Chemistry Class

When love scenes work on the big screen, it's because the sexual chemistry between the actor and actress makes for "a particular kind of movie moment, when cinema leaves respectability behind and starts talkin' cheap carny trash to the tiny trailer-park whore deep within all of us."

Let's establish one thing right off the bat about sexual chemistry in movies: it's purely subjective. Why we find the coupling of, say, Mel Gibson and Sigourney Weaver electrifying, and Mel Gibson and Goldie Hawn about as beguiling as cold potpie, is as tough to fathom as why some people enjoy nipple clips or pay to see Melanie Griffith movies. It's not as easy as merely measuring the hormonal firepower of a sex scene or rating the soft-lit beauty of your favorite movie sexpot. Our reaction to a movie couple's wattage isn't even just personal--it's irrational. Logic has nothing to do with it. I believe that Stephen Hawking became interested in proving the finite nature of black holes because he knew he could never empirically explain why people flocked to see Ali MacGraw and Ryan O'Neal in Love Story.

Chemistry is also something no number of talented directors or screenwriters can manufacture. Actors have it together on-screen or they don't. Harrison Ford and a shirtless Kelly McGillis lock sight-lines in Witness, and he could be covered with goat shit, she could have three tits, it wouldn't matter. We'd still believe that given half a chance, the two of them would disappear into the nearest broom closet and rut like weasels. It's a particular kind of movie moment, when cinema leaves respectability behind and starts talkin' cheap carny trash to the tiny trailer-park whore deep within all of us.

These days, movies are full of unbridled schtupping, and consequently, the Real Thing--the genuine, white-hot, seething current of carnal hum-mana-hummanas--is hard to find. A few contemporary movies are exploding mad-scientist laboratories of sexual electricity, but most couldn't even power the Energizer bunny. Anyone who's seen Final Analysis or Sliver or Body of Evidence knows what I mean--hell's-a-poppin' sex scenes or not, these movies are four-day-old fish.

So where do the high-tension power lines of cinematic conduction run nowadays? I polled friends, in-laws, old girlfriends, bartenders, perfect strangers selected randomly from the phone book, and my mom to find out. I never asked my dad because he doesn't watch movies, just sports (actually, there might be sexual chemistry in professional football, but he wouldn't be the one to know). My wife, Laurel, deep into her first pregnancy, put in her two cents so often I began asking her for bills. I should note that during my study, I kept picking up the Why-Are-You-Writing-About-This-Subject-You're-a-Guy vibe from nearly everyone. True, magazines (and that includes Movieline) usually send girls on this kind of mission, under the presumption that women are generally more sensitive, romantic and finely tuned to erotic nuance, and that men are generally dumb jungle beasts whose idea of sexual chemistry begins and ends with the pussy shot from Basic Instinct. (Admittedly, the concept of you-need-two-to-tango had to be explained to a few of my more devolved, Sharon Stone-loving pals.) This may very well be true. But so what? Merely because my glands squirt out a different brand of hormone, does that make me such a bad guy? Men and women have different views of the dueling field, but we still shoot the same gun. Male or female, most of us know a good movie match when it slinks up and harpoons us in the forbidden zone.

The Year of Living Dangerously. The Nagasaki of high voltage movie desire, with Mel Gibson and Sigourney Weaver caught in an Indonesian civil war and each others's sexual rifle sights, not necessarily in that order. This is my wife's nomination for the Nobel Prize in sexual chemistry (and it was an important dating movie for the two of us). When Sigourney begins wandering through a marketplace in the pouring rain, eventually winding up at Mel's office and eating him in two big White Castle bites right there in the hallway, you could fry an egg on your VCR. That they're the two best-looking people on the subcontinent goes a long way to making it all impeccably plausible, which leads us to what my wife terms the MQ, or Mel Quotient. This movie has arguably the highest MQ of all. And as we know, all things on God's green earth can be measured by their relation to Mel, especially if he's naked and facing south. And when you give Mel a woman like Sigourney Weaver to spark off of, you've got an overheated house with bad wiring and no fire exits. "They'd do nothing but screw if it weren't for that damn civil war," said Theresa, a very sweet operator I spoke to at American Express when I called with a question about my bill.

Body Heat. One of life's happy coincidences--a movie with genuine chemistry that also nearly combusts with graphic, get-down-and-stay-down sexual jitterbugging. My mother's personal selection, but she refuses to elaborate. It's not hard to see why--it's the movie I wish Double Indemnity could have been, if only America had been allowed in 1944 to see Barbara Stanwyck orgasm while getting her face rhythmically pushed into the mattress, grunting "Don't... stop ..." In 1981, it was the next best thing to being there. William Hurt and Kathleen Turner open their sweat glands for all the world to see, and it's easy to imagine the film crew needing to douse the randy couple with a fire hose between shots. Remarkably, it's the postcoital scenes that really rock my love boat. Both Turner and Hurt are frankly, stickily nude and Turner ends up grabbing for Hurt's jack-in-the-box on her way to yet another pole-vaulting meet. "Give me a break here," he groans. "It's your own fault," she rasps back, her hand clamped onto him right below the frame line. Hubba.

The Big Easy. Dennis Quaid and Ellen Barkin are having so much goddamn fun together in this movie there should be a law, though Quaid's blithely corrupt New Orleans cop wouldn't think twice about breaking it if there were. Forget, if you can, that Barkin is an assistant D.A. investigating bad cops, and focus on the wily rapport the two work up like a bathtub full of suds. When Barkin kisses Quaid while brushing her teeth after vomiting, you know she means it, and vitamin-fortified, sugar-sweetened Big Os can't be far behind. Ask anybody about sexual chemistry on the big screen, and this cinematic hot spot gets mentioned. Rewind to that pivotal first love scene, perhaps the most incredible of its decade sheerly by virtue of showing absolutely nothing while revealing oodles, and you'll see why. In bed for their first tryst, awkwardly coordinating his aggression and her nervousness, she bails out, feigning embarrassment, professional ethics, whatever. He secretively slips a hand under her skirt. . . "Stop that," she squirms. "What?" "That." "That . . . or that?" We don't know what's going on, but of course we do, and we're squirming, too. Yeah, I squirmed, so what. You got a problem with that?

Chinatown. You talk movie superlatives in almost any context, and it seems this one's always going to come up. Faye Dunaway tries to clean Jack Nicholson's nose wound, he notices a flaw in her iris, and smokey, cynical love comes to town. As my irascible Uncle George put it, "Sparks flying, cigarettes in bed, the last of the red-hot cha-chas." An old girlfriend always told me scars, or at least wounds, were sexy, and here was her proof. For better or worse, whatever meager sexual chemistry we had between us was forever undermined by the fact that I wasn't about to let a short Polish hood stick a switchblade up my nose. Sue me.

Bull Durham. "I believe in the soul, the cock, the pussy . . ." Kevin Costner begins in his famous what-I-believe speech, eventually reaffirming his faith in "long, slow, deep, soft, wet kisses that last for three days." Susan Sarandon heaves a nymphomaniac's sigh, and we're wondering how a movie this mature, this savvy, this confidently honest about sex escaped from the Hollywood booby hatch. Almost everyone I spoke to included this beauty on their list of chemical compounds, including Vicki, a nice fortysomething woman I called in Scarsdale. "They were the right age for each other," she opined. "You knew they'd have lots to talk about afterward." She's right. With Costner bidding recently for a slot on Mount Rush-more, it's easy to forget how full of wry magnetism he was just a few years ago, before his multiple Oscarosis. He and Sarandon make a perfect pair: relaxed, seasoned, witty, more interested in sexual gamesmanship than winning its World Series. The whole movie is a protracted bout of foreplay for them, and that's the way they like it. Like The Big Easy, this movie isn't about sex or desire, it's about fun. It's a baseball movie that doesn't end with a Big Game or some such shit. It ends-- man, oh Manischewitz--with a Big Fuck that does indeed seem to last for three days, during which the two boogie to old records, flounce around the house in kimonos, get bath water everywhere, and make a big mess in the kitchen. As my friend Gerry put it, "Everybody wishes that every Sunday was just like this--sex, Chinese food, sex, ice cream, bath, more sex."

No Way Out. If there were a way to rent, for, say, a dime, great scenes from otherwise forgettable movies, then the Kevin Costner-Sean Young backseat limo fuck would be high on my list. The driver doesn't get to watch the whole push-me-pull-you, but we do, and for a few short-breathing moments it gets a little too private, a little too real, for a mere movie. Then Gene Hackman pushes Young off the top of a staircase (it's one of her few movies we don't spend wishing someone would do just that), and it's a sleepwalk from thereon in. One woman I reached at home in Great Neck noted about the limo scene, "The windows actually steamed up. What else are limo windows for?"

Bram Stoker's Dracula. Cut this wacky fruitcake of a movie open, and deep inside you'll find a genuinely moist relationship between Gary Oldman and Winona Ryder, who are dying to exchange plasma like other couples exchange Valentines. "I have crossed oceans of time to find you," he burbles to her, and when he later places an absinthe-laced sugar cube on her tongue, she's a-swooning in no time. "The erotic thing about this movie," claims my friend Rebecca, "is that it's a not-very-disguised tribute to the joys of oral sex. Winona Ryder and Gary Oldman really seem to be into it--and you even get his orgasm in full glory." True enough. Never before have movie vampires wanted to suck blood more for the sucking than for the blood.

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