A heartbroken woman uses the actor’s movies to get through a painful breakup. 3,015 words. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
I wasn’t expecting any of this, but they say when the student is ready the teacher will appear.
If you had told me back in January that Ewan McGregor would pull me up out of the pit of despair, I would not have believed you. I didn’t know that one day he would come to me all sexy and whisper in my ear, “Choose life.”
I should start by saying that last year was a difficult year for me.
The break-up took me so by surprise that it was like a movie with a twist ending. You have to go back and watch it again. My boyfriend turned out to be Keyser Soze and now I had to re-read every text and replay every date looking for the clues I missed. I pieced the timeline back together, now with the new plotline: his face and hers together in a picture she had posted back when he and I were together. I knew everything in that instant. His confession came much later.
There is this thing your brain does in grief, replaying the story, as if reliving it could change it. I searched for the moment when things went wrong, desperate to fix it, or at least understand it. Was it a word I said? Or maybe it was my childhood? Or maybe his?
My brain sputtered. My mind was caught in an infinite loop. All I wanted was my boyfriend back. The heart wants what it wants. There was no explaining to mine to let go, and there was no explaining to his to hang on. Thinking about it became exhausting. I had to find something else to occupy my restless mind. I knew that much.
Back in March Ewan McGregor was doing press for Beauty And The Beast when the pictures in my newsfeed caught my attention. Because on that day, in that outfit, with his shaved head and Homburg hat and scarf, he somehow resembled my ex. I don’t think I’d seen the actor since Moulin Rouge with that impossibly bright smile and twinkle in his eye. I had the impression he was a bit of a showman, a song and dance man, with a top hat and cane. I’d underestimated everything about him. But back then I wasn’t ready.
As it happens I live near one of the last video rental stores in America. It’s the kind of place where, no matter what film you’re looking for, you have to ask the staff where it is otherwise you’ll never find it. I was on the hunt for the sexiest Ewan McGregor movie I could find. The clerk suggested Perfect Sense.
There was Ewan in bed, whispering softly into the ear of a woman who had fallen asleep. She rolls over into the crook of his arm, the way lovers do. He asks her to head home. She is not happy to be seduced and then kicked out of bed. For a brief moment, I am there telling him, “I’ll leave. I will. I promise. In a minute… But can’t we just go one more time first?”
His character is the epitome of all the men I’ve ever loved. Soon he meets Susan (Eva Green). She’s been hurt before and is not ready for another Casanova. Then the world descends into a pandemic and these two reluctant lovers are drawn closer together. I wonder: do guys really change or is that just a movie thing? No matter, the world is ending, and for a brief moment I am Eva Green and the sexiest man alive is falling in love with me.
There must be more where this came from.
I found Young Adam. In it Ewan plays Joe, a man who sleeps with every woman he meets. There is a matter-of-factness to it on his part: if the woman wants sex, he gives it to her. Some of the women understand this, others imagine a developing relationship. I’d be the one hoping that sex would turn into love, but it never does.
Joe meets Cathy (Emily Mortimer). We know he’s bad for her from the moment he lays eyes on her. It’s all too easy for him.
He walks over. They share a cigarette and small talk. He says with a knowing smile: “Would you like to go for a walk with me Cathy?”
And I say: “Yes. Yes, I would. “
I’m the worst. I know this. I’m the girl who, when they flash a mugshot on the evening news, instinctively thinks, "He’s cute."
I shouldn’t be going off with Joe. I also wonder if this film is available on Blu-ray. I was hooked. I searched for more.
I started crawling through Ewan McGregor movies like the blogger Julie Powell cooking her way through Julia Child’s cookbook. A few nights a week, week after week, for months. Ewan has 54 feature film credits, not including his voice-over work and documentaries. Who knew there were this many? Who knew they were this good?
I decided to watch them all.
In Beginners, Ewan plays Oliver, a man tangled up inside regarding relationships. Instead of a womanizer this time, he’s become an introvert, afraid to repeat the mistakes of his parents’ unhappy marriage. He’s the guy who, once he gets too close, will get scared and bail. Just my type. I think they call that avoidantly attached. Good at falling in love, terrible at being in love.
He meets Anna (Mélanie Laurent), an actress with similar abandoning tendencies. She’s the one who never stays in one place long enough; he’s the one who stays put but leaves emotionally. There are many ways to leave a relationship.
The entire film is a meditation on how childhood wounds reverberate into adult relationships. Maybe only people with lovely childhoods are destined to have happy relationships, and the rest of us just live cursed, trying desperately to shatter an unbreakable pattern. Sisyphus rolling that boulder up a hill, fated for the inevitable crash when it tumbles back down upon us, the way all my relationships do.
In the kitschy 1960s sex-comedy parody, Down With Love, the feminist heroine (Renee Zellweger) decides that love is the problem, not sex. She writes a bestseller encouraging women to stop falling in love with men. Ewan plays Catcher Block, a ladies’ man out to expose her as a fraud by making her fall in love with him. He is the ultimate seducer who finds himself seduced. God, I loved this movie.
No, Catcher Block, I will not fall in love with you. Eat yer heart out, mister.
This is what I need: sex not love. Curt Wild is just the man for the job – the smoldering rock star from Velvet Goldmine. Of all my Ewan boyfriends, he’s probably my favorite. There were others, too. In Incendiary, Ewan is wealthy playboy Japer Black, slumming it with a married Michelle Williams. Their sex scenes were so hot I’d pay good money just to see what ended up on the cutting room floor. Then he falls in love with her, the way guys do in movies.
These men never say, “I hope you find someone who can give you what you want. You’re a good person,” as they exit. Some stories only happen in real life. When my last boyfriend told me this, I told him he had to come up with a new line: the prior boyfriend had already used this one. And the boyfriend before that, too.
For me, the faces keep changing, but the pattern remains the same. Ewan’s movies were the inverse – the same face, exploring all the patterns.
In movies, the Casanova is won over by love. For her, he changes. I have never seen it happen in life. Maybe this whole main-character-changing thing is just a cinematic convention. My teacher Nina Foch once told me: “Movies are not life. They are better than life.” Or maybe I’m the one who is supposed to change.
Not every film was a love story. In Son Of A Gun, he’s a criminal who believes "a skirt" will only trip you up. He has no use for them. And, of course, there is the celibate Jedi Master Obi-Wan Kenobi. Can I just say that those three Star Wars prequels could have been one movie. One elegant Darth Vader origin story, which should have been titled Smart Woman, Foolish Choices. Because when your boyfriend grows up to be Darth Vader, you really need to rethink your life.
An old boyfriend texted; he heard I was single. No doubt hoping for another round of wham-bam-thank-you-ma’am followed by the inevitable backpedaling. I know the dance. I’ve got the steps down by heart. But I told him, “I can’t. I’m dating Ewan McGregor now.”
Ewan was the best rebound relationship I ever had. There was no chance he’d break my heart, no frantic visits to the gynecologist’s office, and none of the anxiety when he doesn’t call.
Anyway, if I was going to do something stupid, I should just do it with the guy I really missed. Soon I found myself telling a friend, “You’re going to be proud of me.”
She said, “Oh?”
I said, “Yes, but not today…”
I had texted my ex.
Three months of radio silence, and then one stupid text. He was at my house within 30 minutes, which took me by surprise. There was this sudden déjà vu of old lovers who had come back to me offering second-class girlfriend status. Why do they show up at my door?
My roommate was home so we sat in his car. He told me he had a new girlfriend now. A serious one. In fact she was at his house, at this very moment, so he had to get back. Wait. What? Where did she think he was?
I felt myself being sucked back into the vortex of his gorgeous blue eyes and the sense memory of having him next to me that I had missed so much. He told me he was ready to be monogamous, with the new girlfriend. Why was he here? A flood of feelings… jealousy, desire, insecurity, frustration… and longing. I had to open the car door or I might drown.
I had to go. I needed to get back to Ewan. A man with bluer eyes, and a kinder heart. The better choice. I ran to the safety of his impossibly bright smile — like a lighthouse through the fog, showing me where the rocks were so I wouldn’t sink. Showing me in a thousand ways what love is and what love isn’t. I didn’t text my ex again.
I dove into Big Fish in which Ewan plays a man who falls madly in love with a woman he has seen only once. He spends years trying to find her and when he does he announces that he is going to marry her. No backpedaling for Edward Bloom. No other girlfriends waiting for him at home. Bloom called every place in five states to get her favorite flower, so you know when they end up together they’ll be happy.
Can’t that be me just once, standing in a field of daffodils?
There is an innocence to the true love in movies. Our hero loves the girl he is trying to win over. He’s not trying to decide which of the women he’s sleeping with to get serious about.
In Scenes Of A Sexual Nature, Ewan plays Billy, a gay man in an open relationship with Brian (Douglas Hodge). They spend a leisurely afternoon in the park in what appears to be the gay section of London’s Hampstead Heath. A very flirtatious Billy is simultaneously cruising for sex and having a heart to heart with his partner about wanting kids. Billy’s less attractive mate seems to tolerate the open relationship more than enjoy it. He doesn’t want kids; what he really wants is monogamy. Billy offers to give up other men in exchange for parenthood. A promise he could never keep. He dangles monogamy in front of his lover like it’s a carrot on a stick and his boyfriend is the donkey. His adoring partner is expected to put up with anything for the prize of having a hot boyfriend. I wanted to tell Brian that “Hot Ewan” isn’t worth it.
In Nora, Ewan plays the famous author James Joyce. The film is an account of their sexually charged dysfunctional relationship. He wants her to be with another man for his own sexual thrill, but is simultaneously insanely jealous. The entire relationship rests on the ups and downs of his mental state. Her life is lived at his whim. All she can do is play defense.
Why does she put up with it? It is no life to be with a man like that.
In film after film, Ewan showed me all of my bad choices. He played all the guys I shouldn’t go for, and his movies showed all of the women (and men) who, like me, loved them. Some were smart, most impossibly gorgeous, a few seemingly selected for their proximity and convenience. Beauty didn’t buy these women better relationships, just better-looking mistakes. Only a select few got to be happy, and then it was only for a minute. I guess otherwise it’s not a movie. Two hours of smooth sailing does not sell tickets.
Of all these women, there was one I admired most: Beatrix Potter, the real life creator of the Peter Rabbit books. In the film Miss Potter, Ewan plays the awkward Norman Wayne, an aspiring publisher and the youngest brother in the family business, pawned off on the Peter Rabbit book project as a way of keeping him busy. Beatrix (Renee Zellweger) is a woman with a vivid imagination that few understand. Also, a woman of ambition before women with ambition was a thing. She is not at all on the hunt for a husband, but is instead content to be with her imaginary friends. After all, what man would understand her? What would she have to give up to have a married life?
Norman gets to know her through her work, her passion, and her vision, to bring her full color children’s books to life. He doesn’t just want to get her books published, he wants them published the way she wants them. Maybe this is how love should be: the guy who gets you and is as inspired by your dreams as you are by his. The guy who goes to battle for you, instead of the guy who battles you.
Beatrix Potter made her life meaningful with or without a man. That Norman loved her was just gravy. She didn’t need him to be a complete person. Yet his help was instrumental in launching her illustrious career. They made a great team.
I was reminded of the Greek myth of Medusa, a mortal woman cursed by Athena and turned so ugly that when people looked at her they would literally be petrified. No one could defeat her. They all turned to stone trying. Perseus ultimately slayed Medusa by using his shield as a mirror. Maybe seeing our own problems is like that. If we look at them straight on, we get stuck, but seeing them reflected in others makes it possible to defeat them. Ewan had somehow become the shield of Perseus, and in that reflection he was showing me the depths of my soul.
As the summer wound down I finally came to the last film, Nightwatch. I had been dreading this day, like the last day of camp when you have to say goodbye to the cute boy who made your summer. In this one Ewan is in a happy relationship with Patricia Arquette, but he fools around with a prostitute on a dare. It would have ended their relationship if it hadn’t been for all the other external battles that came up against them, pulling them back together. He grows up in the process, unlikely to make the same mistakes again. Maybe it is OK to make mistakes, as long as we learn from them.
I returned the DVD, by now friends with the clerks who work the register on weeknights. They wanted to know who I will do next, and rattled off suggestions at lightning speed. But I rented Long Way Round, a documentary about Ewan taking a road trip with his friend Charlie. One last one for the road.
With that, my summer romance with Ewan had wound to its inevitable conclusion. The credits rolled and I was finally ready to let go of both men, Ewan and my ex. Ewan had shown me what I needed to see. And it was myself.
This started as an escape, and deep down I figured Ewan would be like all men, that our course would chart the same path. But Ewan turned out to be just the opposite. I feel like he picked me up, dusted me off, and got me ready to love again.
I am hoping to meet Ewan at a one-night-only performance he is giving very soon. Meeting the cast comes with the pricey ticket. But they say you shouldn’t meet your heroes, and maybe they are right. After all, he doesn’t even know my name. For him the evening will likely be a blur of handshakes and photographs. A mob of fans, one face indistinguishable from the next.
I’d love to tell him all that he did for me. I’d like to think he’d understand. But there is too much to say and there are too few words to say it in. Maybe I will just whisper softly, “Thank you.” From the bottom of my heart.