resulted in the commissioning of two durable works: Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray and Conan Doyle's The Sign of Four. A few short years later, during Oscar's trial for gross indecency, Dorian Gray was quoted as evidence of the author's "homosexual leanings". Sherlock Holmes remained an ornament of eccentric respectability.
Had Conan Doyle lived to be 150, he would have been surprised to find the relationship between Holmes and Dr Watson described so frequently by the ugly portmanteau word “bromance” (although the writer was relatively liberal about homosexuality). Holmes and Watson were just good pals. The doctor was happily married. The detective developed sinister passions for mysterious, dark ladies.
Conan Doyle need not fret. Devised in the 1990s and popularised in the last decade, "bromance" is used to describe fictional relationships that, although they echo the dynamics of sexual attraction, never stray into corporeal intimacy. The word is often dragged out to highlight the shallowness of the relationships between men and woman in supposed romantic comedies. Think of early Judd Apatow films such as The 40-Year Old Virgin and Knocked Up. The director seems more at home detailing the all-male joshing on the sofa than teasing out the mechanics of his protagonists' passion for the female lead.
Critics have suggested there might be a sexual relationship between Holmes and Watson. Such readings generate fecund ponderings, but near-exclusive focus on male relationships more probably reflects a historical unwillingness to engage with women as friends. Such exotic creatures can be wives, lovers, housekeepers or femmes fatales. One doesn’t have a woman as a chum. The notion is against nature.
The discovery at the start of this century of the “bromance” as a genre reflects a loosening of attitudes to gender relations. Now that most decent people no longer regard suggestion of homosexuality as an “accusation”, comparisons can be merrily drawn between the shape of a male friendship and the outlines of a romance. There is, nonetheless, often a hint of reproach in the definition. Maybe such characters need to get out a bit more. Maybe, they need to put as much effort into their relationships with women as they invest in their beery chats with the guys. Just ponder how often the woman seems like an intruder in the 10 films on the right. There is more to life than the bare necessities.
Is this a cheat? After all, there is a perfectly unhealthy heterosexual love triangle at the centre of Michael Curtiz’s exotic romance. But the really interesting relationship is that between Humphrey Bogart’s Rick Blaine and Claude Rains’s Louis Renault. The cafe owner and colonial police chief begin as squabbling associates. They go through emotional trials. At the end, they walk away into the moonlight as reconciled associates. “Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship,” Rick coos. We trust they’ll be very happy together.
Some Like it Hot (1959)
Here's a weird one. Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis work through all the usual bromance dynamics. They fight. They come to arrangements. Eventually one of them gets spirited away by a lover. The twist is that the successful suitor is a rich man who thinks Lemmon a dowdy woman called Daphne. Never mind that. Our main problem in admitting Billy Wilder's cross-dressing classic to the fold is that, far from seeming in man-love, the two leads appear to positively despise one another.
The Jungle Book (1967)
Is there any greater love than that between a boy and a libertine bear? The Disney version of Rudyard Kipling’s durable parable (due for a brace of remakes in the next two years) features a relationship every bit as dissolute as those at the centre Judd Apatow movies. Mowgli gives up on life in the man village to hang out with the endlessly irresponsible Baloo. Eventually a pesky woman breaks them apart. “Forget about those, they ain’t nothing but trouble,” Baloo says of the human female.
Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969)
There is a woman in here somewhere. But nobody watches this comedy western for Katharine Ross's melodic pottering about on bicycles. Robert Redford and Paul Newman squabble their way across the frontier before making the ultimate romantic gesture together. Romeo and Juliet ended their relationship in similar fashion. So did Thelma and Louise, come to think of it. Is that a Sismance? (See also The Sting, in which the same actors play prohibition-era versions of the quip-friendly cowboys.)
All the President’s Men (1976)
Ah, come on now. Yes, the film's main purpose is to explain the intricacies of the Watergate scandal, but just remember how much of the duration is taken up with teasing exchanges between Bob Woodward (Redford on a straight edge) and Carl Bernstein (Dustin Hoffman frets and cigarettes with neurotic fury). "Is there anywhere you don't smoke?" Woodward says to his partner as they emerge from a fug-filled elevator. Bob is the naggy wife. Carl is the incorrigible husband.
Star Trek II: Wrath of Khan (1982)
Obviously, any Star Trek film or any episode of the series will do, but, aside from being among the best movies, Wrath of Khan features one of the most moving deaths in popular culture. From the very first episode, William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy played Captain Kirk and Mr Spock as complementary forces – one all willpower, the other all intellect – manacled together in an often-happy arranged marriage. The later interactions between Chris Pine and Zachary Quinto are almost as satisfactory.
Withnail & I (1987)
Why are there no women in Bruce Robinson's tale of struggling actors who go on "holiday by mistake"? The director later explained that that's how it was in his squalid early days. If you have any doubt that this is a bromance, listen to Robinson discuss his continuing affection for Withnail's inspiration: the late Vivian MacKerrell, a British actor of the 1960s and 1970s. It ends as badly as most conventional romances. One man achieves success. The other is left reciting Hamlet to a wet wolf in Regent's Park.
The Shawshank Redemption (1994)
The creeping notion (put about by millions) that Frank Darabont’s prison drama might be the greatest film ever made is baffling, but it remains a gorgeous study of a notably harmonious friendship. The scene that confirms its status as a classic bromance was added at the insistence of the studio. “I hope to see my friend and shake his hand. I hope the Pacific is as blue as it has been in my dreams.” Ahhh!
Toy Story (1995)
The bickering between Buzz Lightyear and Woody the Cowboy has now been progressing for more than two decades. Like all the best bromances, the relationship finds each character compensating for the other’s deficiencies. Buzz is a brash romantic who yearns to believe in the broadest myths. Woody is a practical man (or thing) who yearns for domestic order. They will return for a fourth outing in 2018.
The Hangover (2009)
The amusing first episode is what critics had in mind when they began bandying the word “bromance”. On a bachelors’ weekend in Las Vegas, a gang of middle-class drunks remind themselves why they savour male friendship, before realising frat-house debauchery might not be fulfilling in the long term. They like women really, you see.