Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Chemistry 101

What is meant when people talk about actors having chemistry? I'll start off by telling you what I DON'T mean by chemistry. The phrase has become a kind of lazy shorthand to describe either acting quality or likability of an actor. If two actors are not managing to convey that they are in love when they are supposed to be, it is not because of a "lack of chemistry" but generally a lack of acting. Take for example The Proposal. Sandra Bullock and Ryan Reynolds utterly failed to convince me that they were in love by the end of the movie. Part of the problem was a script which substituted movie cliche's for any kind of original take on romance. Even with a cliched script, I've seen plenty of romantic movies that still managed to convince me of the underlying conceit that the two main characters are in love. About half the story lines in Love Actually would serve as an example. We believe the couple is in love because the actors have conveyed that to us in some way either through body language, their ease and rapport with one another or through good timing in the pacing of their dialog. The way people use words in a romantic movie should be like the way Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers use bodily movement in their films.

How do you convey love? Well, I think it starts by portraying physical attraction. In many cases it is enough to portray lust. And this is where it gets tricky and the viewer's own feelings get tangled up in their assessment. Many female viewers have a hard time buying Scarlett's preference for Ashley Wilkes over Rhett Butler in Gone with the Wind. Maybe it's just that we're not Victorian Ladies, but modern women, trained by year of viewing movies in which the "bad boy" is redeemed to be the ultimate catch. It doesn't help that Clark Gable was the prototype bad boy. This is a tricky one for me as well, and I have had to put aside my personal indifference to the charms of Leslie Howard on numerous occasions. When it comes to same sex assessment (and I do apologize for the hetro normative bias here, people) I think we have a tendency to like those actors whom we can imagine portray some facet of ourselves or whom we would like to be. I can't exactly relate to Ingrid Bergman because well, she is a Goddess, but I can relate to the insecurity that she frequently hides beneath a barrier of coolness or deflective humor. Cause, like I totally do that too! I love Bette Davis because she conveys qualities such as strength, courage and self-sufficiency that I wish I had in greater quantities.

So when I see an actress whom I like (Ingrid Bergman) paired with an actor whom I don't find particularly attractive (Humphrey Bogart) what is the result? Well if they are good actors, the result is Casablanca. It should still be a fantastic movie if all the other pieces are in place. Bogart and Lauren Becall had great chemistry together on screen. They should. They were sleeping together in real life. But Bogart has equally convincing chemistry with Ingrid Bergman. You really believe that they were lovers once and that they have been greatly effected by their brief affair and that the whole thing is about to come to an explosive conclusion at Rick's Cafe American. And yet, I find Paul Henreid more attractive and think that Ingrid's fate of returning to him would be a no-brainer for me. It doesn't matter what I think though, because good acting can overcome taste.

Sometimes though, good acting is not enough and neither is personal attraction. Take the example of Laurence Olivier and Vivian Leigh in Fire Over England. This is a screen couple who should have incendiary chemistry on screen. They were married in real life. Olivier is beautiful and Vivian Leigh is an actress I've always admired for her ability to maintain her dignity in undignified situations. And yet, Olivier and Leigh are completely blah together on screen. Olivier does better in scenes with May Robson and Tamara Desni. What the...? I think it is because Leigh and Olivier are both such big actors that they weren't giving the other person enough space on screen. And that is really the only logical explanation because in That Hamilton Woman, a later performance, they are terrific.

This brings up an important thing that I've observed over the years, that chemistry, whatever it is, is not necessarily created instantly, but is often the product of years of working together. Cary Grant and Irene Dunne are wonderful together in The Awful Truth. And yet, by their third film together, their comic timing and their ease with one another was so great that in comparison they seem a bit awkward in the earlier performance. They hide it well with lots of hostility, which is in the language of screwball comedy, a byword for love and attraction. But their love scenes together are flat in comparison to Penny Serenade, or My Favorite Wife, both of which are far more effective at convincing the audience that this is a married couple. Though these later films are vastly inferior to The Awful Truth in many respects I still enjoy watching them because of the chemistry between Dunne and Grant.

Sometimes dislike photographs as "like" and accounts for chemistry. In Wuthering Heights Olivier and his co-star Merle Oberon famously hated one another. They fought on set and Oberon told people that Olivier was repulsive with bad breath and a habit of spitting when he spoke. This fed perfectly into the underlying theme of movie which is the blurring of the lines between love and hate. After the Production Code came into force in 1934, sex became sublimated as hostility. It is to the point now that when we see a couple who argues or dislikes each other in the first five minutes of the movie, we are perfectly correct in guessing that they will wind up together. Now this is an old trope, that goes back to Much Ado About Nothing (and probably further-- if I were any student of the Classics at all, I could think of a decent pre-Shakespeare example), but it has come to so dominate the genre of Romantic Comedy that there is almost no other pattern of putting people together in contemporary American Movies. And you know what? I'm totally fine with that. I loved Bridget Jones Diary and I'm looking forward to seeing that new movie with Meryl Streep and Alec Baldwin. Opposites still attract, and chemistry, whatever it is, is still king.

5 comments:

Sarah said...

Wonderful post! Reading this and thinking back to posts I have done about onscreen magic between couples has me wondering what made me pick those people- the number of films they did together or how they interacted with one another? My two expamples are Myrna Loy & William Powell and John Wayne & Maureen O'Hara. I'll have to re-examine this.
And I always thought it was strange what Scarlet saw in Ashley-even before I knew about sex appeal and the draw of the bad boy.

Kate Gabrielle said...

Fantastic post!! I never even thought of this before, especially the Casablanca reference. If I was Ingrid Bergman (I wish..) I'd totally choose Paul Henreid, but when I watch that movie I always root for Bogie. So true!!!

Jennythenipper said...

Sarah: Oh, those are some of my favorites as well. John Wayne and Maureen O'Hara didn't have the benefit of as many films together of course, but there was just something about them. I made a list on Youtube of my ten favorite screen kisses and two of them were from The Quiet Man! BTW, Sarah, watch my blog later this week, you will find something terribly familiar in one of the posts!

Kate: I'm glad to see I'm not the only one who prefers Paul Henreid, "on paper" as it were.

Sally said...

Great post! Wonderful analysis of chemistry. I'll have to watch my use of the word - I may be one of those who uses it too much! I'm afraid I'm a couple of days late in the commenting, but I have to say that I too would pick Paul Henreid over Humphrey Bogart - attraction-wise, but I still always feel slightly melancholy at the end of the film when she actually goes with him. I think one of my favorite on-screen couples is Olivia de Havilland and Errol Flynn. I was just reading about their off-screen attraction, which makes their on-screen relationships so much more sizzling!

lilluv89 said...

Contrary to popular belief, during the filming of "Fire Over England" Vivien and Olivier's affair hadn't really taken off however in "That Hamilton Women" they had just gotten married and where still in their puppy love phase. If you watch their home videos they are super cute together.
I've only seen Leslie Howard in GWTW and from what people tell me he usually did a much better acting job and I'd like to see one of those. As it is I prefer Gable.
As for on screen couples I like Meg Ryan with Tom Hanks and Olivia de Havilland with Errol Flynn.