Friday, August 27, 2010

Lovers In Movies: "Let's raise a glass to the adorable couple!"

I was a very young teenager when I saw a retro showing of the great old warhorse epic, EL CID. Although at that time I was innocent to the point of idiocy, a sort of emotionally pristine Bubble Girl, I couldn't help but notice this: Roderigo (Charlton Heston) and Chimene (Sophia Loren) were individually attractive people, but when they got together on the screen, some sort of alchemy blazed between them and they became smoking hot. Hubba hubba!

It's fascinating to speculate why certain actor couples generate this warm charisma between themselves, and why others remain as cold as though they were emoting from the coffin. We all have our favorites among the warm ones, and here are a few of mine.

"When the six-foot-two Farrell kisses Gaynor passionately and holds her tiny five-foot frame up in the air, they truly look like a couple blessed by a winged divinity, with the space around them vibrating..."

Dan Callahan wrote this about Charles Farrell and Janet Gaynor in the fine old silent, SEVENTH HEAVEN (1927). If anything, his words aren't enough to convey the magic this couple had--for their audiences, and evidently for each other (they were secret lovers for many years.) SEVENTH HEAVEN unfolds like a powerful charm. Diane (Gaynor) is an orphaned waif, savagely abused and close to suicide, when she is saved by the sewage worker Chico (Farrell). He's a bit of a big lug--an arrogant dreamer, feet in the sewer and head in the stars--but she knows his heart is good, and we know it too. He chases away her abuser, carries her to his seventh-floor garret. Diane's delicate face, as she slowly understands that she'll be allowed to live there safely and chastely, has a lovely, poignant wonder and gratitude. Gaynor's whole performance is a marvel, and in fact she won the first Academy Award for an Actress, for her work in this and two other movies (SUNRISE and STREET ANGEL).
This couple is bombarded with cruel challenges in the plot, and puts an adoring audience through the wringer. We root for them so intensely that in present-day showings of the film, at the extraordinary ending (which I don't want to give away), the weeping, exhausted viewers will often chant the final, ecstatic title card:

"Love is too weak a word for what I feel...I LURRRVE you. Y'know, I LOOOVE you, I LUFF you. There are two f's...I have to invent...Of course I love you."
Woody Allen says this to Annie (Diane Keaton) in ANNIE HALL. I've seen the movie many times and it's STILL a shock late in the movie when Annie abandons Woody and New York for a L.A. record mogul. (In real life it was Warren Beatty). How can she just drop our most beloved neurotic actor, with the fuzzy red hair coming out of his ears and the wit, so tasty and spicy, burbling out of his lips in every frame? He's our Woody doll, bristly but cuddly. And she left without even asking!

"I was a vampire; and she had the sweetest blood I'd ever smelled."
Here, Edward Cullen explains his attraction to Bella, in the TWILIGHT franchise.
Edward and Bella meet cute. She walks into a high school classroom where 110-year-old Edward is masquerading as a dewy-faced Junior for the 93rd time. Talk about bored. He gets a whiff of her deliciously pungent Bella blood,which he finds madly seductive. He wants to leap on her like a cougar and tear out her throat just as a greeting. But he's a gentle, courtly soul (apart from the raving-maniacal-bloodsucking-monster thing) and they work it out. There is no reason why a monster can't wear cashmere, and Edward also dresses very well. Author Stephenie Meyers, who created the characters, is a devout Mormon; so although there are rogue vampires in the plot, not nice like Edward, and they basically chomp up and drain whole human populations, even Meyer's BAD vampires don't smoke or say naughty words. Personally, I'm glad.

The best movie couples charm us the way they charm each other. Sometimes there's a particular scene, an interaction that somehow pierces us. I'm thinking now of TEN THINGS I HATE ABOUT YOU--which was marketed as a teen flick, but is something more.(For one thing, it's a reimagining of THE TAMING OF THE SHREW.) The movie makes poignant viewing now, because it was one of Heath Ledger's earliest roles.

In TEN THINGS I HATE ABOUT YOU, the power of the very young star glimmers throughout. He's a high school bad boy (Patrick), tousle-headed like a young lion, glamorously tough. He's hired to romance the Julia Stiles character, Kate--who's reacted to her horrible ex-boyfriend by becoming prickly and bitter. Patrick tries and fails to charm her, and becomes obsessed with conquering the contemptuous girl. Finally there's a scene where Kate is blowing off steam one night at an all-girl dance club. He's followed her, in his leather pants and black shirt, and is laughed at by the other girls as a biological oddity. But from a distance he sees Kate, as both he and we have never seen her: laughing, delighted, moshing madly on the dance floor to the music she loves.

As the camera slowly approaches Patrick's face, the cynicism slowly leaves it. It's almost as though we're watching the crucial moment of the Pinocchio story, where a wooden-headed boy turns into a thinking, feeling human. In the past this high school punk had been waiting for the day when he could win. But now he feels the vitality of this girl's spirit. As he watches her, he looks like a kind angel who is marveling at the sight of a very strong, very sweet earthling. And in this delicate, wordless moment, in his face he shows us a movement of his heart: this is the girl who will be HIS girl, because this is the one he wants.

Friday, August 6, 2010

That Long Ago Summer: Young Husband And Wife In Tomato Field, a poem

Sun beams fell like stones. Glazed
neck and neck we'd stump down the rows
and when we dug in, each spadeful, pure clay,
had us jumping up and down. Over the fence
cows gandered, udders boggling against
broadbeans and trilliums. They looked dimly pleased,
as though dandelions were turning to wine in their
cool green fourth bellies.

But we were human, and we maddened by degrees.
First we'd wilt, endangered flora,
but by noon the sun had grilled us tough.
A beef-jerky man and woman shoveled and hissed.
You'd be brown as an ape man, your hair going berserk.
Our children would rush out, seize my knees. Mama
nuzzled these baby carrots with her
horse lips.

High noon! oh, ready to cry fire I remembered
night storms going straight down, no time
between crash and flash. Here
red lanterns of tomatoes
sizzled on straw. You took a hot mouthful
into your hot mouth, lost breath: a red kiss
gullet-deep, equatorial.