From the first moment Spencer Tracy sets eyes on Katharine Hepburn in the 1942 classic Woman of the Year (at 5:46 on the DVD), you know he wants to explore that leg which she has been stretching and find just where it leads. Just by the glances the exchange in the ensuing scene, you know they find each other attractive and want to act on attraction.
That coupled with a good script (well, until the concluding scene) makes the movie compelling. We believe the tension and affection between the two. Indeed, their cinematic chemistry defines the various movies they made together, overcoming, in a number of cases mediocre scripts. For example, in Desk Set is almost unwatchable, but the scenes where the two are together more than make up for the emptiness of much of the rest of the script.
Good screen chemistry can often overcome a mediocre screenplay (see e.g., Two Weeks Notice, Titanic) and turn an excellent script into a great movie (see e.g., Casablanca, The Philadelphia Story, When Harry Met Sally).
And bad screen chemistry can ruin even a well-crafted script, the first two-thirds of Absence of Malice, which I watched this past week. From the first moment the leads, Paul Newman and Sally Field, come together, anyone familiar with contemporary cinema knows they are being set up to fall in love. We know this, in large part, because Field spills her coffee when she first hears Newman’s voice identifying himself to her. Sydney Pollack, the film’s director, needed to have her do this to show how she was caught off guard by his appearance.
Miss Hepburn, however, didn’t need to spill any coffee or drop a hairpin when she first caught site of the man with whom she had been feuding in the pages of the newspaper for which they both wrote. Just the way they looked at each other is enough to convey that they want to, well, spend some time alone together.
Newman’s brilliant performance in Absence of Malice (it earned him an Oscar) simply could not make up for his absence of chemistry with Sally Field. When they do finally hook up, we think it’s to fit the formula of the script rather than to express his unbridled passion for his co-star. The filmmakers might have overcome the clunky third act had they cast someone opposite Newman with whom, we cold readily believe, he wanted to be alone on a boat ride to Bimini which, well, takes three times as long as nautical charts suggest.
Something Hollywood filmmakers need bear in mind.