Return to Chemistry Class

No matter how sexy actors may be on their own, something magical has to happen between them in a love scene or you end up with just another boring Richard Gere/Kim Basinger grope. Once again, we investigate the mystery of sexual chemistry on the big screen.


Sexual chemistry is one of the invisible physical forces that make the movie world go round Without it, we'd go to movies about as often as we vote. Real, jaw-slackening, fuse-blowing sexual electricity is what movies are, and always have been, all about--if movies were layer cakes, sexual chemistry would be the mousse filling that's secretly holding the whole mess together. Often, we're not even conscious of magnetic attraction in movies. We just know something is working--as in, I believe those two stars would hump like drunken poodles if the director and crew would just turn their backs for 20 seconds. As with good breast surgery, you can't always say exactly why you know it when you see it, but you do.

Few movie principles are as fascinating or mysterious, and none is as slippery as those governing sexual chemistry. All the federally-funded think tanks in the world couldn't rationalize or codify them. Filmmakers can only throw actors together like pandas and hope they'll mate. Most often they don't, and there's no accounting for why.

Take a broad survey, and only a few marginally helpful guidelines appear: Don't ever pair up real-life couples. (Yeah, yeah, Bogart and Bacall, but look at the evidence on the downside: Burton and Taylor, McQueen and MacGraw, Ryan and Quaid, Cruise and Kidman, Baldwin and Basinger, Griffith and Johnson, etc., etc.). Watch out for actors who are prettier than almost any female co-star you can find (this means Keanu Reeves, Brad Pitt, Johnny Depp. etc.). Don't expect Nick Nolte or Willem Dafoe or Lolita Davidovich or Juliette Lewis, for Chrissake, to spark it up with anyone. Don't strand your lucky twosome in a hotel room or on a boat or on a stupid island resort for sadomasochists for the whole goddamn movie. And don't ever, even in jest, say the words "Dustin Hoffman." Beyond that, you're on your own.

Movie history is a toxic dump site of fizzled chemistry experiments, many of which we have no empirical explanation for. All the same, there are crash-and-burn examples that could've been averted had a scintilla of common sense been exercised: if you were a producer, would you have missed the neon HAZARDOUS WASTE sign blinking over Julia Roberts's and Nick Nolte's heads in I Love Trouble? Would you have supposed Richard Gere and Julia Ormond in First Knight could keep even an audience of subway rats awake? Would you have allowed Robert Altman to lock Tim Robbins and Julia Roberts together in a hotel room for the entirety of Ready to Wear? (Maybe it's Julia's fault-- think about it: Dying Young, The Pelican Brief, Something to Talk About...) A romantic subplot in Waterworld was a bad idea with horns, but once you went with it, would you have called in Jeanne Tripplehorn? Who thought that Dustin Hoffman and Rene Russo in Outbreak would ever, on any planet, be caught dead married to each other? You'd think that most movies were made by people who have never had sex. Maybe it's time we took over the factory; we can't do any worse than The Specialist or Nine Months.

When chemistry does occur on the big screen, it can take both you and your glands by complete surprise and make an ordinary or even crummy movie light up like a dry Christmas tree with faulty wiring. A sex scene is not required; a serious flirt can be worth a hundred slurp-and-roll, body-doubled bouts of intercourse. Few things are as entertaining as watching two people lock hormonal auras and forget there's anyone else in the room.

Movies used to supply this kind of wattage all the time--just check out practically any old Cary Grant or Myrna Loy or Clark Gable or Ingrid Bergman classic. Chemistry was all they had before tits and butt were R-rated de rigueur. Humphrey Bogart, the ugliest man ever to be an American movie star (and his name was Humphrey), was so charismatic he could establish sexual rapport with a desk. Carole Lombard had so much juice running through her you'd think maybe each of her co-stars should've worn a lead suit.

But where are we today, hot-currency-wise? Movieline and I first scanned this mucky terrain two years ago, asking friends, family members, bartenders and perfect strangers what their recent A-list choices were, and all of the most notorious examples turned up: Bull Durham, Witness, The Year of Living Dangerously, The Big Easy, Body Heat, The Last of the Mohicans, etc. Now, a few dozen dull moons later, it's time to readdress the issue, and because everybody treated me like a perv last time, this time I'm relying on my own acumen and insatiable yen for cinematic smut. Though I do slouch back to the mid-'80s occasionally, we're mostly talking about the '90s here--the state-of-the-art of getting down and staying down, as an old girlfriend of mine used to say. In an otherwise sorry movie world of plastic plug-in fireplace logs, these are the real heat.

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