How the Most Romantic Scene in ‘Love Actually’ Became Its Most Mocked
When we’re kids, we learn about love by watching movies. We’re impressionable, looking for clues, and so romantic films teach us about mating rituals. And depending on when you grew up, there might be specific movies that became touchstones for what true love looks like. In the 1960s, maybe you were influenced by Dustin Hoffman’s Benjamin in The Graduate making that impassioned plea to Elaine (Katharine Ross) on her wedding day. In the 1980s, John Cusack holding that boombox outside Ione Skye’s house in Say Anything was the height of swooning gestures. And 20 years ago, a dude surreptitiously telling his best friend’s wife that he loved her set hearts aflutter.
What those three movies have in common is that they all feature a lovelorn man taking a big swing to prove his devotion to the object of his affection. They’re hardly the only films that include such a moment: Think of how many stories there are in which the male lead has to run across town or dash to the airport to finally express his feelings to his lady. It’s Screenwriting 101: The main character (usually the guy) doesn’t just try to find love, he’s also getting over some hang-up or deficiency within himself. By making the huge romantic gesture, he’s demonstrating that he’s changed — at last, he’s willing to put himself out there on the line for his soulmate.
In theory, that’s a nice sentiment. (How often do you hear women complaining that men won’t open up and show their softer side?) But these films can also inadvertently suggest something a little more insidious: If you hound your true love long enough, eventually she’ll give in! Maybe that’s a bit cynical, but in the case of Love Actually, which hit U.S. theaters on November 7, 2003, that’s been a sticking point regarding its most famous scene for decades now. Was Mark right to surprise Juliet in that way? Was it romantic? Was it creepy? The debate rages on, but I’d argue that the subsequent parodies and send-ups of that now-famous scene answer the question. The world mocks that Love Actually moment because we know it was a bad look on Mark’s part.
Before Love Actually, Richard Curtis was already the king of the British rom-com, having written the screenplays for The Tall Guy, Four Weddings and a Funeral and Notting Hill. (He also co-wrote Bridget Jones’s Diary and Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason.) Love Actually was his directorial debut, bringing together an Avengers-style supersized cast of British and Irish stars, including Hugh Grant, Liam Neeson, Colin Firth, Emma Thompson, Alan Rickman, Keira Knightley, Bill Nighy and Rowan Atkinson. Sort of like a more lovey-dovey Magnolia, the film sported a bunch of different storylines, characters connecting with characters from other narrative threads along the way.
One of the plot strands involved Juliet (Knightley) and Peter (Chiwetel Ejiofor), who have just gotten married. Peter’s best friend Mark (Andrew Lincoln), videographer and best man at their wedding, always acts very standoffish around Juliet. Does he not approve of his pal’s wife? Eventually, she learns the truth that most people could have guessed from watching other romantic comedies: The only reason Mark doesn’t seem like he likes her is because, damn it, he loves her. This is a dilly of a pickle.
If you’ve seen the movie — or, if you’ve been alive over the last 20 years — you know what happens. On Christmas Eve, when Juliet and Peter are snuggling on the couch, the doorbell rings. She goes to see who it is, and it turns out to be Mark, who has written out his message of love on a series of cue cards so that Peter can’t figure out what’s going on from the other room. (To add to the deception, he plays a CD of “Silent Night,” asking Juliet to tell Peter that it’s carolers at the door.) Mark shoots his shot, including some wacky jokes, and then he leaves, only to have Juliet run after him, give him a quick smooch and then head back inside.
Love Actually did pretty well Stateside, but it made even more money internationally, unsurprisingly bringing in a fair amount of money in the U.K. specifically. Over the years, its reputation has only continued to grow, celebrated as both a charming rom-com and a new Christmas classic. In due course, the cue-cards scene became the film’s most iconic moment, joining the pantheon of other indelible Cinematic Romantic Sequences. (For some people, “To me, you are perfect” is as memorable a line as “You complete me.”) In 2013, Lincoln recalled reading that scene for the first time. “It sort of sent shivers because I just loved it,” he told Entertainment Weekly. “It’s always nice, being in a romantic film, but playing the only guy who doesn’t get the girl — not getting the girl in that manner is absolutely beautiful.” As for shooting that moment, Lincoln insisted, “I mean, there’s no acting required, really. I just had Richard Curtis’ brilliant words, which I didn’t even have to say. And then I had to be infatuated with Keira Knightley’s character. It’s not one of the greatest challenges I’ve been posed as an actor.”
Interestingly, when I looked back at reviews from the time — The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, Roger Ebert — this scene didn’t get a mention. (Critics seemed more interested in Hugh Grant’s prime minister or Bill Nighy’s hacky rock star.) But as Love Actually became a holiday staple, commentators started pushing back against Mark’s seemingly romantic gesture. Some viewers did, too — and they weren’t shy about sharing this disdain with Curtis in person.
During a 2017 Empire interview between the Love Actually filmmaker and director Paul Feig, Curtis was asked what scenes from the movie people want to talk to him about on the street. “(T)he first thing most people talk to me about is that scene where Emma cries,” he replied. “The sign stuff between Andrew Lincoln and Keira Knightley comes up a lot too. Not always unconditionally praised. I met a woman the other day who just referred to it as ‘the stalker scene.’ … ‘He was the best man! What was he doing there?’”
Especially in the wake of #MeToo, when women became more vocal about the sexual harassment and assault they’d experienced, there seemed to be a greater sensitivity around the sort of overtly grand gestures that Mark executes in Love Actually. Rather than seeming heartfelt and vulnerable, Mark finally expressing his true feelings instead of hiding behind cynicism, the scene started to come across as creepy and entitled. Mark is hot for his bud’s wife — maybe he should keep those feelings to himself? And he probably shouldn’t put her on the spot by declaring his love in such a way that she can’t do much about it. But even before #MeToo, the culture was turning on Mark. In 2011, Complex ran a piece entitled “10 Romantic Gestures From Movies You Should Never Try in Real Life,” with Mark’s stunt placing at No. 1. (As the post rightly points out, “What if the CD with the carolers started skipping? … Imagine what you’d do to a buddy you found standing there with your girl, holding a ‘you are perfect’ sign, not to mention how bizarre that would objectively look.”) A few years later, Honest Trailers went after all of Love Actually’s flaws, singling out Mark, “who’s trying to bang his best friend’s wife.”
The gesture had proved so controversial that, around Christmas 2016, Entertainment Weekly ran a post in which two of its writers squared off on the issue. (EW polled its readers afterward, asking what they thought of Mark: Although highly unscientific, the response was 66 percent in favor of “a lovestruck sap rather than a stalker creep.”) Even the film’s cast and crew were torn. Martine McCutcheon, who played one of the staff members for Grant’s prime minister, said in 2020, “I don’t think it’s creepy at all. I think people do crazy things when they are in love with people. He had his moment where he thought, ‘Enough now, I’ve told her how I feel, I love my friend too but I had to get it off my chest in the right way.’” Citing that Juliet already knew Mark’s feelings toward her because she’d seen the wedding video he’d shot, which focused primarily on her — which is also kinda creepy — McCutcheon argued that the cue-cards scene “was his way of making things explained and comfortable.”
But Lincoln admitted he was nervous during shooting. In a 2017 interview, he recalled, “I kept saying to Richard, ‘Are you sure I’m not going to come off as a creepy stalker?’” And Ejiofor basically can’t go through a press tour without being asked about how Mark treated Peter. The Oscar-nominated actor’s answer is always the same: Yeah, Mark’s a dick.
Saturday Night Live parodied the scene twice in the span of roughly two years, the sketches speaking to different elements of what makes Mark’s declaration so wrongheaded. In the first, from 2014, Pete Davidson plays himself, visiting host Amy Adams’ house to offer his version of the cue cards, which ends up being pervy, bizarre (what was that thing about hot dogs?) and painfully not-thought-through. The sketch strips away the original’s thin veil of romantic vulnerability, laying bare the shameless manipulation at its center. The SNL bit was actually cut for time — to be honest, it runs out of gas long before the end — but having Davidson switch in for Lincoln made perfect comedic sense. Mark is positioned as a tormented, dashing man doomed to have his affections be unrequited — Pete is just some Staten Island dude who likes Amy’s juggs.
The other SNL sketch, which was a lot better, aired in late 2016, right before the U.S. electors would officially select Donald Trump as America’s next president. Losing candidate Hillary Clinton (Kate McKinnon) goes to visit one of the electors, Sheila (Cecily Strong), to make a last-minute plea that she not follow her legal obligation and vote instead for her.
Beyond nicely parodying Love Actually — Strong’s hair and outfit are exactly like Knightley’s — the sketch (called “Hillary Actually”) taps into what’s supposed to be the noble futility of Mark’s gesture. He’s not supposed to land Juliet — she’s married to his best friend, and he knows he has no chance — but, like all hopeless romantics, he would never forgive himself if he didn’t tell her how he felt. The near-certainty that his gambit will fail is what’s meant to forgive him betraying Peter — while hinting at the sensitive soulfulness beneath Mark’s guarded exterior. This bittersweet dynamic is what’s at play in “Hillary Actually,” which makes the sketch both amusing and poignant. So desperate for the presidency, Clinton seems like the kind of person who would go to each elector’s door, begging them to reconsider. (That she wastes cue cards laying out all her accomplishments is sadly and hilariously believable.) Sheila, like Juliet, is touched by the sincerity of the gesture, but they both know nothing will change. Fate has already dealt its hand. I didn’t want Juliet to end up with Mark, but I sure as hell wished Sheila could have been swayed by Hillary.
YouTube is full of homemade parodies, some more polished than others, with most of them interrogating Mark’s strategy. The easiest point out how unrealistic the Love Actually scene would be if it played out in normal life — or just how poorly judged Mark’s decision is. But the best mock the kind of one-sided, ill-advised infatuations that, in the movies, are viewed as heartbreaking and beautiful — but, in reality, are bordering on deranged. How better to convey that than with OwlKitty’s clever “Love Actually but with a cat”?
One of the reasons I imagine that Love Actually scene resonates with straight guys is that it plays into a widely-held male fantasy while simultaneously speaking to a core insecurity: If she just knew how I felt, then she would realize how deep and poetic I am — but it probably won’t work, because beautiful women always end up with somebody else. It’s self-pitying while simultaneously being self-deluded and self-aggrandizing, which is a potent, seductive combination. I’ve always been struck by the fact that Curtis gave Mark a boombox for his big moment, connecting back to John Cusack’s scene from Say Anything. A bit of music adds to the mood.
Music was actually on Curtis’ mind in another way when he was conceiving that scene. In 2017, he was asked about the cultural ubiquity of Mark’s big moment. “It’s odd when you shot something one night, 14 years ago, to find it still being referred to,” he said. “Particularly when I stole the idea from Bob Dylan in the first place!” — a nod to “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” which provides the opening scene of the 1967 documentary Don’t Look Back, where the singer-songwriter flips through cards with the lyrics written on them. (The clip has been referenced in everything from the INXS video for “Need You Tonight/Mediate” to Bob Roberts.)
But in September, a clue surfaced that suggested Curtis had misgivings about the scene. An annotated Love Actually script was auctioned off for charity, and one of his notes in it reads, “I came up with four things Mark could do as his big gesture. The people in the office chose their favorite and I went for it. I wonder: do we all regret the choice now?” However, this wasn’t the first time that revelation of the scene’s genesis had come to light, albeit in a slightly different version. In 2013, Curtis said, “When I get stuck on a script, in order not to get stuck, I write (the numbers) one through five on a piece of paper and come up with five ideas, so I can allow myself the option of choice. … (I thought of) five romantic ideas for a man and a woman, and I went out to the four girls who were in my office. I told them, ‘There’s this guy, he’s never told you he loved you. Which of these ideas are romantic and which are off-putting?' (I had ideas like) filling the courtyard outside her house with roses, and they went ‘yuck, yuck, yuck, yuck,’ for the first four. Then I had the idea of the Bob Dylan signs. … The scene was selected by group research.”
“Retroactively, I’m aware that Andrew’s role was on the edge,” Curtis admitted in 2017. “But I think because Andrew was so openhearted and guileless, we knew we’d get away with it.”
Not even Lincoln is sure he got away with it. “(Love Actually) is set up like a prism looking at all the different qualities of love. Mine was unrequited,” he said. “So I got to be this weird stalker guy.” Still, that didn’t stop Curtis, when he did a sorta-sequel short film in 2017, which revisited the characters in the present day, from putting together an ad that referenced the now-famous cue-card scene.
The short, called Red Nose Day Actually, was part of that year’s Red Nose Day fundraising event, and fans of the original film were curious to see what happened to Mark. Did he and Juliet end up together? Nope: She’s still happily with Peter. (Mark, as a consolation prize, is now with Kate Moss.) Whether it was in response to the blowback around that scene or just what Curtis envisioned for these characters, it was smart not to have had Juliet run off with Mark: Peter’s a really good guy, and having his wife and best friend shack up would have been hard to swallow.
Recently, Curtis apologized for the fat-shaming jokes in Love Actually, saying, “those jokes aren’t any longer funny, so I don’t feel I was malicious at the time, but I think I was unobservant and not as clever as I should have been.” I don’t think he has to offer a similar mea culpa for the cue-cards scene — it’s hardly offensive, just smarmy and creepy — although blaming it on the women who worked in his office isn’t the best of looks.
Still, Love Actually’s most romantic moment becoming a symbol for what’s so shortsighted and ick about such gestures is its own kind of poetic justice. The parodies probably don’t sting Curtis too badly. (If nothing else, they keep Love Actually alive in the public consciousness, and there’s clearly a ton of folks who love the movie unreservedly.) But they do speak to a growing realization that maybe dudes shouldn’t always go for the big romantic swing, even if they write their declaration as impassionedly as Curtis does for Mark. Just because it works in the movies doesn’t mean it’s gonna work for you, buddy. Maybe it’s better to let your Juliet be happy with the life she’s chosen.