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?