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Married co-stars don't sizzle on film

THE BALTIMORE SUN

In Hollywood, married couples sell magazines. Their nuptials make the cover of People. Their divorces make the cover of National Enquirer.

But do married couples sell movie tickets? Surprisingly, they often don't. The latest example is Warren Beatty's and Annette Bening's "Love Affair," which debuted the weekend of Oct. 21-23 with a surprisingly weak $5.4 million box-office take.

Is it because we really didn't need another "Love Affair" -- TTC especially after its plot points were rehashed in last year's "Sleepless in Seattle"? Or do we associate Mr. Beatty too closely with another era? Or maybe we preferred the bouncing Mr. Beatty in the old days with his unmarried women friends, ranging from Julie Christie to Madonna, over today's model, happily wedded to Ms. Bening?

"I don't think the public likes to see married couples on screen," Alec Baldwin said last summer, explaining the indifference to "The Getaway," in which he starred with wife Kim Basinger. "Look at Tom [Cruise] and Nic [Kidman] in "Far and Away." Or Bruce [Willis] and Demi [Moore] in "Mortal Thoughts." Watching a married couple on screen makes the public feel voyeuristic."

At first, Mr. Baldwin's remark seemed too facile, but the unromantic facts bear it out. The stage nurtured such legendary couples as Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy and Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne. But the more intimate movie camera hasn't been as helpful.

The most famous movieland marrieds -- the still-going Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward, the twice-married, twice-divorced Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor -- ironically were at their best when at their most combative. Paul and Joanne seem like such nice people, but their only real box-office smash was the critically scorned "From the Terrace," still a popular cable revival. They squawked all the way through it, and the film ended with their divorce.

As for Liz and Dick, their most famous movie remains "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?," in which 150 minutes of vitriol concluded with a small act of tenderness.

Tenderness often is unspoken even with couples who seem made for each other. Kenneth Branagh and Emma Thompson were appropriately scorching in "Dead Again," but their most vivid impression was as Shakespeare's bantering Benedick and Beatrice in "Much Ado About Nothing."

In a sense, the Branagh-Thompson sparks are more reminiscent, in a Merchant-Ivory way, of Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall than of their more obvious high-pedigreed comparisons, Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh. Insinuation and sexual innuendo are much of the fun of Ken and Emma.

It was the same with Bogie and Bacall: Every glance exchanged by the legendary duo in their first film, "To Have and Have Not," overflowed with innuendo. They first met on that film, and as their marriage progressed, the sexual tension lessened. By "Key Largo," for example, they were almost tiresomely respectable.

A hint of naughtiness helps almost every screen couple. Did moviegoers really think that Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn were simply good friends who wound up making a bunch of movies together? And Leigh and Olivier made their most shamelessly romantic opus, "That Hamilton Woman," while still a hush-hush unmarried couple.

Ironically, the most legendary married couple of Hollywood's Golden Era, Clark Gable and Carole Lombard, co-starred in only one film, "No Man of Her Own," eight years before they tied the knot.

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