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

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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.