It is always a pleasure to bring readers of the DDD family of blogs the wit, wisdom, and verve of one of our oldest, dearest pals, the venerable A.C. Doyle! In this enlightening and entertaining survey, Ace provides lovers of classic Hollywood a solid month's worth of programming choices, at least. Enjoy! - JerkyThere are a few on-screen pairings this past generation who have generated some heat and some laughs. Kate Hudson and Matthew McConaughey, Drew Barrymore and Adam Sandler, Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt, Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan. Their oeuvres are largely somewhere between bad and forgettable–does anybody remember Joe Versus The Volcano or By The Sea or True Detective or Blended? Gere and Roberts have starred twice together, in pretty good films, Pretty Woman and Runaway Bride. And Brangelina became a pop culture term, but Mr. & Mrs. Smith–where they met on the set and she spirited him away from Ms. Aniston–and By The Sea, Ms. Jolie’s directorial debut, were fairly awful.
And most of these pairs have only starred in two or three films together. Compared to Loren and Mastroianni in 13, Taylor and Burton in 11, Hepburn and Tracy in 9, Astaire and Rogers in 10, Powell and Loy in 14, Farrow and Allen in 7 (plus he directed her in 6 more). Bogey and Bacall were only in four together, but what a four!
So it seems the Golden Era of paired actors and actresses across multiple films is largely behind us. Which is a pity, because there were some wonderful collaborations (on-screen and off, as often as not). Moreover, fine actors and actresses can develop a rapport and sense of timing, both comic and dramatic, that, like a fine wine, matures over time.
There’s also a modern conceit that showing a couple firing machine guns at bad guys then rolling around naked and sweaty in flagrante delicto is the only way to convey sexiness, desire, allure, magnetic attraction. Whereas Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert stringing up a line and draping a blanket over it in the fleabag motel so that they can’t see each other change into pyjamas and snuggle into separate beds (It Happened One Night, one of only three films to win the “Big Five” Oscars) is deliciously titillating and arousing.
So let’s take a walk down Memory Lane, and examine the great romantic/dramatic pairings. With the exception of a couple of Burton/Taylors when I was too young to see them, Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner, the Woody Allen films, and some Loren, most of these movies were produced well before I was born, and I’m in my mid-50s, so this nostalgic promenade will appeal to film buffs, but if you don’t watch anything before CGI and David Lynch, you might want to continue to the next article.
Let’s start with the flimsiest plots, and the least remembered movies nowadays, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers.
Over the 40 years since then we’ve had Chicago and Moulin Rouge as the only noteworthy musicals that come to mind.
But the Astaire-Rogers films were vehicles for dance routines, with scant attention paid to either comic timing, dramatic tension, or engaging narratives. And not because Fred and Ginger couldn’t act. In his mis-cast pairing with Audrey Hepburn in Funny Face, Astaire was really good. Top Hat and Swing Time are the two strongest of their ten movies together, light frothy fun, and really quite impressive to see her make such amazing moves in 4-inch heels.
But they lack sizzle, romantically. And the humor is dated, of the W.C. Fields or Abbott & Costello sort, hackneyed lines, delivered with telegraphed “here comes the punchline” Vaudeville schmaltz. These are movies to watch on a rainy Saturday afternoon with a five-year-old daughter who likes dancing.
Next, Sophia and Marcelo.
The reason I rank them a bit lower among the great on-screen collaborations is that her great or very good films were not with him. Her debut in Quo Vadis starred Charlton Heston. Her iconic climbing out of the water into the fishing boat scene in Boy On A Dolphin starred Alan Ladd. The Pride & The Passion starred Cary Grant, who fell hopelessly in love with her, and tried to woo her for the next few years, madly in love with a woman half his age. Desire Under The Elms starred Anthony Perkins. Her Best Actress Oscar for Two Woman starred Jean-Paul Belmondo. Her co-star in Man Of La Mancha was Peter O’Toole, who said of her: "each moment I spend in her presence she becomes more edible."
Mastroaianni’s interest in co-starring again and again with her isn’t very hard to understand, now is it?
She never starred with Mastroianni in films that got much traction on this side of the pond. Ghosts Italian Style, What A Woman, Sunflower, Yesterday Today & Tomorrow, The Priest’s Wife might have made it to art-houses, but Marriage Italian Style was probably the only major hit on this side of the pond. Their cameos in Pret-a-Porter, an excellent pseudo-documentary, were cute, but that wasn’t genuinely a Loren-Mastroianni film.
Now I haven’t a count of how many of her 85 films were produced by her lover/husband Carlo Ponti. He chose not to cast her in his two greatest films, La Strada and Dr. Zhivago. But while that’s not an on-screen collaboration, we must thank Senor Ponti for bestowing on us all this great gift of Sophia Loren!
On to Burton and Taylor.
Oh boy, this is a tough one to parse. Along with Alec Guinness, Peter O’Toole, Michael Caine, and Daniel Day-Lewis, Burton is my favorite British actor. I admired Olivier, of course, and Kenneth Branagh is a fine actor, Gary Oldman is terrific, Christian Bale and Jude Law not bad, and of course as a dude I have a soft spot for Sean Connery and Patrick Stewart. But Burton was one of his generation’s best. He could take a B-movie like Where Eagles Dare and bestow a certain gravitas upon it.
Taylor? She can be terrific. From her early teen cutie stints in the likes of National Velvet, to Giant, Cat On A Hot Tin Roof, A Place In The Sun, Ivanhoe, Quo Vadis, Suddenly Last Summer, BUtterfield 8, Raintree County, she was very good in some very good films. She’s won Best Actress twice and been nominated another three times. That’s up in the Bette Davis/Kate Hepburn/Meryl Streep stratosphere. As with Warren Beatty, it’s easy to forget among all the scandals and gossip and Jennifer/Brad/Angelina sort of stuff over her thirty-eight marriages and latter-day cheesiness that she was one of the great actresses of the 50s and 60s.
She generated more heat with Paul Newman in Cat On A Hot Tin Roof and Laurence Harvey in BUtterfield 8 and Montgomery Clift in Suddenly, Last Summer than with Burton in most of their collaborations.
So let’s first address the elephant in the living room: Cleopatra. At its time it was the most expensive film ever made. Yet its reputation as being a box office disaster is a retrospective myth. It was the highest-grossing film of 1963, a box office smash. It’s just that its production, distribution, and marketing costs led it to lose money. I believe it remains the only highest-grossing film to ever lose money. It had no real script, Taylor and Burton were alternately fighting or fucking, the locale was changed several times, and the screenplay was weak. David Lean probably could have made it one of the great films of the 20th century, but Mankiewicz was in over his head–this wasn’t All About Eve, this was an epic.
But its main shortcoming, in my view (and aside from its length) was that the chemistry between Burton and Taylor just seemed fake.
Next up, The Comedians. This is an okay movie, but Taylor simply isn’t a comic actress, nor even a good set-up “straight man”, a la Audrey Meadow or Kate Hudson or Mary Tyler Moore. Plus the Graham Greene novel is a dark comedy, which requires a special talent–Papa Doc Duvalier wasn’t a slapstick character. Interestingly, her role was originally intended for Sophia Loren, but Burton vetoed the choice. I’m not sure Loren would have done any better.
Ann Of The Thousand Days is a solid flick, but Taylor just makes a cameo, Burton’s co-star is Genevieve Bujold. The Taming Of The Shrew is pretty good, but again, she’s not really made for comedy, and she lacked Shakespearean training.
Then a lot of crap, really, and one masterpiece, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolfe? For which she won her first Best Actress. It’s so awful to watch, worse than Days Of Wine And Roses, no fun at all, cringe after cringe. And they are both exquisite.
Had Burton been cast as the john in BUtterfield 8, that would have been, em… intriguing.
Okay, next up, Woody and Mia.
Mia’s an enigma. One of the best sour grapes lines in Hollywood history belongs to Ava Gardner: "I always knew Frankie would end up with a teenage boy." She’s a weird lady, to be sure, and marrying an aged Sinatra wasn’t the least of it. But she has talent. She was excellent in Rosemary’s Baby and pretty good in The Great Gatsby. She’s never been nominated for an Oscar, but has received several Golden Globe nominations, winning Best Newcomer in 1964’s Guns At Batasi.
For a decade and a half Allen felt compelled to have her in his films, much as Tarantino seems fixated on the same three or four actors and actresses, some of whom, such as Uma Thurman, just can’t act. Here I’ll start with the best first. Hannah & Her Sisters is, IMNSHO, Allen’s second-best film, after Annie Hall. She’s terrific, and he is at his nebbishy best. The shtick has gotten tired through repetition, and his arrogance in casting himself has undermined easily a dozen of his movies that would have been better with a well-cast leading man. But this one really clicks. In a scene which few outside of Manhattan, Baltimore, Boston, Miami, L.A., and Chicago could appreciate, him trying to impress her by going shopping and bringing out Wonder Bread, Oscar-Meyer bologna, Kraft cheese, and Miracle Whip from the bag, is priceless. But it sailed right over the head of most goyim.
I have a soft spot for Broadway Danny Rose, and while they are not lovers, both are very good. This is an overlooked Allen gem of a movie, very funny and poignant.
Crimes & Misdemeanors is a fairly good film, and Allen was nominated for Best Director. His failing marriage and subsequent crush on Farrow is both sweet and painful. This was a fine pairing. Alice and Purple Rose of Cairo are pretty good films, though not must-sees,
Husbands & Wives was also good, and while not exactly sizzling, the husband and wife pair give convincing performances in this dark comedy. A very good collaboration, by two who were by now well-accustomed to being onscreen together. And then she would stumble across the naked Soon-Yi photographs, making this their last film together.
I’m awarding the bronze to Bogey & Bacall.
Had she been cast instead of Bergman in Casablanca, or instead of Mary Astor in The Maltese Falcon, I might have been forced to give them the top spot. And both films would have been even better. I frankly think Bergman was Casablanca’s weak spot. Bogart couldn’t stand her. Grant didn’t like her much in Notorious either. But Bogey and Bacall only starred in four films together. Their off-screen marriage and support of Adlai Stevenson and the balls to stand up to McCarthy and the HUAC witch trials cement them in our cultural memory as one of the truly great Hollywood couples. But their screen output was more modest than all the others mentioned here.
Two of the four were truly great movies, Top 50 ever material: The Big Sleep and To Have And Have Not. Key Largo is excellent. Dark Passage is very good, and groundbreaking in its cinematography, never showing the protagonist’s face, and looking at everything through his eyes, until the facial surgery.
To Have And Have Not may be one of the greatest romantic dark comedies ever filmed. You know how to whistle, doncha Steve, just put your lips together and blow. All four are must-sees for every film aficionado, and part of American film iconography, though Bogart is a bit off-key in Dark Passage, and certainly doesn’t measure up to his performances in Casablanca or The African Queen or The Treasure Of The Sierra Madre. Bacall is terrific in all four. And the underlying sexual tension in all of them is exquisite.
Runner-up: Myrna Loy and William Powell, who starred in fourteen films together, the highest total of any of our celluloid lovers.
The infamous “Lady In Red” was Number One Most Wanted John Dillinger’s date to the debut of Manhattan Melodrama, Powell and Loy’s first film together, but it was Loy greeting guests outside the theatre that drew Dillinger into the open. “They didn’t even try to arrest him, they just filled him full of holes”, Loy lamented later, “the pour soul”. Powell and Gable were the stars competing for the affection of the newcomer, in a rather schmaltzy film of outdated charm. Woody “One-Take” VanDyke noticed that Powell and Loy had a special sort of chemistry, and asked MGM to cast her as Nora in the original The Thin Man. Sam Goldwyn wanted to cast Mary Astor, but once Powell joined in with VanDyke, the studio relented, and the rest is history.
Has marriage ever been so fun? Most rom-coms end when the star-crossed lovers finally see that their fiancees are jerks and end up in each other’s arms, while the Thin Man series begins there. Sexy, witty, friendly, their rapport is irresistible. The first one ranks among the six or eight greatest romantic comedies ever. It opens with Powell: “You see, the important thing is the rhythm. You always have rhythm in your shaking. Now a Manhattan you shake to a foxtrot. A Bronx to a two-step time. A dry Martini you always shake to waltz time.”
And talk about female empowerment?! When the police knock on the door or the bad guys are lurking around the corner, it’s Loy who says “honey, I’ll handle this, fix yourself an eye-opener and I’ll be right back”, as Powell lounges in his silk bathrobe. Additionally, HE’S the one who married upward, a suave working class sort who’s landed himself a cosmopolitan heiress. Of course when the need for some Sherlock Holmesian crime-solving cogitation arises, it is Powell who typically connects the clues and has the eureka moment, but Loy is the one in charge. Five of the six are fine films, and the fourth or fifth was the breakthrough role for a very young Jimmy Stewart, atypically cast as the evil criminal.
The Thin Man series was MGM’s greatest success of the 1930s. Myrna Loy was so iconic by the time of the HUAC hearings 15 years later that she was one of the few, along with Bogey and Bacall and Sinatra, with sufficient public standing to stand up to McCarthy.
In the 1940s Powell and Loy co-starred in another half dozen films. I Love You Again, Love Crazy, and Double Wedding are all fine slapstick comedies, where Powell plays it broad and Loy plays it subtle. “Do you take dope?” she asks in one. When she was voted Queen Of Hollywood and Gable voted King, Powell sent her a box full of rotting vegetables and dead leaves, signed “from William the Fourth”. He had placed fourth.
Loy’s greatest film lay ahead, with The Best Years Of Our Lives being her finest role, but the teaming up with Powell is probably the most enjoyable comic couple in film history. Powell claims that the best decision of his career was demanding to be married to Loy onscreen.
Well by now it’s obvious whom I’m tagging as Numero Uno.
Four Best Actresses. Nine other nominations. Two Best Actors. Seven other nominations. Twenty-two nominations and wins between them. No, kids, it’s not Daniel Day-Lewis and Meryl Streep, you know who the winners are.
Without missing a beat he replied: “don’t worry, I’ll cut you down to size.”
Exactly 25 years later, shortly after filming their 9th movie together, he died, nominated posthumously for the 9th time for an Oscar as Best Actor, and winning a posthumous Golden Globe. She won Best Actress, while in mourning. She went on to win again the next year, the only tie in Academy history… with Babs in Funny Girl getting the exact same number of votes. And I can’t argue, because Streisand was excellent. But Kate with O’Toole, channeling all her sadness, is one of the greatest roles I’ve ever seen. The Lion In Winter is one of only two dozen films I can watch again and again and again. And in some ways I think Spencer Tracy should get credit for the pathos she exuded as Elinor of Aquitaine.
So their swan song was Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner. That was a tough fucking year to win Best Actor. Paul Newman in Cool Hand Luke. Dustin Hoffman in The Graduate. Warren Beatty in Bonnie & Clyde. None of them won. Rod Steiger did, for In The Heat Of The Night. Poor Sydney Poitier, he was outgunned on the set in both of his films that year!
So they ended their onscreen and offscreen collaboration on a serious note. But what fun they had in between! Adam’s Rib, Desk Set, Woman Of The Year? Those all rank among the best of the Golden Era rom-com standards.
And talk about chemistry? Watch the first three minutes of this clip, or just go to about the 2:30 point, and enjoy the next 20 seconds:
The Sea Of Grass was tepidly received, and Elia Kazan did not care for the final product, but it was the most successful of all the Tracy-Hepburn romantic comedies, enormously profitable for MGM, and a cute little western. Pat And Mike is fun, and Hepburn was a fantastic athlete, so all of the tennis and golf and running and swimming scenes are her. Directed by Cukor, who got great performances out of her in Adam’s Rib and The Philadelphia Story.
State Of The Union is a very interesting drama, reminiscent of The Manchurian Candidate (with Angela Lansbury in an eerily similar role), directed by Frank Capra, and in the late 40s considered controversial enough that MGM removed several of the most critical scenes, watering it down to a weaker version. Rumor had it that upon seeing it, Harry Truman decided to run again in 1948.
Without Love was a vanity piece written expressly for Hepburn by her frequent script reviewer Phillip Barry. It’s okay.
Keeper Of The Flame? Equating extreme wealth with fascism? Republicans were outraged, people boycotted it, the government wanted to ban it. Cukor, directing them yet another time, was dissatisfied with the final product. It was positively un-American to suggest that great wealth could insulate people against the institutional cruelty they inflict. Their least successful film. Hmmm……does it pique your interest? Anything topical about it nowadays?
But the combined quantity and quality of their collaborations, both dramatic and comedic, lands them the top spot, Greatest Hollywood Couple Ever.
So there’s my subjective rundown. Burton and Taylor probably suffered from the worst batting average, with a couple of spectacular successes (that weren’t very romantic), a hot mess, occasionally punctuated with greatness. Bogey and Bacall had the highest proportion of very good to great films. Loren and Mastroianni might win in Italy, but not here. Allen and Farrow had hits and misses. Loy and Powell a string of flippant little romps that cannot help but amuse. Tracy and Hepburn the greatest mix of solemn and silly, nearly all of high quality. But choose from any of these if you’ve got a date coming by, or want to snuggle with your spouse on the couch. Some are a bit dated, the tone seeming a bit forced or clunky by modern standards, but nearly all have snappy verbal interplay and great dramatic presence, echoes of an era when dialogue was often the most important feature of a film. And people didn’t need to be naked to be sexy.