10 years ago, a sweet little indie comedy about culture clash and the stresses of planning a wedding took the nation by storm. Made with love and a shoe-string budget of $5 million, it made over $368 million worldwide and became the highest-grossing independent film of all time. What made audiences connect so strongly with My Big Fat Greek Wedding, and has Hollywood learned anything from the success of this semi-autobiographical romantic comedy?
Toula Portokalos' (Nia Vardalos) life is going nowhere. She works in her family's Greek restaurant and endures daily attempts by her well-meaning family to marry her off to a nice Greek boy. Secretly, she pours over college pamphlets and dreams of getting her degree, and when life gives her the chance, she grabs it full-force. As she gains confidence and independence from her family, she loses her Coke-bottle granny glasses and over-sized sweaters, and she meets Ian Miller (John Corbett), a handsome teacher without a drop of Greek blood in his veins. When Ian proposes, Toula is faced with the challenge of getting her family to accept Ian while still maintaining pride in her Greek heritage.
My Big Fat Greek Wedding is adapted from Nia Vardalos' one-woman show which she developed when her agent claimed that Vardalos' Greek ethnicity made her too difficult to cast. The Los Angeles stage show was a surprise hit, and after Rita Wilson saw the play, she convinced husband Tom Hanks to help produce and develop a film based on the show. It is important to note that this movie was born out of necessity for Vardalos, that Hollywood was not creating anything that would fit her as an actress, but instead of sitting around and complaining, she created a show for herself.
Story-wise, My Big Fat Greek Wedding is a very traditional romantic comedy. Toula and Ian fall in love, Toula's father doesn't approve of Ian, he eventually accepts Ian, and everyone dances in a giant circle and eats a lot of Greek food. There are references to Greek culture and shared experiences of Greek families, but it manages to stay universal in its themes of family acceptance and overblown weddings so that non-Greeks can relate. Audiences are familiar with the formula, but the Greek angle offers something unique while still keeping the overall film mainstream and safe. Besides that, Vardalos' passion for the project comes through. These characters are based on her family, and she has said on numerous occasions that the most outlandish parts of the film are true to life, proving again that truth and family are stranger than fiction.
What really interests me about the 10th anniversary of My Big Fat Greek Wedding, though, is whether the culture of Hollywood has changed much in 10 years. Are there more leading roles for actresses like Nia Vardalos? Unfortunately, I would argue that there hasn't been much progress. When it comes to ethnic diversity, Hollywood prefers cultures that they can put into neat little boxes. They have created boxes for Italians, Jews, African-Americans, and Mexicans, and occasionally they'll have a box for a vaguely European type. When Nia Vardalos was going out on auditions, they didn't have a Greek box. They couldn't sum up her culture with broad stereotypes which meant they might actually cast her in a role not defined by her ethnicity. I can't believe that this is a revolutionary concept in 2012, but there you go.
Maybe with the 10th anniversary release of My Big Fat Greek Wedding, another aspiring actor or actress will decide to break out of the Hollywood boxes and prove once again that universal stories can be told with ethnically diverse casts.
Special features on the Blu-ray include a look back at the making of the film with Nia Vardalos and John Corbett, deleted scenes, digital copy of the film, and audio commentary with director Joel Zwick, Nia Vardalos, and John Corbett.
"My Big Fat Greek Wedding" is on sale November 13, 2012 and is rated PG. Comedy, Romance. Directed by Joel Zwick. Written by Nia Vardalos. Starring John Corbett, Lainie Kazan, Michael Constantine, Nia Vardalos.