Chemistry class

Please don't make us kiss!


Watching Knight and Day the other night, I was struck by how little heat I sensed between Tom Cruise and Cameron Diaz. Here are two attractive, charismatic actors in great physical shape but I didn’t believe for a second that they wanted to sleep with each other.

Then it occurred to me that I’ve really never seen Tom Cruise exude chemistry with anybody. Certainly not with then-wife Nicole Kidman in Eyes Wide Shut. Not with then-girlfriend Penelope Cruz in Vanilla Sky. He had a nice rapport with Renee Zellweger in Jerry Maguire, but it was chaste. Top Gun? He had more chemistry with Val Kilmer than Kelly McGillis (and here’s where the gay rumors kick in). Perhaps Risky Business is the last Tom Cruise performance that was downright sexy.

Then it hit me that this isn’t just a Tom Cruise thing. I started running through the top Hollywood superstars in my mind and realized that most of them are sexually safe. Big dogs like Will Smith and Tom Hanks, funny men like Will Ferrell and Adam Sandler, even ostensibly virile stars like Russell Crowe and Denzel Washington. When’s the last time any of them burned up the screen with the sparks they produced with their lead actresses?

And it’s not much different for the women. Julia Roberts, Sandra Bullock, Reese Witherspoon, Meryl Streep, Nicole Kidman… I’m certainly not getting hot and bothered typing out that list.

Two actors who break the mold are George Clooney and Clive Owen. Clooney, for all of his self-deprecating wit (and maybe in part because of it) is unquestionably a sexual presence. Just look at the steamy rapport he shares with Vera Farmiga in last year’s Up in the Air.

And Owen could generate chemistry with a lawn chair. In Mike Nichols’ Closer he burned up the screen with Julia Roberts and Natalie Portman (two actresses not known for their sensual sides) and even got me a little hot under the collar in his scene with Jude Law (who once showed promise on this front as well before becoming increasingly boring).

Following is a list, in no particular order and by no means complete, of screen pairings that exuded chemistry. Please post your own favorites in the comment section. [Note: This list is restricted to movies, but I want to give a shout out to two television pairings that fog up my TV screen: Josh Halloway and Elizabeth Mitchell on Lost and Kyle Chandler and Connie Britton, the quintessential hot married couple on Friday Night Lights]

George Clooney & Jennifer Lopez — Out of Sight

This is the pairing that comes to mind first anytime I think about screen chemistry. As soon as Clooney’s prison escapee is locked in a trunk with Lopez’ federal Marshal, electricity flies off of these two like a downed power line.

It culminates in one of the best love scenes in movie history, where director Steven Soderbergh cuts between an intimate conversation in a hotel bar and the action to come upstairs. Soderbergh makes literal what we know from watching Lopez and Clooney’s whispered conversation… that as soon as they sit down across from each other they’re already making love.

Kevin Costner & Susan Sarandon — Bull Durham

Also, Kevin Costner and Rene Russo in Tin Cup. For some reason, Costner, who is bland as milk in most of his films, turns into a sexual dynamo when he plays washed-up sports stars for writer/director Ron Shelton.

Kathleen Turner & Michael Douglas — Romancing the Stone

I’m highlighting this pair because the film is similar in some ways to Knight and Day (though much better). But I could just as easily go with Kathleen Turner and William Hurt in the ultra-steamy Body Heat.

Ethan Hawke & Julie Delpy — Before Sunrise and Before Sunset

This was a largely non-physical relationship (explored over two days ten years apart) but the attraction between Hawke and Delpy is palpable from the very first scenes.

Michelle Pfeiffer & Michael Keaton — Batman Returns

Pfeiffer remains the most alluring woman to ever squeeze into tights for a comic book movie. Her Catwoman was equal parts temptress and sadist and she stirred Batman more than Vicki Vale could ever dream.

Harrison Ford & Kelly McGillis — Witness

Never has an Amish woman been so sexy. Ford is another major star who doesn’t exactly steam up the screen with his leading ladies, but he and McGillis were perfectly matched in Peter Weir’s romantic drama. (Unfortunately YouTube doesn’t have the classic barn dance scene, but I found a fan video that does the trick.)

Naomi Watts & Laura Haring — Mulholland Drive

It probably seems easy to pick a movie featuring two hot chicks who spend a lot of time naked and rolling around in bed with each other. But beyond the obvious, Watts and Haring form the central beating heart around which the film’s mind-bending plot revolves.

So, which screen pairings do you consider the hottest?

16 thoughts on “Chemistry class

  1. Amy says:

    For starters, I think you need to make a distinction between a couple having chemistry and a couple fogging up the screen. Some couples (such as Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan) have tremendous romantic or platonic chemistry, though they may not set off sexual sparks. I’d actually put Coach and Mrs. Coach in that category, though that may just be because Tim Riggins has fogged up the screen so much that it’s difficult to see anything else 🙂

    Looking at your list of actors you dismiss first, I think that Reese Witherspoon had wonderful chemistry with Joaquin Phoenix in Walk the Line, Sandra Bullock had it with Keanu Reeves, and Julia Roberts had it with Richard Gere.

    The next point I must make is that chemistry is, of course, completely subjective. I appreciate Clive Owen as an actor, but I don’t find him particularly steamy in anything, or with anyone. Meanwhile, Viggo Mortensen can be hanging with elves, hobbitts, spies, victims of a nuclear holocaust, GI Jane, whatever… the man exudes chemistry.
    He and Diane Lane in A Walk on the Moon would be one of my top contenders for hottest screen pairing.

    A few others:

    Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio in Titanic
    Harrison Ford and Kelly McGillis in Witness
    Dennis Quaid and Ellen Barkin in The Big Easy

  2. Clay says:

    Witness was one of my seven examples.

    I’m referring specifically to the steamy variety of screen chemistry. Tom Hanks has shared great platonic chemistry with Meg Ryan, Julia Roberts, Peter Scolari and a volleyball, but he’s never been a sexual being. Same goes for Will Smith.

    I agree that Sandra Bullock and Keanu Reeves had it in Speed (though not so much in The Lake House) and Julia Roberts and Richard Gere are a winning pair.

    I agree with all of your other examples as well. Viggo and Diane Lane were on fire in A Walk on the Moon, as were Quaid and Barkin in The Big Easy. I’m glad you mentioned Kate Winslet because she’s a very sexy woman who seems to bring out the best in her leading men.

  3. pegclifton says:

    Wow what a great topic! I agree with your choices above, esp. Witness, Out of Sight, and Bull Durham, and Amy’s choices of Walk on the Moon and The Big Easy, but I would also add Diane Lane’s performance in Unfaithful! I thought Nicholas Cage and Cher had great chemistry in Moonstruck. It seems to me that my favorite movies of all time seem to be the ones that have that chemistry you speak of. I’ll be thinking of others during the day, and you may hear from me again 🙂

  4. Kerrie says:

    I’m glad to see I’m not the only one who thought Diane Lane and Olivier Martinez had serious chemistry in “Unfaithful.” I also agree with Kate and Leo in “Titanic” (though not as much in Revolutionary Road – granted, the subject matter is a bit different).

    So here’s my short list:
    Kim Basinger and Mickey Rourke in “9 1/2 Weeks” (Or is that too literal an interpretation?) 🙂
    Jake Gyllenhall and Heath Ledger in “Brokeback Mountain.” (Their performaces were great in part because the chemisty they had made their relationship believeable.)
    Jennifer Grey and Patrick Swayze in “Dirty Dancing”

    Interesting subject. I’ll be interested in others’ lists. 🙂

  5. pegclifton says:

    I told you I would be back. I think of movies with great chemistry as those I want to watch again and again, or at least those scenes like the ones posted above. For instance in the first Sex and the City movie there is a scene with Amanda and Steve on the Brooklyn Bridge that I adore. Also Pride and Prejudice with Keira Knightly and Matthew McFadyen is one that I can watch over and over.

  6. Clay says:

    Nicolas Cage and Cher in Moonstruck! I was planning to include them in my original list and it totally slipped my mind. I absolutely agree on that one.

    And yes, Keira Knightly and Matthew McFadyen are wonderfully matched in Pride and Prejudice. Another one I considered for my original list and forgot about.

  7. Layne says:

    Great topic. I actually thought Russell Crowe had great chemistry with Cate Blanchett in this summer’s Robin Hood. Also, I have a lot of lawn chairs and Clive Owen’s welcome at my house any time!

  8. Amy says:

    I’m glad that Kerrie cited Heath and Jake from Brokeback Mountain as an example of great chemistry because

    1 – I forgot to do so 🙂 and they’re one of the steamiest screen couples around.
    2 – I wanted to explore the dual message Clay was sending in his blog post above.

    At first, Clay seems to be channeling Rahim Setoodeh, the controversial Newsweek writer who so incensed Kristen Chenoweth that she wrote a scathing letter to the magazine, then lambasted him during the Tony awards. When Clay implies that the fact that Tom Cruise might not have as much chemistry with his various leading ladies as with Val Kilmer is because he is gay, Rahim (and new employer, People Magazine) hollered “told you so!” while Kristen got poised to write a nasty comment.

    However, when later in that same blog post, Clay highlights two heterosexual actors (well, at least one heterosexual actor- not sure about Harring) playing a steamy gay couple, Kristen was confused.

    Is Clay suggesting that an actor’s sexual orientation affects the audience’s ability to accept him (or her) as part of a hot screen couple? I’m not quite sure. I have found many actors easily capable of generating screen chemistry regardless of their sexual orientation. For instance, Daniel Day Lewis seared the screen as gay man in My Beautifull Laundrette, as did many of the heterosexual actors (Campbell Scott, Dermot Mulroney) in Longtime Compaion. On the other hand, I found Rupert Everett to be quite the convincing romantic lead in An Ideal Husband. And Peg provided a great example above, when she lauded Cynthia Nixon’s portrayal of Miranda and her chemistry with Steve.

    It seems to me that some actors have “it” and others just don’t. Tom Cruise probably would have difficulty mustering screen chemistry with anyone – man or woman, while others can do so with man, woman, or even, perhaps, a lawn chair.

    I disagree with your premise that Harrison Ford does not fall into the latter category, as he has created chemistry with Kelly McGillis, Karen Allen, Melanie Griffith (particularly so), Carrie Fisher, Anne Archer.

    Now I do wonder what makes a Will Smith or a Denzel Washington or a Tom Cruise, handsome, sexy superstars all, less likely to generate the sort of screen heat we’re describing here. Are they just too “cool” to generate that much heat? Discuss 😉

  9. Clay says:

    In my defense, the Tom Cruise gay comment was not at all a suggestion that his failure to generate chemistry has anything to do with his rumored sexual orientation. I just knew that pointing out he had more chemistry with Val Kilmer than Kelly McGillis would prompt most readers to “go there” so I mentioned it parenthetically.

    Interestingly, Kelly McGillis has herself come out of the closet recently, adding a whole new dimension to that one.

    I agree with Kristen Chenoweth that the Newseek column in question is total bullshit.

    As for why the superstars don’t generate heat, I wonder how much of it has to do with the roles they take. Will Smith is generally too busy saving the world to go to bed with anybody. Maybe he’d smolder if given the chance.

  10. Amy says:

    I bet he’d smolder with Jennifer Lopez in Out of Sight. Interesting to reimagine some of these films with other actors. If Clive Owen played John Book, who would be his perfect Rachel? If Denzel Washington were to play Crash Davis, who would be his Annie Savoy? Hmmm….

  11. Clay says:

    I don’t think Will Smith would smolder the way Clooney does, but you never know. A big part of Clooney’s appeal is that voice, I think… Hanks, Cruise and Smith all have high voices. Maybe I’ve hit on another reason behind this phenomenon.

  12. pao says:

    i’m an owen fan and i agree that a great part of the appeal is the voice; but i would like to add that it’s also the eyes. a lot of people say that owen is wooden, but acting is so much more than facial movement and mannerisms – which could lead to overacting. but i digress, because of owen’s ‘wooden-ness’, most don’t get the connection he has with his onscreen costars. so it’s a bit sad that he doesn’t get more roles with romance (as a central plot) because of this. therefore, i’m very excited with an owen/kidman hbo movie in which they are hemingway/gellhorn.

  13. pegclifton says:

    No one smolders like Clooney.

  14. Marco says:

    Diane Lane and pretty much anyone. She is so good at… sexy chemistry!

  15. santi says:

    i think sandra bullock and keanu reeves are perfect, and not to forget we have josh duhamel and katherinen heigl in their new movie “LIFE AS WE KNOW IT’. They are graet.

  16. Suzy q says:

    Oldie but goodie -Jeff bridges and Rachel Ward in Against all Odds.

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