Chemistry in books and screen

Chemistry is so hard to define in real life as well as on TV or film. Or in books. And even then, it’s not always universal. Take Lizzie and Mr. Darcy from Pride and Prejudice. So much a symbol for a match made in heaven that people often know who they are without having ever read the books, or seen the various filmic versions. Yet years ago I knew someone who was a lot like Moliere’s Belise in The Learned Ladies. My Belise insisted that Darcy and Elizabeth’s marriage would never work. Since Belise also had a tendency to shut down discussion by making it clear that she was more sensitive than anyone else about life or literature, I never found out what convinced her. But the point is, the chemistry that some have claimed universal…isn’t.
How does chemistry work across media? Difficult enough to define in real life. There must be more than just prettiness involved, there are countless subtle signals–body language, vocal tones–that spark attraction. Think of all the shows and movies you’ve seen when this gorgeous person was put together with that gorgeous person, and . . . nada. In the TV show I Love Lucy, introduced the year I was born and never off screen since, Lucy and Desi have strong screen chemistry, and they were married in real life. They did break up, but not because they were tired of one another. He was a playboy, and she couldn’t tolerate that. When they split and she and Vivian Vance developed their own show, all the comedy was there. She was a brilliant comic. But the chemistry that came with Desi Arnaz was gone.

It’s particularly amazing when the actors in question insist there wasn’t any attraction between them, though viewers sure felt it. Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers had terrific chemistry on screen, though Astaire’s wife saw to it they had exactly one kiss in all their films.  Astaire insisted he was a happily married man, and Rodgers dated other fellows. But you would swear, after watching the phenomenal number “Never Gonna Dance” in Swing Time (the dance they filmed so many times she ended up bleeding around her toenails before they got it all in one take) that they told the story of their relationship, a poignant history of unrequited love.

Later in his career he was matched with all kinds of performers–great actors, such as Judy Garland (no chemistry whatever between them in Easter Parade; there are moments in their body language when I wonder if they even liked one another) and dancers better dancers than Rodgers, in an effort to create the dream team. But it never worked. Eleanor Powell was technically smooth, but had no personality, and no chemistry with him. Cyd Charisse was sexy, but she seemed to be dancing alongside him, almost overpowering him. She meshes better with Gene Kelly.

Chemistry that happens though it’s not built into the storyline is another thing to consider. Fans of the show Buffy the Vampire Slayer were supposed to see chemistry between Buffy and the complex vampire Angel, but many fans saw intense chemistry between vampire enemies and ex-friends Angel and Spike. I’ve participated in many book discussions where the author had constructed the storyline around one love match or friendship, but readers found far more chemistry in another set of characters.

Part of the complexity here is the potential dramatic charisma in the attraction of opposites. It’s fascinating to listen to people talk about that–not only to see what works or doesn’t for readers and viewers, but how dramatic charisma translates out in real life. Is there ever more “there” there than physical attraction, even if the intensity measures off the Richter scale? I’m talking about the Taming of the Shrew scenario–they hate each other so much sparks fly when they’re in the room together, until that hatred triggers lust, and then a passionate love. In a book, the writer can shape the story toward a happily ever after. Does that actually work in real life? Maybe that would explain some of the really violent, explosive breakups one hears of, and sometimes sees. Have the people grown up on expectations that violent attraction means lifelong commitment?

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Chemistry in books and screen — 10 Comments

  1. Elizabeth and Darcy will be just fine–they have experienced real growth as Miss Austen’s protagonists tend to do. Kate from the Shrew? Nah. She’ll get tired of the submission game–or at least I hope so. Ah yes. Fred and Ginger, but the chemistry may have been bodies in tune with the music and dance rather than their hearts?

  2. With Fred and Ginger, I don’t see that (though viewers will see different things). With Cyd Charisse, each was in tune with dance and music, but they seem to dance side by side; they don’t mesh as a unit. Ginger actually wasn’t all that good of a dancer–if you just watch her (which is very difficult, as he’s so brilliant the eye mostly follows him, then does to the swoop of her dress or the bend of her back, then back to him) her hands are sloppy, and though her feet always hit the beat, she doesn’t have the phenomenal control he does. And yet together, they are very powerful.

  3. Fred Astaire used to say his favorite dance partner was Gene Kelly.

    “Have the people grown up on expectations that violent attraction means lifelong commitment?”

    Yes, of course they have. It’s an easy mistake to make, with sexual attraction so powerful to begin with, and it’s everywhere in the culture. It’s an artistic convention: in love stories things move fast. But we forget it’s a convention, and that the reality is stranger and more complex. People confuse sexual attraction with other sorts of intimacy. And sexual intercourse can be an expression of other sorts of intimacy, but it also can just be sexual intercourse.

    Sometimes people reject their attraction, sexual or otherwise, to each other. When that happens, they sometimes fight. I think that’s the basis for Shrew.

    (See Sturgeon, passim.)

  4. I’m mostly in agreement, though with your last graph, I would offer the observation that “reject” might be too simple. Sometimes people are unaware of attraction, ascribing other intense emotions to it, hate if anger is skewing perceptions.

    One thing that always made me wonder about war leaders who not only throw everything into conquering another man’s territory, but possessing his home, and his wife, is how much of that was a weird twist on eroticism?

  5. There *is* something sort of erotic about possessing one’s enemy’s home and partner–the power, the dominance. I can see it, at least abstractly.

    Eroticism, attraction–so anarchic. So quicksilver. Attractive, sparkly, potentially deadly.

  6. Your allusion to dance reminded me of guest stars we had for a special performance with my ballet company eons ago. A married couple who danced with a big name company in NY came in a week before performance to rehearse a couple of numbers with us on our stage, solos, and a pas de deux.

    The pas de deux had been choreographed for them as a wedding present. In rehearsal, wearing sweaters over dance togs, they played their way through the number. They made a few mistakes and laughed together as they caught up with the music. Their love for each other shone in their eyes, their hands brushed in a kind of intimacy you see only in people who know each other well. The lifts soared with trust and commitment.

    Then in performance they wore traditional romantic style costumes. They performed the steps, but they didn’t dance together. They were no longer a couple, just dancers with an audience. The costumes and the audience became a barrier to the chemistry.

  7. If Shrew were just about the taming of Kate it would fall flat–and for some people it does. I had to play the part once, and the only way we could make that last scene convincing for a modern audience was to make Kate and Petruchio complicit, so that their attraction for each other had a path to move along that was not destructive to the relationship. It’s not just “Behave, we need your Dad’s money,” it’s, “let’s see if we can completely blow the back of their heads off at the change.”

    In rehearsal we had an exercise where Petruchio and I had a conversation afterward about the effect of the “taming” on her family and his critics…Petruchio became positively nasty about her father in particular. And yes, this is a reading not in the text. But it worked.

  8. Some people are, alas, aderaline junkies and want the drama because it makes them feel alive. They reject peacable romantic prospects because they are dull and boring.

  9. Phyl: that is fascinating. And kinda sad, but understandable: the couple were so focused on technique that was perceivable from out front. (And I wonder if this demonstrates why they did not become world famous in the world of ballet.)

    Madeleine: that totally makes sense. The most successful production I ever saw was actually a college production. The pair playing P and K were dating, and they played it with a tongue in cheek naughtiness that was terrific in its effect–especially K’s rendition of that famous last monologue.