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A History of the Kings and Queens of the Rom-Com

Many actors have tried their hand at the romantic comedy, and many have succeeded—but throughout the years, only a select few have towered above the rest

Harrison Freeman

When you find the theme week you want to spend the rest of your life with, you want the rest of your life to start as soon as possible. Thankfully, The Ringer hereby dubs this week Rom-Com Week, a celebration of one of the most delightful, captivating genres in film. Head to the top of the Empire State Building, order what she’s having, and join us as we dig into everything the rom-com has had to offer over the years.

The romantic comedy has changed significantly since the dawn of the genre in Old Hollywood, evolving from clever stories that win Oscars to mediocre, clichéd comedies obsessed with heterosexual norms to fresh and modern updates on familiar formulas. Many things have come and gone: the working woman who is single because she cares too much about her job, creepy signs, declarations of love in the airport. But after nearly 90 years, one thing has remained the same: The romantic comedy does not work without capable leads.

Romantic comedies require a specific type of performer: leads with infallible charisma, mind-blowing good looks, natural comedic timing, and believable romantic chemistry with their costars. And while this need has remained throughout the history of the genre, the definition of a rom-com king or queen has evolved along with the genre. Over time, queens have fluctuated between blonds and brunettes—princesses like Audrey Hepburn and bombshells like Marilyn Monroe—and type-A career women like Meg Ryan. Meanwhile, kings have evolved from dark, handsome, and stylish men like Cary Grant to nerds like Tom Hanks to the goofy, free-spirited, and blond Matthew McConaughey. From the dawn of the rom-com in the 1930s to the boom in the ’90s and 2000s to today, here’s a breakdown of the most notable rom-com kings and queens, from Cary Grant to Sandra Bullock.

Bringing Up Rom-Coms: 1930s-40s

The romantic comedy became a reliable box office draw in the ’30s and ’40s because it provided an escape for moviegoers throughout the Depression and World War II. Rom-coms of this era were heavy on the com: The era’s stars primarily came from the theater world and were skilled in fast-talking and physical comedy. The heroines were characterized by their sharp intelligence and spunk, while their male love interests were ridiculously handsome and dopey.

The Candidates

Barbara Stanwyck

Red Salute (1935), The Bride Walks Out (1936), Breakfast for Two (1937), Remember the Night (1940), The Lady Eve (1941), Christmas in Connecticut (1945)

You cannot look away from Barbara Stanwyck. Her sharp voice and coolness combined with a gift for timing and physical comedy made her the ideal lead for the rom-coms of the ’30s and ’40s. Stanwyck’s characters were strong-willed women with ambition, often in contrast to more goofy male leads. In Christmas in Connecticut, Stanwyck plays Elizabeth Lane, a columnist who writes about life as a housewife. Only she’s not actually a housewife, but a working single woman in New York City who knows nothing about domesticity. Suddenly, she is thrown into a situation in which she has to display the domestic suburban life depicted in her column in action (and at Christmastime). The film is an incredible example of Stanwyck’s carefree charisma, physical comedy, and independent characters. Stanwyck’s run as a reliable rom-com star fizzled out in the mid-’40s after starring in the classic film noir Double Indemnity, which introduced her to more dramatic roles.

Katharine Hepburn

Sylvia Scarlet (1935), Bringing Up Baby (1938), Holiday (1938), The Philadelphia Story (1940), Woman of the Year (1942), Adam’s Rib (1949), Pat and Mike (1952), Desk Set (1957)

Hepburn defined the romantic comedy with her bold, enigmatic spunk and distinct, rapid voice. The rom-com queen would eventually evolve into a type far from Hepburn’s no-nonsense attitude and wry humor, but successors to the rom-com throne still took inspiration from her sharp intelligence and unyielding, quick-witted characters. Hepburn’s role as socialite Tracy Lord in The Philadelphia Story saved her career and earned her an Oscar nomination, even though it wa far from the type of character she usually portrayed. Lord’s unlikable, spoiled persona played into the audience’s perception of Hepburn herself, whose reputation had sunk after starring in consecutive box office flops. In The Philadelphia Story, though, Hepburn wins you over with the smooth-talking verve and uproarious physical comedy that made her so appealing early in her career.

Cary Grant

Kiss and Make-Up (1934), Sylvia Scarlet (1935), Bringing Up Baby (1938), Holiday (1938), My Favorite Wife (1940), The Philadelphia Story (1940), Once Upon a Honeymoon (1942), The Bishop’s Wife (1947), Every Girl Should Be Married (1948), Indiscreet (1958), Charade (1963)

Grant helped define the rom-com alongside Katherine Hepburn, who was his costar in four films (think of them as the original Tom & Meg or Matthew & Kate). Grant had the deadly combination of excruciatingly good looks and a gift for physical comedy. He was never opposed to making himself look kind of stupid, but also had a hypnotizing physical presence and spellbinding charm. His performance as a paleontologist who gets embroiled in several predicaments—including a search for an escaped pet leopard—in Bringing Up Baby (1938) is his best, and the one most emblematic of the kind of actor he was: disgustingly attractive, incredibly physical, and deeply committed.

The One True Queen

Although Katharine Hepburn was labeled “box office poison” during her rom-com run due to a run of flops and a strained public image, she is the supreme rom-com queen of this era. She’s a legend synonymous with the rom-coms of this era—and the genre as a whole.

The One True King

If measured by volume alone, Cary Grant is not only the king of his era but the supreme leader of romantic comedies. Being an actor in the studio era, Grant starred in an exhausting amount of rom-coms (several per year) for decades and was always a dependable box office draw, making him the Queen Elizabeth II of rom-com royalty (except … likable). While the transatlantic accent didn’t stick around, the kind of physicality and suaveness that Grant embodied have remained consistent in rom-com kings in the decades since. Grant’s collaborations with Hepburn defined the era and set a precedent for future rom-com duos.

Rom-Com Holiday: 1950s-70s

After Hepburn vacated the spotlight, some new queens came along and redefined the rom-com heroine with their innocence and femininity, thus making the genre a little more romantic than comedic. The genre continued its domination throughout the ’50s and into the ’60s, but then receded in popularity as the New Hollywood era of the mid-’60s and ’70s set in thanks to the arrival of newer, edgier filmmakers. The ’70s in particular were generally a dry period for rom-coms, save for one notable filmmaker/sexual predator who would change the genre forever. There are a few new kings in this time period—but Grant’s throne remains relatively unchallenged.

The Candidates

Marilyn Monroe

Monkey Business (1952), Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953), How to Marry a Millionaire (1953), The Seven Year Itch (1955), Bus Stop (1956), The Prince and the Showgirl (1957), Some Like It Hot (1959)

Monroe introduced the “dumb blonde” type to the romantic comedy in the 1950s with characters who were whimsical and spacey—but also sexy, undeniably alluring, and possessing considerable street smarts despite their apparent lack of intelligence. Her performance as Sugar in Some Like It Hot is Monroe at her boldest and most self-aware—a major reason why the movie is considered one of the best ever made.

Rock Hudson

Pillow Talk (1959), Come September (1961), Lover Come Back (1961), Send Me No Flowers (1964)

The dashing Hudson pivoted to rom-coms after establishing himself as an accomplished dramatic actor in 1956’s Giant, which earned him his first and only Oscar nomination. Throughout his rom-com run, Hudson embodied the All-American man of the era with the looks of Don Draper (and none of the terrible personality). Pillow Talk established Hudson’s capability and appeal as a romantic lead, and showcased his on-screen chemistry with costar Doris Day, whom he would work with in two more romantic comedies in the ’60s.

Doris Day

Pillow Talk (1959), Lover Come Back (1961), Move Over, Darling (1963), That Touch of Mink (1962), The Thrill of It All (1963), Send Me No Flowers (1964)

Day made her way into romantic comedies in the 1950s after appearing in musicals. Her characters were defined by their femininity: her bright, blond look and unwavering optimism epitomized the ideal American woman of the decade, in stark contrast to the headstrong, fierce characters played by brunette predecessors like Hepburn and Stanwyck. With her darling feminine aesthetic playing well against Hudson’s stoic masculinity, Pillow Talk earned Day an Academy Award nomination for Best Actress. That’s right: romantic comedies in this era were nominated for Oscars, and occasionally won!

James Garner

Boys’ Night Out (1962), Move Over, Darling (1963), The Thrill of It All (1963), How Sweet It Is! (1968), Murphy’s Romance (1985)

Garner could slip into romantic leads quite easily. His leads varied in type more than most other rom-com stars of the studio era—a likely result of his versatility as a dramatic actor—but his characters were generally sleek and smart hunks who are a little cocky but also chivalrous. Compared to other rom-com standouts of Hollywood’s earlier period, Garner’s characters were more serious and much less goofy.

Audrey Hepburn

Roman Holiday (1953), Sabrina (1954), Funny Face (1957), Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961), Charade (1963), How to Steal a Million (1966)

Audrey Hepburn’s star quality is undeniable. Her inescapably iconic rom-com heroines have a dream-like quality. They get absorbed in glamorous, enviable worlds such as royalty (Roman Holiday), New York high society (Breakfast at Tiffany’s), or European espionage (Charade). Hepburn’s rom-com characters are delicate but independent, innocent but experienced, with dormant feistiness that emerges when necessary. Hepburn’s performance as Princess Ann in Roman Holiday launched her to stardom and instantly established her as a cultural icon—while also helping her make history as the first actress to win an Oscar, a Golden Globe, and a BAFTA for a single performance. Alas, Hepburn’s rom-com reign came to a conclusion in the late ’60s when she semi-retired to spend more time with her family.

Jane Fonda

Tall Story (1960), Sunday in New York (1963), Any Wednesday (1966), Barefoot in the Park (1967), Fun With Dick and Jane (1977)

Fonda is best known for her lifelong activism, revolutionizing the home video with her aerobics workouts, and dramatic performances in New Hollywood dramas like Klute and The China Syndrome. But before Jane Fonda became the Jane Fonda we know now, she was a rom-com star. Her naive and playful rom-com heroines from the ’60s are a far cry from the independent, ambitious women she would go on to play, yet despite her characters’ traits, Fonda’s easygoing presence, more reflective of predecessors Stanwyck and Katharine Hepburn (whom she later worked with in 1981’s On Golden Pond), was a refreshing divergence from the other rom-com stars of the era. Fonda’s performance as Corie in the film adaptation of Neil Simon’s play Barefoot in the Park revealed her free-spirited and sassy side, no doubt aided by her sparkling chemistry with costar Robert Redford.

Woody Allen

Annie Hall (1977), Manhattan (1979)

In the 1970s, Allen wrote, directed, and starred in a couple of game-changing romantic comedies—including Annie Hall, which won him an Oscar for Best Picture and Best Director. Allen’s films introduced neuroticism and experimentation to a genre that by then had become repetitive and diminished in popularity. This will be the extent of credit given to Allen, for reasons that should by now be obvious.

Diane Keaton

Annie Hall (1977), Manhattan (1979) Something’s Gotta Give (2003), Because I Said So (2007)

Keaton was the neurotic Katharine Hepburn with an added impossible quality that made her an ideal rom-com lead: She’s simultaneously ordinary and extraordinary. Her characters feel like someone you could know, but also someone who exists in another world. Keaton’s queen status did not last long, but it was incredibly impactful—traces of Annie Hall are in every rom-com heroine who came after her. In the 2000s, Keaton, then in her 50s, made a significant return to the genre (and earned an Oscar nomination) with a starring role opposite Jack Nicholson in Nancy Meyers’s Something’s Gotta Give. That film marks an important moment in rom-com history, as it popularized the senior rom-com.

The One True Queen

Audrey Hepburn permeated the culture. Almost every classic movie fan has or has had an Audrey Hepburn poster hanging in their home—probably the one of her in the iconic little black dress from Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Hepburn’s romantic, sophisticated, and shy character type defined the genre in this era and instantly made her a legend not only of the rom-com, but of fashion, cinema, and celebrity. Throughout the ’50s, Hepburn was one of Hollywood’s biggest box office draws—she didn’t need a male costar to draw in an audience, unlike other queens. And like the other Hepburn, Audrey’s characters influenced all the actresses who would follow in her footsteps.

The One True King

Rock Hudson takes the throne for this era. Hudson and his rom-com characters were attractive but not intimidating, masculine but not aggressive, charming but realistically so. After hitting a career nadir with the flop of A Farewell to Arms, Pillow Talk stood as a comeback, grossing $18.75 million domestically, a huge number for the time, and taking the no. 1 spot at the box office for seven consecutive weeks. Spider-Man: No Way Home couldn’t even do that.

When Rom-Coms Met Meg Ryan: 1980s-90s

In this era, the romantic comedy finally catches up with New Hollywood. In the footsteps of Annie Hall, the genre grows more experimental with its premises, characters, and even performers. Less conventional stars like Billy Crystal, Tom Hanks, Meg Ryan, and Sandra Bullock emerge, and the genre becomes a box office draw again.

The Candidates

Goldie Hawn

Cactus Flower (1969), The Duchess and the Dirtwater Fox (1976), Foul Play (1978), Seems Like Old Times (1980), Best Friends (1982), Overboard (1987), Housesitter (1992)

Hawn became known for playing a modern version of Marilyn Monroe’s dumb blond type. After winning a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her role in the 1967 rom-com Cactus Flower, she reigned through the ’70s and deep into the ’80s. Hawn, who displayed an incredible ability to play the airhead, smart, and vulnerable, was a natural successor to Monroe but with a little more edge, influencing future leads and supporting characters of the ’90s and 2000s like Judy Greer, Meg Ryan, and her daughter, Kate Hudson (nepotism can be so beautiful).

Meg Ryan

When Harry Met Sally (1989), Sleepless in Seattle (1993), French Kiss (1995), You’ve Got Mail (1998), Kate & Leopold (2001)

Ryan entered the competition with her starring role in When Harry Met Sally as the ambitious all-American girl with a type-A personality, a hint of the spunk of Katharine Hepburn, and the style and romanticism of Audrey Hepburn and Doris Day. Her rom-com characters were witty, did not tolerate bullshit, and were as at home in autumnal plaids and shoulder pads as they are spring florals and pastels. It’s actually hard to choose her most iconic rom-com role: Sleepless in Seattle and You’ve Got Mail are reasonable choices, but you have to go with When Harry Met Sally, in which Ryan created a new kind of rom-com heroine and carried one of the most-referenced scenes in film history.

Billy Crystal

When Harry Met Sally (1989)

Crystal’s signature rom-com is also his only rom-com (so long as you don’t count his role as Miracle Max in Princess Bride), but When Harry Met Sally and his character Harry Burns are so significant in the lexicon of romantic comedies that he demands recognition. His performance harkened back to Old Hollywood and the fast talking of Katherine Hepburn and the self-deprecating physical comedy of Cary Grant; Crystal expanded off these characteristics and made them his own with his singular comedic skills.

Tom Hanks

Splash (1984), Sleepless in Seattle (1993), You’ve Got Mail (1998)

Now America’s dad, once America’s rom-com daddy. Hanks became an American icon with comedic roles in Splash, Big, and A League of Their Own. He then used his likability to his advantage by becoming a rom-com star opposite Meg Ryan in Sleepless in Seattle and You’ve Got Mail. Hanks opted for more dramatic roles following that successful streak, but his chemistry with Ryan and the way he brought Nora Ephron’s crisp dialogue to life made him one of the most powerful rom-com stars of all time. Ephron had the audacity to make Tom Hanks an asshole in You’ve Got Mail, and he pulled it off despite his status as America’s sweetheart.

Julia Roberts

Mystic Pizza (1988), Pretty Woman (1990), I Love Trouble (1994), My Best Friend’s Wedding (1997), Notting Hill (1999), Runaway Bride (1999), America’s Sweethearts (2001), Valentine’s Day (2010)

Roberts marks the second peak of the dark-haired rom-com queen. First introduced in 1988’s Mystic Pizza, Roberts’s enchanting smile and ethereal quality made her an instant icon comparable to Audrey Hepburn. Her turn as Vivian Ward in Pretty Woman established her superstar status and cemented her place as a rom-com go-to for the next decade. As a rom-com lead, Roberts used her inviting appeal and versatility, often playing leads with a twist: She could be a sex worker, a chronic runaway bride, or a person trying to ruin their best friend’s wedding and still manage to be completely irresistible.

Hugh Grant

Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994), Notting Hill (1999), Bridget Jones’s Diary (2001), Two Weeks Notice (2002), Love Actually (2003), Music and Lyrics (2007)

Grant didn’t have to come over the pond to become a romantic comedy icon. He began his long reign as the British rom-com king with his role in 1994’s Four Weddings and a Funeral. His bookish, eccentric charm would define the characters he played in rom-coms for the next decade; there is absolutely nothing better than Hugh Grant playing a travel bookstore owner in Notting Hill.

Sandra Bullock

Love Potion No. 9 (1992), While You Were Sleeping (1995), Two If by Sea (1996), Forces of Nature (1999), Miss Congeniality (2000), Two Weeks Notice (2002), The Proposal (2009), The Lost City (2022)

Bullock powered through the ’90s and 2000s and has been a rom-com mainstay ever since. While You Were Sleeping—in which Bullock plays a lonely transit worker who saves the life of a commuter she was pining for before falling in love with his brother while he’s in a coma—would not work with anyone else. Not even Julia Roberts. Bullock was at her best when playing diplomatic but frenzied career women in unpredictable and impossible situations. In fact, she’s still doing that, most recently getting kidnapped by a billionaire and taken to a jungle while wearing a form-fitting sequin jumpsuit in The Lost City.

The Cast of Friends

In the ’90s and into the 2000s, studios tried to capitalize on the ridiculous popularity of Friends—and for some reason, those studios specifically seized on Jennifer Aniston and Matthew Perry. Aniston appeared in Picture Perfect alongside Kevin Bacon, The Object of My Affection opposite Paul Rudd, The Break-Up, and Rumor Has It, one of the most disturbing films ever made. Matthew Perry starred in Fools Rush In and Three to Tango. These movies are the kind you’ve never heard much about but were always on TBS or USA. But don’t cry for the cast of Friends—they’re all absurdly wealthy.

The One True Queen

Pretty Woman, the third-highest-grossing film of 1990, turned Julia Roberts into one of Hollywood’s most bankable movie stars. To this day, the movie is the highest-grossing romantic comedy of all time, and many of Roberts’s other rom-coms—including My Best Friend’s Wedding and Runaway Bride—cracked the box office top 10 in their respective years. Scenes and lines from Roberts rom-coms are among the most iconic and most referenced, such as Notting Hill’s “I’m just a girl” and Pretty Woman’s “Big mistake. Big. Huge.” Roberts’s rom-com status also anchored her success as a dramatic actress, which peaked when she won an Oscar for Best Actress for Erin Brokovich in 2001. She is perhaps the most undeniable rom-com queen ever, and proof that you can do both drama and rom-com and dominate.

The One True King

Hugh Grant is so tethered to the romantic comedy that he has only just started working against type in his later career (although I could argue that Paddington 2 is a rom-com). Grant attached himself to some of the era’s most iconic queens in Roberts (Notting Hill) and Bullock (Two Weeks Notice), which wins him the throne over the other kings in what is possibly the busiest, most prevalent era of the rom-com.

How to Make a Lot of Money at the Box Office: The 2000s

Welcome to the rom-com every weekend era. This is when the rom-com started to become the modern rom-com, filled with the clichés we all know and love to hate: the cheesy pop music, the career woman so focused on work that she’s forgotten about LOVE, the bestie, the absurd meet-cutes, and so on. The 21st century rom-com is more focused on bloated premises, cheesy romances, and poorly aged pop culture references than either comedy or performance, but still, its kings and queens did what they could with the material. Jennifer Lopez, Queen Latifah, and Gabrielle Union establish themselves as standouts in a white-washed genre, a new dynamic duo makes an impact, and Bullock’s dominance from the ’90s continues.

The Candidates

Matthew McConaughey

The Wedding Planner (2001), How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days (2003), Failure to Launch (2006), Fool’s Gold (2008), Ghosts of Girlfriends Past (2009)

McConaughey, who rose to prominence in the ’90s after appearing in the cult classic Dazed and Confused, was a shocking choice for a rom-com lead and nothing like it will happen again. He is attractive but not traditionally handsome; his characters exemplify the hyper-masculinity of the early 21st century—they’re bro-y and occasionally cruel, necessitating a woman (usually Kate Hudson) to trigger his buried heart of gold by the end of the movie. After Fool’s Gold, a terrible movie, McConaughey was endlessly mocked for his rom-com filmography (and all those beach workouts), leading him to abandon the genre in the 2010s in favor of dramatic projects like 2013’s Dallas Buyers Club, which won him an Oscar for Best Actor.

Kate Hudson

About Adam (2000), Alex & Emma (2003), How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days (2003), My Best Friend’s Girl (2008), Fool’s Gold (2008) Something Borrowed (2011)

When Hudson arrived to the rom-com hot off her breakout performance in 2000’s Almost Famous, she brought back the dumb blonde persona her mother Goldie Hawn was known for but added a bubbly twist. As columnist Andie Anderson in How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days, Hudson captures the “crazy girlfriend” trope to great comedic effect, and in doing so makes a sexist screenplay watchable. She also demonstrates natural comedic timing, particularly with co-stars Matthew McConaughey, Kathryn Hahn, and theater legend Bebe Neuwirth.

Mark Ruffalo

View from the Top (2003), 13 Going on 30 (2004), Just Like Heaven (2005), Rumor Has It… (2005), Begin Again (2013)

Ruffalo is the confused rom-com king, a grunge guy who ended up in all of these movies by accident. Not complaining: There is something so powerful about Mark Ruffalo wearing a CBGB shirt in 13 Going on 30. However, after a short but important dip into the genre, Ruffalo dropped out to make thrillers from prolific filmmakers like David Fincher and Martin Scorsese. Then he became the Hulk.

Jennifer Garner

13 Going on 30 (2004), Catch and Release (2006), Ghosts of Girlfriends Past (2009), The Invention of Lying (2009), Valentine’s Day (2010), Arthur (2011)

As a brunette with a smile brighter than the sun, Garner was a natural successor to Julia Roberts. Garner was born to play Jenna Rink, a 13-year-old who wakes up in her 30-year-old body in 13 Going on 30. Not many actors can capture the specific childlike charm and awe necessary for the role, and Garner did it so well that the movie has aged into a modern classic. None of Garner’s other rom-coms really caught on, but 13 Going on 30 has permeated the culture enough to make her a contender for the rom-com crown.

Queen Latifah

Bringing Down the House (2003), Last Holiday (2006), Valentine’s Day (2010), Just Wright (2010)

Queen Latifah is one of the most important rom-com performers of an era when its popularity was at its peak. Latifah brought warmth and fearlessness to her rom-com heroines, and proved she could play with comedic giants such as Steve Martin in Bringing Down the House. Her performance as a woman living her last days to the fullest in Last Holiday is her best, combining dramatic moments with slapstick comedy.

Reese Witherspoon

Overnight Delivery (1998), The Importance of Being Earnest (2002), Sweet Home Alabama (2002), Just Like Heaven (2005), How Do You Know (2010), This Means War (2012), Home Again (2017)

Witherspoon blended the sweet innocence of Doris Day with the type-A personality of Meg Ryan, delivering comedic acting that rivals some of the greatest rom-com kings and queens in history. Witherspoon has continued to play type-A characters almost exclusively across all genres, from Sweet Home Alabama to Big Little Lies.

Jennifer Lopez

The Wedding Planner (2001), Maid in Manhattan (2002), Gigli (2003), Monster-in-Law (2005), The Back-Up Plan (2010), What to Expect When You’re Expecting (2012), Second Act (2018), Marry Me (2022)

Lopez was booked and busy in the 2000s. On top of becoming a pop star, she was ruling the romantic comedy. Her commitment to movies with absurd premises—like The Wedding Planner, in which a doctor saves her from getting hit by a dumpster because she’s trying to save her shoe and the doctor turns out to be the groom in a wedding she’s planning and they very inappropriately fall in love — hastened her takeover. Now engaged to her ex-fiance Ben Affleck several months after the release of Marry Me, her long-awaited return to the genre, Lopez is living out a rom-com of her own.

Julia Stiles

10 Things I Hate About You (1999), Down to You (2000), Save the Last Dance (2001), A Guy Thing (2003), The Prince & Me (2004)

Stiles rode the teen rom-com wave of the late ’90s into the 2000s with films like Save the Last Dance and A Guy Thing. But while she deserves the title of teen rom-com queen for her performance as the antisocial feminist Kat Stratford in 10 Things I Hate About You, it became immediately clear that we all liked her better in high school.

Gabrielle Union

The Brothers (2001), Deliver Us From Eva (2003), Daddy’s Little Girls (2007), Think Like a Man (2012), Think Like a Man Too (2014)

Following her roles in teen classics She’s All That, 10 Things I Hate About You and Bring It On, Union had a decade-plus streak as a rom-com lead. Her sincere, easy charisma elevated a host of tired premises—which is what rom-com queens do.

The One True Queen

The queen of this era could be Kate Hudson simply for the yellow Carolina Herrera dress she wears in How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days, but that would not be fair to the real queen, Jennifer Lopez. It did not take long for Lopez to cement her status as a romantic comedy queen: When The Wedding Planner hit no. 1 at the box office in January 2001, J.Lo became the star of the no. 1 movie and the owner of the no. 1 spot on the Billboard 200. While Lopez was not as bankable as Julia Roberts and did not churn out as many rom-coms as Cary Grant, she is the queen supreme of this era for several reasons: She took over a previously white-washed genre, her chemistry helped elevate Matthew McConaughey, and her movies, while cheesy and occasionally stupid, stand the test of time, which cannot be said about many rom-coms from this era.

The One True King

Matthew McConaughey can thank J.Lo’s enormous charisma for helping him ascend the rom-com throne of the 2000s. The Wedding Planner was poorly received, but McConaughey’s chemistry with Lopez would define his career for the next decade. But what is McConaughey’s most significant contribution to the romantic comedy, you ask? The way he recited dialogue to make it sound like he just ran a marathon (see: the way he says “couple’s therapy” in How to Lose a Guy).

The Lost Genre: 2010-Present

After the 2000s boom, the rom-com declined. The arrival of streaming and Hollywood’s transition to leaning on IP power rather than star power eliminated the career path of a Julia Roberts or Sandra Bullock. This is the first era without any supreme leaders of the rom-com. Instead, actors appear in one or two rom-coms before pivoting to another genre. Reese Witherspoon hangs in there with some colossal failures, including 2010’s How Do You Know (one of those movies that is absolutely not a real movie), and returns with 2017’s Home Again. The traditional romantic comedy is replaced by overwhelming ensemble films like He’s Just Not That Into You (2009), Valentine’s Day (2010), New Year’s Eve (2011), and ​​What To Expect When You’re Expecting (2012) that include former kings and queens like Roberts and Garner but rely more on fleetingly popular casts. (Congrats to Lea Michele on her role in New Year’s Eve!) Independent films, including Celeste and Jesse Forever (2012) and Sleeping With Other People (2015), attempt to bring the genre back, and while they generate loyal cult followings they fail to save it, forcing television shows like The Mindy Project and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend to pick up the slack. Toward the end of the decade, Netflix makes a valiant effort to bring back the rom-com with original films Set It Up (2018), Always Be My Maybe (2019), and Someone Great (2019), which instigate a much more diverse renaissance of sorts that is in its early phase now (hopefully). But since there is truly no consistency in this era, it’s impossible to recap it by performer. Instead, the era must be broken down by its few notable rom-coms.

Crazy, Stupid, Love (2011)

One of the most accurately titled pieces of work ever made, this ensemble film starring and centering on romantic leads Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling is truly crazy and stupid, and it is about love. Steve Carell, hot off fame from The Office, also stars.

Silver Linings Playbook (2012)

David O. Russell’s adaptation of the book of the same name introduced society to the strange duo of Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper as characters who struggle with mental illness and also compete in a dance competition. At the time, Lawrence was 22, and Cooper was 37. Lawrence received an Oscar for her role, while Cooper was (as always) just nominated. The on-screen duo would continue to be forced down our throats throughout the 2010s in American Hustle, Serena, and Joy.

Trainwreck (2015)

Amy Schumer attempted to save the genre and follow in the footsteps of comedians like Billy Crystal who lead rom-coms in Trainwreck, in which she starred opposite Bill Hader. The movie received warm praise from critics and audiences, but didn’t really make any impact on Hollywood or culture.

The Big Sick (2017)

With The Big Sick, writers Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon brought the romantic comedy back to the Oscars for the first time since Silver Linings Playbook. The comedy, based on Nanjiani and Gordon’s life, is about a guy (Nanjiani) whose recent ex (Zoe Kazan) goes into a coma. The film was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay. Critical acclaim and awards momentum signified an interest in the lost genre.

Long Shot (2019)

Despite being a dry, depressing decade for rom-coms, the 2010s ended on a high note with Long Shot, starring Charlize Theron and Seth Rogen. Theron played the secretary of state of the United States, who used to babysit Rogen’s character, an unemployed journalist. Despite their differences, they fall in love.

Romantic comedies in the 2020s are off to a promising start. In an attempt to bring them back to prominence, writers are relying on fantastical and/or ludicrous but fun premises to draw an audience. In 2020, the critically acclaimed and universally beloved Groundhog Day inspired rom-com Palm Springs, starring Andy Samberg and Cristin Milioti, which dropped on Hulu. In 2022, the rom-com dominated the box office for the first time in years with The Lost City, starring Her Majesty Sandra Bullock and Channing Tatum, with an unforgettable performance from Daniel Radcliffe.

The One True Queen

Sandra Bullock couldn’t take the throne from Julia Roberts in the ’90s or Jennifer Lopez in the 2000s, but she persisted. After winning an Oscar (J.Lo is still waiting on one of those), Bullock stayed strong throughout the romantic comedy drought of the 2010s. She kept her comedy skills up to par with roles in The Heat (2013) and Ocean’s 8 (2018). Then, in 2022, Sandy made a triumphant rom-com return with her starring role opposite Channing Tatum in The Lost City, which has grossed almost $88 million worldwide on its way to becoming Paramount’s second largest opening weekend at the box office since the COVID-19 pandemic began. Please crown our most enduring rom-com star ASAP.

The One True King

Netflix isn’t a man, or even a person—but it is the rom-com king of this era. The streamer started a rom-com renaissance in 2018 with Set It Up, which became popular enough to suggest a bright new future for the genre. From there, Netflix continued its streak of winning rom-coms with Someone Great, Always Be My Maybe, the To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before series, and even Christmas rom-coms like the Princess Switch series. Give them the crown for ensuring that there’s still even a throne.

Carrie Wittmer is a Brooklyn-based freelance writer with bylines in Vulture, Consequence of Sound, and Harper’s Bazaar. She tweets at @carriesnotscary.

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