It’s All About Chemistry: Exploring The Best & Worst Cinematic Relationships

Her Its All About Chemistry: Exploring The Best & Worst Cinematic Relationships

Emma Stone and Andrew Garfield have it. James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender have it. Tina Fey and Amy Poehler have it. Will Ferrell and his Anchorman news team had it. Nicole Kidman’s most recent film was taken out of competition at Cannes partly because of not having it. Joaquin Phoenix had it with a voice and a screen. Sherlock Holmes has relied on it for years. The thing that such a diverse range of situations has in common? It is of course the great building block of human life: Chemistry.

When it comes to movies and people, we’re very familiar with chemistry. Generally used to describe a certain quality of relationship between characters, chemistry is a neat little word that we often use without a second thought. And on the surface, chemistry does look pretty simple – like, for example, when a science teacher puts a Mento in a coke bottle on the first day in class and everyone laughs and wonders how hard this could be. After all, chemistry is just about interactions and human beings exist mainly to interact with each other; when we’re not interacting with each other we’re either asleep or watching other people interact with each other. You would have thought that we’d be quite good at it. As it turns out – just as it did a few weeks later in that science class when it gradually began to dawn on everyone that that first day might have been a bit of a con – it isn’t actually always this straightforward. Because as important as we know chemistry is, how on earth do we actually define the stuff?

Somewhat weirdly for something that implies a formula, there are actually no real instructions for how to create great character chemistry. It might seem as though there are some basic laws of nature that it would make sense to follow, such as the crafting of a good romantic relationship between two good leads, but if we look even just slightly further into the infinite number of relationships in the cinematic world, the word ‘chemistry’ is not limited to romance. Nor is it limited to relationships between people of the opposite sex. Or people who like each other. Or people at all, for that matter.

Yet we recognize chemistry straight away when we see it and we’re lethally quick to point out when it’s not there. Filmmakers in many genres have learned the hard way that they can throw all they like at a film’s overall production, but if they have failed to add this particular element to the mixture (I am genuinely sorry, the chemistry puns will stop soon), they may as well have just shot the whole thing on their smartphones. Then again, there are those incredible moments – like the old faithful Mento in the coke bottle – in which something really does work and that everyone remembers and takes great delight in recalling (or recreating on the patio at parties) for years to come.

So what exactly is this thing called chemistry? What is this weird and wonderful force that is so hard to properly describe but that can make or break whole films? Let’s run a few tests.


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The most obvious place in which to start looking at what chemistry might be is with the standard – ahem – conclusion of the romantic relationship: Sex. Sex is at the heart of the most classic definition of ‘chemistry’; cinematic history is ablaze with couples whose interactions make it clear that whether we see it or not, sex is what is – or what soon will be – happening. Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh in Gone with the Wind, Patrick Swayze and Jennifer Grey in Dirty Dancing, Hugh Grant and Andie MacDowell in Four Weddings and a Funeral, Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan or Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling in pretty much everything else between them – these are just a few of the many pairings who have a particular something between them that makes the audience themselves root for things to go a certain way. For some reason, their relationship means something to us.

But these examples are the easy part. The theory that sex is the Bunsen burner (seriously – I’m sorry) of character chemistry explodes surprisingly easily when we look at the uncomfortable – and often pretty entertaining – fact that there are just as many examples of when sex just doesn’t, as it ‘were, work. Hayden Christensen and Natalie Portman in Star Wars: Episode II - Attack of the Clones are probably most often held up as ‘the-couple-with-the-least-chemistry-in-the-history-of-not-just-film-but-quite-possibly-the-world-ever-including-between-all-family-members-and-members-of-warring-tribes’ and it is sadly true; there is simply not one iota of believable connection between them. One has to assume that we only got Luke and Leia at all because Varykino made its own wine.

Johnny Depp and Angelina Jolie are also infamous for setting the screen on barely a mild glow in The Tourist, with two performances that suggested neither was sure if the other was even a human being, let alone an attractive member of the opposite sex. Christopher Nolan must have thought that Christian Bale and Katie Holmes were exuding so much chemistry in Batman Begins that they were in danger of overshadowing the rest of the film – as he promptly recast Holmes’ role for The Dark Knight. Carrie-Anne Moss and Keanu Reeves had an actual onscreen sex scene in The Matrix Revolutions, which was quickly added to many people’s lists of things in life we dearly wish we could unsee.

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So what is it that makes the difference between the couples who have what it takes and those that don’t?

It would make sense to think that creating good onscreen relationships simply depends on the ability of the actors in question. But whereas acting skill is clearly going to help, there’s a pretty big flaw here that suggests this isn’t the whole theory: yes, the examples above include Keanu Reeves and Katie Holmes, both of whom would probably struggle to create chemistry if they fell through the roof of Walter White’s RV, but they also include Christian Bale and Natalie Portman. Enough said.

We could also assume that chemistry is something to do with the attraction factor of the actors themselves, but this idea doesn’t hold up either. Angelina Jolie and Johnny Depp are two of the most frequently recognized best-looking people on earth, as is Natalie Portman. Both Keira Knightley and the production of Anna Karenina are beautiful, but her onscreen relationship with Aaron Taylor-Johnson’s Count Vronsky was the least substantial aspect of the whole thing – with the possible exception of Taylor Johnson’s moustache. Keira Knightley unfortunately has to have a second mention here, but only by proxy of her Elizabeth Swann’s awkward, forced exchanges with Orlando Bloom’s Legolas the Pirate throughout the The Pirates of the Caribbean franchise. A particularly interesting example is Kate Hudson and Matthew McConaughey, who made the ultimate golden couple in How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days but for some reason just couldn’t recreate this in a second outing together. Fool’s Gold indeed.

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But perhaps the best evidence that looks mean nothing to chemistry comes from couples in which the two weren’t exactly dealt an equal hand in the exteriors department. Kevin James’ likeable affinity with Salma Hayek was probably the only thing that saved their 2012 film Here Comes the Boom from being almost universally re-titled Here Comes the Off Switch. Neither Woody Allen nor Adam Sandler are ever especially likely to be hunted down by Calvin Klein and yet both create something with a particular female co-star – Diane Keaton and Drew Barrymore respectively – to such a degree that they have done it again and again. Play it Again Sam and Annie Hall are just two examples of Allen and Keaton’s legendary partnership. The Wedding Singer and 50 First Dates are even among Drew Barrymore’s best titles (and may as well be Oscar nominations for Sandler). And despite the fact that Sandler and Barrymore’s most recent venture has been almost universally recognized as something that should never for the sake of all things holy have happened, it is the couple’s lasting easy charm that that justifies Blended.

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Whether or not actors have chemistry on-screen might also be thought to be a natural result of the sort of relationships that they have behind the scenes. Given the barely suppressed passion between Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor’s characters in Cleopatra, the idea that they really were having an affair was more popular than the film itself (and more accurate, as it turns out). The Amazing Spider-Man’s Emma Stone and Andrew Garfield have been dating since 2011 and the relationship that developed between Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie during the filming of Mr. and Mrs. Smith was enough to put an end to what had been until then Mr. and Mrs. Pitt. Ryan Gosling claimed that his relationship with his The Notebook co-star Rachel McAdams was actually even more intense off-screen than it was on. God only knows what they were doing.

But then we have examples like Gigli. This is the film that gave rise to the infamous ‘Bennifer’ pairing of Ben Afleck and Jennifer Lopez (and incidentally to the ridiculous merging of celebrity names). This is also the film that was – among everything else about it that was criticized (plot, script, continuity, script, directing, script) – most soundly slammed for the complete and utter lack of any plausible connection between its two stars. Maybe it was because they were calling themselves Bennifer. In any case – ouch. (Nicole Kidman and Tom Cruise also failed during the filming of Eyes Wide Shut to convey the fact that they were married in real life, but given that Stanley Kubrick apparently used their marriage as a model for the troubles of the fictional characters, and that they divorced two years later, we’ll let them off this one).

Lastly, chemistry doesn’t even seem to depend on there being any physical contact at all. Not to get too basic about this, but the pornography industry isn’t exactly known for the chemistry between its actors. But it is actually this point that might turn out to be the most revealing. Having looked at the more obvious characteristics of chemistry – sex, attractiveness, skill – none of them have so far been very reliable. The only thing that is consistent is that we still can’t see what it is. So maybe this is the first part of the answer itself.  Maybe we’ve been looking in the wrong place, and what is most important for chemistry is actually not the recognizable, familiar stuff at all but something that is not immediately obvious, that exists in the things that don’t happen, or the things that aren’t being said.

This theory is actually remarkably easy to test, mainly because it is often used as a specific story device; there are just as many movies where the success of the relationship depends on it being limited in some way and they are just as well known. It is what has given poignancy to the classic story of love in the wrong place and time all the way from Brief Encounter to Drive and what leads us every time we watch Romeo and Juliet to hope that by now someone’s found a couple of missing pages from the back of Shakespeare’s jotter and this is the time that it might all work out. An Affair to Remember would probably have been a film to forget if Deborah Kerr had made it to the Empire State Building that day. The brilliant rapport between the titular characters in When Harry Met Sally works precisely because they intentionally spend [most of] the entire time avoiding sleeping together.

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It is also a well-known fact that changing the nature of these sorts of relationships is a highly dangerous game. If ever there was a misfire in the admittedly murky field of bringing TV to the big screen, it was when the second movie adaptation of the 1990′s TV series The X-Files (The X Files; I Want to Believe) was released – but what was interesting about that failure was that I Want to Believe included something that the original series had not and that viewers had been desperately wanting for nearly a decade; an established romantic relationship between Fox Mulder and Dana Scully.

During its enormously successful nine year run on television, The X Files basically owned the book on character chemistry, creating one of the biggest ‘shipper’ fan bases in TV history on the basis that the two people barely went anywhere near each other. Even Scully’s pregnancy in season 8 had not explicitly involved Mulder and Scully actually being together. Unless Chris Carter was in drastic need of a refresher course in the birds and the bees, he had been exactly right to do this. A romance between Mulder and Scully was not enough to save I Want to Believe from being criticized even by the show’s most die-hard of fans; it was the denial of the relationship that had been the show’s driving force.

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The only thing then that seems to be common to all examples of relationships that have good chemistry is that whatever it is, a lot of it happens surreptitiously. It seems to be something like the engine room of a ship; it’s completely below the surface, but the ship is going nowhere without it. Even if that ship looks like the QEII and is a really good actor.

So if this is the case – that there’s some kind of invisible point in which the important stuff starts to happen (it’s taking all my will-power not to put a test-tube reference in here, by the way) – then what can we say about what chemistry might be? What ingredients does it in fact take to make our Mento-in-the-Coke-bottle moments? The answer is….absolutely anything. From here on in, all bets are officially off. If the first section about all the usual rules for chemistry was the easy part, then what comes next is the fun part.

In 2009, Guy Ritchie played what was possibly his riskiest card to date when he unveiled his interpretation of Sherlock Holmes. Hot out of the Iron Man forge, Robert Downey Jr. was felt to be a fairly safe bet (provided he could do the British accent – he and Ritchie may as well have just set fire to Buckingham Palace if he hadn’t been able to do the British accent) to play a version of Holmes that emphasized the character’s eccentricities, combat capabilities, slightly manic energy and flagrant disregard for the law.

But what no one predicted was what was about to happen between him and Jude Law’s Dr. Watson. The films had all the appeal of Ritchie’s usual speed-manipulated sequences and sharp dialogue, but it was the thunderous rapport between his two male leads that reintroduced Sherlock Holmes to the world in a way that it could get back on board with. Ritchie has pushed the nature of the connection between his Holmes and Watson to the limits throughout the two films, most noticeably during an accidental sex simulation that occurs while the pair defend themselves from surrounding gunfire, complete with Holmes in drag (congratulations to the make-up and wardrobe departments are due here for finding a look for Downey Jr. that might finally be able to overshadow the embarrassment of his mug-shot) and in the distress that Watson’s marriage so clearly causes Holmes.

But Ritchie isn’t actually too far away from Conan Doyle’s original material; what Ritchie has done with his Holmes and Watson is perceive and draw out from the timeless pair the clear importance of the relationship between them. In Ritchie’s opinion, what Conan Doyle had clearly given him here – was a bromance.

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‘Bromance’ (thanks again to the Bennifer culprits) is essentially code for ‘chemistry when it happens between men,’ and despite the relatively new term – and the sort of throat-clearing, back-slapping discomfort that is traditionally meant to define friendship for guys – the bromance has actually been around forever. From Laurel and Hardy and The Odd Couple, to The Sting and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, through the abundance of cop movies such as 48 Hours and Lethal Weapon and right up to I Love You Man and the recent Star Trek’s reinvigorated focus on the friendship between Spock and Kirk, the ‘buddy movie’ genre is probably as popular as romance, if not more, and for exactly the same reason; these relationships have unmistakable chemistry.

Not to be outdone, the girls have their equivalents: Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café was nominated for two Academy Awards for the portrayal of a bond between two women and the majority of praise received by The Heat was due to the surprise strength of the dynamic between Sandra Bullock and Melissa McCarthy. There are of course many others. (The only problem with the girls’ relationships when compared to the boys’ is that the equivalent word would seem to be Sismance. Whoever these portmanteau geniuses are who have clearly worked overtime in the past few years, they need to sort that out pronto).

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Platonic chemistry between members of the same sex is in some cases so strong that it actually outshines the movie’s proper romance. The relationship between Brad Pitt’s Rusty Ryan and Catharine Zeta Jones’ Isabel Lahiri in Ocean’s Twelve – lukewarm at best. The relationship between Brad Pitt’s Rusty Ryan and George Clooney’s Danny Ocean – one of the main selling points of the whole Ocean’s franchise. Everyone is pleased for Jon Favreau’s Mikey in Swingers when he finally finds a girl and makes it stick (and even more pleased that it turned out to be Heather Graham), but nothing was ever going to compare to Mikey’s relationship with Vince Vaughn’s touchingly affectionate Trent.

For all of these friendships, exactly as it was with the romances, the feeling is not created through anything specific being said or done but through conjuring that exact same mysterious place between them in which some equation (that one is completely legitimate) simply seems to work and which makes them a pleasure to watch.

But whereas comedy is probably romance’s least hard-working replacement when it comes to creating chemistry, this is absolutely by no means the rule; this invisible place is just as effectively created by tension. Matt Damon and Robin Williams’ relationship in Good Will Hunting begins from mutual apprehension – even dislike. The atmosphere of some of Martin Scorsese’s earlier classics, such as Raging Bull, Goodfellas and Casino, is a long, dark way from the likes of Stir Crazy, yet feature among the grit and conflict Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci in one of the best remembered on-screen relationships in cinema history.

The strength of the bond that develops between Johnny Depp’s Joseph Pistone and Al Pacino’s Benjamin ‘Lefty’ Ruggiero in Donnie Brasco comes almost entirely from the fact that ‘Donnie’ really (like, really) should not be friends with Lefty. And whatever it is that is created between Christoph Waltz’s revoltingly wonderful Colonel Hans Landa and whichever poor person is onscreen with him at any given moment in Inglourious Basterds is so nerve-wrackingly powerful that it has to be included here purely because it feels like the equivalent of chucking some substances together and then waiting for the explosion to go off. If that’s not a type of chemistry then I don’t know what is.

American Hustle Review Its All About Chemistry: Exploring The Best & Worst Cinematic Relationships

But despite the hugely diverse range of interactions, we are beginning to be able to see a developing theme – a sort of something that just might start to give a bit of identity to that invisible ‘place’ between characters we’ve been talking about. If there is one thing that might be able to define whatever it is that is happening under the surface, it’s that there seems to be an unspoken sense that the people involved have a certain position in each other’s lives that is somehow unique to just them. And what is crucial about this in chemistry is that the nature of the connection doesn’t seem to matter; romance, friendship, partnership, enemies – all of these types of relationship can create a sort of intimacy that, whether permanently or temporarily, somehow excludes other people around them.

It is as if there is between these people a small, subtle, private world that only they are sharing – and it is perhaps this ‘world’ that we are perceiving when we notice chemistry in any form. American Hustle won six ensemble awards specifically for the cast’s performance as a collection of individuals most of whom didn’t like each other. It probably didn’t hurt that it would be difficult to find a set of more attractive people – slight weight gain and questionable 70s hair dos aside – in one place at one time without something serious happening to the space-time continuum, but this only reinforces the point that chemistry is not to do with the actors’ looks; between them the cast demonstrated perfectly the sort of dynamics that come from people having an exclusive role in each other’s lives, for better or worse.

Throughout Breaking Bad, viewers clung desperately to the hope that everything would work out not just for Walter and Jesse, but between them. What was most poignant about their relationship was the toxic, awkward and manipulative thing that it became while all the time each was hopelessly essential to the world of the other. Theirs truly was the real chemistry (I’m not even sorry any more) of that show.

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Making chemistry into this sort of personal-world sharing also allows us to see how chemistry can sometimes appear in the most unconventional of places. Harold and Maude depicts a profoundly bizarre relationship, the likes of which usually cause people to have the same sort of reaction that they might have to program titles such as ‘My Granny the Escort’ (I’m not joking – look it up). But they had a touching and undeniable depth of private connection that sang straight through what is, in strictly professional terms of course, known as ‘the ick factor.’

In Leon: The Professional also, the relationship between he and Mathilda should be fairly disturbing and on many levels it is. But it is also beautiful and profound – and the audience cannot help but be drawn to their side. However strange these bonds might seem, there is that underlying force between them that seems to unite and enclose them in their own world and that is all the more powerful for being unspoken and invisible.

Following on from this idea that chemistry involves the individuals being in some way exclusive to one another and we get to what are possibly the best examples of all: the director/actor multiple collaborations. Here, not only are the movies themselves actually made on the basis of a particular connection between the filmmakers themselves, but they seem to develop their own sort of draw on audiences as a result that is independent of the film itself. Nick Frost and Simon Pegg’s ‘Cornetto Trilogy’ of Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz and At World’s End bring straight to the big screen the fact that something works wonderfully between just the two of them, with all the palpable joy that they took together from making them.

The Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro (or Leonardo DiCaprio) partnership has become synonymous with great filmmaking, Tim Burton and Johnny Depp seem to quite literally have been made for each other and David O’Russell is human superglue when it comes to his myriad of regular stars. In all these cases, the attachment between the individuals is clearly some kind of natural balance that, crucially, is particular to them – and they can create entire worlds out of that one that exists between them. It is undoubtedly a form of chemistry, and one for which the movie world will always be grateful.

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So far, we’ve looked at organic chemistry (look, I give up – when life gives you lemons ok?), that is, at when it happens completely naturally. But despite the fact that it’s both difficult to define and unpredictable in nature, many filmmakers are well aware that of all the elements in a movie chemistry usually represents gold and they will work to make it if they have to. There is actually something called a chemistry read, through which many a director will put their potential leads before making a final decision.

Tests were very carefully run on Anne Hathaway and Jim Sturgess during the casting for One Day, and rumours abound that chemistry casting also played a central role in the search for the leads in the upcoming Fifty Shades of Grey (although part of the test for the girl here was that she was prepared to do full frontal nudity – a part that was, I imagine, a lot easier to pass). As an alternative route, director Todd Phillips took the mad-scientist approach to his casting of The Hangover films, by deciding to go for something he literally calls ‘anti-chemistry.’ This involved finding and bringing together four guys who love each other and then casting them in roles in which they don’t. This formula, he claimed, was magic – and he was $1.4 billion dollars’ worth of right.

If directors know what they are doing then engineered chemistry should appear on screen as absolutely no different to what we’d call ‘natural’ chemistry. Unfortunately, however, it is painfully obvious when it doesn’t work. Zack Snyder eventually decided on Henry Cavill for Man of Steel after Cavill’s agent had spent the seven years since Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns trying to get him the role. Seven years. Seven. Years. People have spent that time better in prison. And even cast opposite the delectable Amy Adams, who basically had the attention of the furniture in The Fighter, everything about Man of Steel went straight to hell in a giant-spider-shaped hand-basket.

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But thankfully, for every Man of Steel there is an Edge of Tomorrow. Despite France’s long-standing good relationship with American film, a few years ago French director Bernard Tavernier lashed out at Hollywood, claiming that its films now lacked ideas, relied too heavily on special effects and was contributing to creating a ‘culture of stupidity.’ Whereas Man of Steel and other movies such as After Earth (read: ‘over-reliance on special effects’) and Grown Ups/Grown Ups 2 (read: ‘culture of stupidity’) do suggest that there are cases in which France might have a point, there are thousands of examples of movies in which the utmost care and attention has been paid to every detail of the film, even those that it is hard to see, like chemistry. And we should also remember that this was coming from a country that allowed someone to marry the Eiffel tower.

Having reached the end then of this little experiment in what chemistry is and is not, what can really be said about this stuff that life can’t do without and yet has so little method for where it will and won’t happen? As it has turned out, it’s a bit like trying to describe a colour – what other word for blue is there than blue? But one definite thing that can be said about it is that those science teachers at school were probably the ones who were right all along. Chemistry is about the nature and effect of any complex phenomenon, and there are very few phenomena more complex than human relationships. But most of all, chemistry is about reactions and bonds – and this bit is pretty simple. This is all that is happening when two people are creating that world which somehow unites them in some unseen way; chemistry is – as much as we seem to be able to define it – an equation and a connection through which individuals discover and give out the sense that ‘you fit into my life in a way that no-one else does.’ Of course script, dialogue and delivery will all be important, but without the feeling that this is what is happening between the characters, they could be anybody to each other – and why would the audience care about that?

But this idea is only a suggestion. Chemistry is still only visible in an invisible sort of way and clearly intends to stay that way. Perhaps a reason for this is that it allows people to fill that place between the characters themselves, with their own beliefs or hope. This is a huge part of the enjoyment of chemistry – that anything can cause or grow from the connections between human beings; chemistry lends itself to the infinitely weird and wonderful range of human individuals, and their responses and imaginations. Entire worlds of fan-fiction are testament to that. Whether it is explosive, quiet, fun or outright dangerous, chemistry truly is essential. It is quite literally what life – both on screen and off – is made of.

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