Two Stars and a Movie Camera

By Campbell, Zachary | Framework, Fall 2005 | Go to article overview

Two Stars and a Movie Camera


Campbell, Zachary, Framework


Two Stars and a Movie Camera Screen Couples Chemistry: The Power of 2, by Martha P. Nochimson, University of Texas Press, 2002.

Is there an identifiable reason why the Astaire-Rogers musicals stick out on their own, in a way quite separate from any of Gene Kelly's oeuvre or those films with a powerful sensibility behind the camera (like Vincente Minnelli's or Busby Berkeley's) ? Is it feasible to explain why, beyond MGM prestige, the Weissmuller-O'Sullivan Tarzan films stand out from other adaptations of the Burroughs pulps? Why are "Hepburn and Tracy" immortaland why did their screen partnership last over so many years? And what precisely is the appeal of the Thin Man films starring Myrna Loy and William Powell?

The answers to these questions and more are to be found, at least in part, in Martha P. Nochimson's Screen Couples Chemistry: The Power of 2. There is a dearth of scholarship and theorization of pairs of stars in (and out of) Hollywood film, which is unfortunate given how important pairings can be. Nochimson attempts to help fill this void, offering a historically based account of several star pairings-of the romantic, heterosexual variety-in classical Hollywood cinema and contemporary American television. Nochimson has conducted interviews, analyzed Production Code Audiority records, and then turned her research toward a theoretical framework that suggests star couples chemistry is a phenomenon with certain concrete, identifiable production roots (on the encoding side) and neurological effects on viewers (on the decoding side). The basic thrust of her argument is that the greatest screen couples offer a destabilizing force-through imagery and interaction-that imbues some of their films with a liberating, complex tension; one whose appeal spans historical eras.

Nochimson proposes a flexible taxonomy of screen couple forms, breaking them down into four groups: the Functional Couple, the Thematic Couple, the Iconic Couple, and the Synergistic Couple. The Synergistic Couple, the main focus of this study, is a pairing that disrupts conventions in films and television shows-conventions about gender relations and romance, among other things. Its force is liberating. Functional Couples represent the other end of the spectrum. They are the most numerous and most conventional pairing types, "cog[s] in the wheel of the turning plot" (8).

Iconic and Thematic Couples are something in between, offering more than a Functional Couple but less than a Synergistic Couple in terms of criticality, aura, or chemistry. The Iconic Couple has chemistry-Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman in Casablanca (Michael Curtiz, US, 1942), for instance-but this chemistry remains ultimately bound and guided by dominant ideologies. As a touchstone the book uses the "Gable Plus One" phenomenon, in which Clark Gable's charm is "perfectly adaptable to a large number of acting partners, [requiring] only that they be sexually attractive, possessing a headstrong femininity that could serve as a foil for his stereotypical but thrilling patriarchal lessons in love" (11). The Iconic Couple's post-studio relative the Thematic Couple-for instance The Cosby Show's (NBC, US, 1984-92) Bill Cosby and Phylicia Rashad-offers some critique of the couple form or other societal conventions, perhaps on the level of race as with the Cosbys, but fails to truly unsettle such conventions on the level of image and chemistry. A Synergistic Couple, by contrast, necessarily relies on two actors with balanced and forceful chemistry, some of which in turn can productively open up even the most conventional storytelling.

A certain monotony periodically marks the book. It soon becomes all too clear what Nochimson's argument will be-that the given Synergistic Couple's body of work is uneven, and that the best and most interesting films (almost always the most famous and lauded) are those in which the couple challenge conventions of gender or class or other oppressive and suppressive orders. …

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