Despite being derided as “chick flicks,” romantic comedies are overwhelming made by men. While You Were Sleeping, Pretty Woman, Notting Hill, When Harry Met Sally, Love Actually,: All directed by dudes. But that wouldn’t do for the hotly anticipated adaptation of Helen Fielding’s best-selling novel Bridget Jones’s Diary. The modern revamp of Pride and Prejudice demanded a director who could truly connect to the story’s contemporary Lizzie Bennet. So Fielding openly campaigned to have Sharon Maguire brought on to helm.
With a background in documentary film and commercials, Maguire wasn’t an obvious choice. It was a risk for Universal Pictures to trust their could-be hit to a newbie to narrative storytelling. But this quick-witted doc-maker was uniquely familiar with the world of Bridget Jones. As a long time friend of Fielding’s, Maguire was shoulder-to-shoulder with the author through the various posh parties and drunken girls nights out that birthed Bridget Jones. In fact, Bridget’s brash, cuss-spouting bestie Shazza is based on Maguire.
(Though the director insists on the DVD commentary track, “I don’t really swear that much.”)
Maguire’s dedication to do right by Fielding’s beloved but bumbling heroine led her through some curious challenges. Competition for the role of Bridget was fierce. When Texan Renee Zellweger was chosen to play the British single, some decried it as the greatest casting injustice since English thespian Vivien Leigh was picked to play Southern Belle Scarlett O’Hara in 1939’s Gone With the Wind.
On the DVD commentary of Bridget Jones’s Diary, Maguire praised the warmth and “fantastic confusion” Zellweger brought to Bridget, and shared how she knew Zellweger was perfect for the part. “(Renee) said to me, ‘If you cast me, and we get it wrong, we are both so busted!’” Maguire recounted with with a laugh. “It was a relief to hear her say that, because we would have been!…It was because she said that that made me trust her. Because she knew the responsibility of taking on a very British character as an American. And she really worked hard and took on the responsibility of making it work.”
Maguire stood by her American star, and encouraged Zellweger to take a job at a London publishing company to fine tune her English accent. (Reportedly, no one recognized the American ingenue. But co-workers did find it strange her desk boasted a framed picture of Jim Carrey, Zellwegger’s beau at the time.)
But who could possibly play delicious cad Daniel Cleaver? In a daring move, Maguire pushed hard for Hugh Grant, even though it was against type for the lovable leading man, and meant a bigger budget and higher studio expectations. “I always wanted Hugh to play this role, because I never believed he was that floppy, decent person he plays in films.” She shared in the commentary, “We wanted him to play a sexy bastard…and that is what he is in real life. Believe me.”
While Grant occasionally worried he’d gone too far playing the bastard bit, Daniel Cleaver proved a creep we were crushing on. Not only did it heighten the conflict, sex appeal, and arc of Bridget Jones, but his performance here began a new branch of his career. Grant went on to revel in his new “bad boy” image with films like About A Boy and Two Weeks Notice.
To get the romance of this romantic comedy just right, Maguire overcame a crippling crush on Colin Firth, whose previous Pride and Prejudice adaptation inspired this modern take on Mr. Darcy. And her on-point direction gave us that scene. You know, the one that should come with a warning label and a fainting couch.
But nearly just as crucial as the casting, were the clothes. In the commentary track, Maguire speaks repeatedly about the care put into Bridget’s wardrobe. How her flirty looks and ill-fitting attire reflected the contradictions in her character, as well as accentuate the weight issues that vexed Bridget consistently. And it was Maguire’s personal experience with women’s clothes that saved a “signature scene” from the chopping block.
In the commentary track, Maguire divulged details about the “enormous” granny panties sequence, saying, “I remember some of the boys on the film—the producers—didn’t quite understand the humor of pants. They didn’t quite understand what issues we girls have to face everyday. I remember one meeting where we were discussing the script and they didn’t get the pants. It was a meeting at my home, and I had to go into my pants drawer—sorry panties drawer—and produce a pair of tiny pants, and also a pair of large granny panties…only then did the boys understand.”
Recorded before the success of the film was established, the commentary track also has Maguire speaking about how she hopes the comedy will keep the film light and lovable. It’s strange to listen to a woman wonder aloud if her efforts will make a difference, when you know how grandly they did.
Bridget Jones’s Diary was a smashing success at the box office and with critics. The film revitalized the rom-com genre, cemented Zellweger as a star, and launched Firth in America. It’s also spawned a pair of sequels, Bridget Jones: Edge of Reason, and the upcoming Bridget Jones’s Baby, which Maguire helmed. But this gutsy filmmaker had bigger ambitions. Ahead of the film’s world premiere, she confessed to the Telegraph,
“Bridget Jones is meant to be a funny night out, but with emotional truth. I wanted to make it a classic that you can pick up in 10 years and not cringe over.”
And so it is.
Bridget Jones has become a contemporary comedy classic, a go-to for girls nights, and an inspiration for generations of women who feel like a “wanton sex goddess” one moment, and a utter disaster the next. We—like Mark Darcy—like Bridget very much, just as she is. (And her mother is pretty interesting.)
Kristy Puchko could watch this movie on a loop for years.