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All About Chemistry
Hollywood’s greatest on-screen couples
Although Matthew Broderick and Sarah Jessica Parker became New York’s fun couple in the wake of the Woody-Mia debacle, they were soon overshadowed by another, more fun New York couple: Matthew Broderick and Nathan Lane. “The Producers” opened on Broadway on April 19, 2001 and became such a hit that an encore was demanded. Now the two are starring in a revival of Neil Simon’s “The Odd Couple,” which is drawing huge crowds but not exactly universal acclaim. Critics have pointed out that each actor is a little too much Felix (Broderick’s role) and too little Oscar (Lane’s) to make the play work. It’s The Not-Odd-Enough Couple.
As we anticipate the first on-screen pairing of Lane and Broderick (we can’t really count “The Lion King,” although I’m sure Hollywood does: $328 million domestic, $783 million worldwide), we thought we’d consider the great on-screen teams. Who are they? Why are they? Are they still? Hope and Crosby. Tracy and Hepburn. Sandler and Barrymore? Is that what we’ve come to? Is that bad? And most important: Do opposites always attract?
The comic: opposites attract
First, let’s define an on-screen team as two more-or-less equal actors who come together for movies in which they don’t always play the same characters. No perennial teams like Laurel and Hardy. That complicates things. We’re talking about actors who have identities outside the team.
If there’s a problem today it’s one of volume. During the studio system if two actors worked well together it was a little easier to round them up for another project. You pointed to the contract and pointed to their mark. Done deal. Now each actor has to like that version of the script, and their pay, and their billing, and the director, and the color of the M&Ms in their trailer. After “Pulp Fiction,” a more totalitarian system would’ve demanded more movies starring John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson; instead, nine years later, we got one, “Basic,” in which Travolta and Jackson don’t even share screen time until the end. That’s like a Simon & Garfunkel concert in Central Park featuring Simon at Bethesda Fountain and Garfunkel at the Boathouse. You keep thinking, “Shouldn’t they be singing together?”
Hope and Crosby did sing together — literally — for seven road pictures. Bing was the cool romantic, Hope the excitable charlatan. It worked so well that Martin and Lewis copied this formula (cool romantic, excitable dope) for over a dozen pictures in the early 1950s. But the studio system was crumbling, fewer pictures were being made, and though Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau clicked in “The Odd Couple,” they didn’t star in another movie for seven years (“The Front Page”), and then took another seven for the follow-up (“Buddy, Buddy”). In the last decade of their life they made “Grumpy Old Men” and several other pictures before expiring within a year of each other.
The teaming of Gene Wilder and Richard Pryor slightly reworked the Hope-Crosby formula (excitable romantic with cool charlatan) for two great pictures in the late 1970s and two embarrassing pictures in the late 1980s. Some of the classic “Saturday Night Live” teams avoided the dreary later period of comic teams by having one member simply die. John Belushi left Dan Aykroyd bereft, while Chris Farley’s early departure shuttled David Spade back to TV, or into movies in which his droll commentary missed Farley’s good-hearted, overbearing stupidity. Meanwhile, in Hong Kong, great comic martial arts movies were being made with Jackie Chan (the excitable romantic lead), Sammo Hung (the charlatan) and Yuen Biao (the dweeb). But “Dragons Forever” was the ironic title of their last, and that was in 1988.
Today, members of the Frat Pack (Owen and Luke Wilson, Will Ferrell, Ben Stiller, Vince Vaughn and Jack Black) are upholding the comic mantle, and keep switching partners like it’s a wild night on Fire Island. These films usually work as long as they hold to the “opposites attract” theory. Stiller (intense) goes with Owen Wilson (laid-back) but not Jack Black (intense). Remember the theory and you get “Wedding Crashers”; forget it and you get “Envy.”
The dramatic: OK, sometimes similarity works, too
The genre where on-screen chemistry doesn’t require opposites is drama. Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, despite obvious differences (and viva those), sizzled in “To Have and Have Not,” in part, because her character, Slim, was as cool as Bogart, which is saying a lot. She plays a pickpocket who uses her sexual allure to separate men from their money. At one point she lands in his lap and kisses him, where we get this exchange before the more-famous exchange about whistling:
Bogart (smiling): What'd you do that for?
Bacall: Been wondering whether I'd like it.
Bogart: What's the decision?
Bacall: I don't know yet.
(She kisses him again; he kisses back.)
Bacall: It's even better when you help.
This may be the coolest woman ever to appear in movies, but she lost some of that cool in subsequent pictures. In “The Big Sleep” she’s both femme fatale and victim; racy double-entendres about horses and saddles were added to capitalize on the Bogart-Bacall mystique, but the film is better without them. (Check out the pre-release version, which is available on DVD.) In “Key Largo” she’s still got the low voice and sidelong glance, but she’s sweet and pony-tailed: the girl-next-door in the Florida keys. Slim, we hardly knew ye.
Then there’s Redford and Newman. Supposedly in 1968 every big actor in Hollywood — including Marlon Brando, Jack Lemmon and Steve McQueen — read for either Butch or Sundance. Would it have worked as well? Newman and Brando: Is Brando too solitary for a great on-screen team? Is Jack Lemmon too hyper for the drowsy cool of the film? Is McQueen not playful enough? Newman and Redford were just the right combination of drowsy cool and playfulness to pull it off, and audiences have been hoping they’d pull off a third one since “The Sting” in 1973, but I’m not joining that chorus, not now. I don’t want to see Redford and Newman in some version of “Grumpier Old Men,” or the light cowboy-comedies that James Stewart and Henry Fonda made at the end of their careers. Besides, the biggest difference between the Newman/Redford characters is this: Redford was “the Kid” who often had to be shown the ropes. No one’s shown the ropes to Robert Redford for more than 30 years now.
The romantic: Yes, Virginia, opposites attract
Ah, romance. The screwball comedies of the 1930s were like some crazy square dance where dapper but often pliable men (Jimmy Stewart, Henry Fonda, Gary Cooper, Fred MacMurray) were constantly changing partners with smart but often illogical women (Jean Arthur, Barbara Stanwyck, Katherine Hepburn and Carole Lombard), and in the process making screen magic. Usually the women ruined the men’s lives before saving them (“Bringing Up Baby”; “The Lady Eve”), but always, always, the men and women had opposite personas. William Powell played sardonic and not-particularly-interested detective to Myrna Loy’s free-thinking and interested society wife in the “Thin Man” series. In musicals, Fred Astaire played amused, lovestruck charlatan to Ginger Rogers serious, high-class dame. In adventure, Errol Flynn was the sexy swashbuckler wooing Olivia de Haviland’s chasteness.
Katherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy re-wrote the rules with “Woman of the Year,” adding an undertone of seriousness to the snappy patter. It’s beyond flirty. Like true lovers, they bring out the kid in each other. She’s girlish around him, he’s a schoolboy around her. They expose their vulnerabilities to each other — it’s actually quite touching — and they did it for eight more pictures: he the gruff, working-class teddy bear to her fast-paced Boston Brahmin.
Before Diane Keaton, Woody Allen worked well with Louise Lasser, and after Diane Keaton he worked well with Mia Farrow, but it was with Diane Keaton that he made his best romances. Farrow wound up being too much like Allen in speech and mannerisms, but Keaton was always her goofy self. The basic match was morose, love-struck Jew with flighty shiksa, but a truer distinction is that, during the course of the film, she changes and he doesn’t. In most of their movies she’s sweet, too, which is why “Manhattan” was such a shock, and a reminder of what a fine actress Keaton is.
Nora Ephron and Rob Reiner reworked the morose Jew with flighty shiksa angle for “When Harry Met Sally...” (which will always be “Annie Hall” Lite to me); but though Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan had obvious chemistry, they never made another movie together. Ryan did make three movies with Tom Hanks, but, oddly, except for “Joe vs. the Volcano,” they don’t have many scenes together, and thus it’s hard to gauge their chemistry. The last of these, “You’ve Got Mail,” is more love letter to 1990s corporate America and already an embarrassment.
The 1990s also gave us two Julia Roberts-Richard Gere match-ups, but I’d rather watch the two Adam Sandler-Drew Barrymore romances, where the romance at least feels real (and doesn’t involve payment) and where the personas are more archetypical: he’s a klutz in love, she’s sweet and might be persuaded. What more is there?
Clooney and Pitt
So are some actors not suited for on-screen teams? Maybe. Tom Cruise always feels guarded and solitary — although Rob Reiner helped thaw him a bit for “A Few Good Men.” Other actors have a playful inclusiveness that just works. George Clooney has it (Jennifer Lopez, Catherine Zeta-Jones), Brad Pitt has it (Morgan Freeman, Angelina Jolie), and they have it with each other (their few scenes together in the ensemble “Oceans” movies). So why not a Clooney-Pitt match-up? Don’t they deserve a movie of their own? Or more accurately: Don’t we?
—Erik Lundegaard would never join a club that would have someone like him for a member. This piece was originally published 12/16/2005 on MSNBC.com.