It all started with a superhero in search of a paramour. During the preproduction phase of 2002’s “Spider-Man,” director Sam Raimi was looking for someone to play Mary Jane Watson, the copper-haired aspiring actress whose toughness and compassion make her the love of her knight in shining spandex’s life.
It wasn’t going well, co-producer Grant Curtis later wrote in his book “The Spider-Man Chronicles”—until, that is, Raimi remembered a meeting he’d had with Kirsten Dunst.
What would she and Peter Parker/Spider-Man actor Tobey Maguire be like together? Raimi decided to find out, and Curtis recalls that he even went so far as to take a plane to Germany with Maguire, who had strep throat, so the actor could do a screen test with Dunst. “Kirsten’s audition, and her onscreen chemistry with Tobey, was captivating,” Curtis wrote. “Search over.”
That may sound like a lot of work to find the right damsel for a comic-book character to rescue from distress. But recruiting two actors who can convincingly convey the ecstasy and agony of falling in love isn’t easy because when it comes to movies, romantic chemistry remains elusive, ephemeral, and barely understood.
A combination that sounds intriguing on paper can sometimes fall flat (think Christian Bale and Maggie Gyllenhaal in “The Dark Knight”), while a match-up that at first glance makes little sense can be stunningly seductive (think Bale and Anne Hathaway in “The Dark Knight Rises”).
Which is what makes cinematic chemistry fascinating—we know it when we see it, yet we can’t predict where it will sprout. That’s why the couples on this list are so entrancing. They may be pairings that initially seemed unlikely, but all of them yielded onscreen romances for the ages.
10. Sandra Bullock and Keanu Reeves in “The Lake House”
Just as good acting is no guarantee of chemistry, bad acting is no guarantee that chemistry won’t manifest. Case in point: Keanu Reeves, the perpetually wooden “Matrix” star whose unguarded sweetness has miraculously compensated for his hilariously stiff delivery on numerous occasions. He’s so charming that he’s almost good, though he’s even better when paired with Sandra Bullock.
Bullock and Reeves first collaborated on “Speed,” in which they played characters falling in love at the wheel of a runaway Los Angeles bus. By contrast, “The Lake House” placed them in a more sedate world: the titular glassy dwelling, where their characters live at different points in history. He’s in 2004, she’s in 2006, and they communicate by letters through a magical mailbox (just go with it, why don’t you?).
Editor Lynzee Klingman deserves credit for crafting the actors’ unforced intimacy; by placing pieces of their respective voiceovers in conversation, she creates disarmingly personal exchanges of thoughts and feelings. Of course, it wouldn’t have worked without Bullock and Reeves, who finally get to cross paths physically in a scene where they dance in a backyard at night to Paul McCartney’s “This Never Happened Before.”
Neither actor speaks much in that scene. Yet they’re so at ease with each other that they manage to convey the thrill of meeting someone who understands you, someone who can elevate you emotionally in a single conversation. Their chemistry registers so clearly that it becomes a testament to the principle that “The Lake House” is founded upon: That two people coming together means more when they’ve been apart.
9. Scarlett Johansson and Joaquin Phoenix in “Her”
Tired of seeing Johansson typecast as a soulless seductress in hollow blockbusters like “The Avengers” and “Ghost in the Shell”? Then check out this flawed but moving futuristic romance from Spike Jonze, in which Johansson plays Samantha, a perky “operating system” who falls in love with her kind, mustachioed owner, Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix).
By all rights, this tale should have been skin-crawling—Samantha is little more than a voice floating in the ether of the internet, which gives Theodore’s lust for her a pornographic flavor. Yet the combination of Johansson’s bubbly optimism and Phoenix’s wounded sensitivity creates a poignant portrait of two emotionally stunted souls finding tangible hope in their (virtual) embrace—even though their relationship isn’t destined to last.
8. Patton Oswalt and Charlize Theron in “Young Adult”
Sometimes the best way to see who an actor has chemistry with is to see who they don’t have it with. Take Theron, for instance, who stars in this black comedy as Mavis Gary, a venomous YA novelist wooing her married ex-boyfriend (Patrick Wilson). There’s not a whiff of heat between Theron and Wilson, and there’s not meant to be—their relationship mainly exists to highlight the crackling romantic tension of Theron’s scenes with Patton Oswalt, who plays Matt, a disabled former classmate.
Every time Mavis and Matt meet, you feel as if something is being unlocked in both of them. Matt is one of the few people who recognizes Mavis for the self-absorbed monster that she is (in one scene, she cruelly and hilariously demeans a book store worker by snarling, “Whatever, book man!”), allowing Theron to exude the relief of a woman grateful to have at least one friend who she can hang out with without pretending to be a decent person.
In accordance, Oswalt uses his performance to show how Mavis’ meanness arouses both Matt’s disgust and delight, leading to his regretful but inevitable declaration of love: “Guys like me were born loving women like you.”
7. Adam Driver and Golshifteh Farahani in “Paterson”
Yes, chemistry can be generated by an exchange of zippy one-liners, an embrace on the edge of a ship, or a woman locking lips with a guy who’s danging from a strand of spider webbing. Yet romance can also emerge from seemingly small moments—moments like the scene in “Paterson” where Laura (Farahani) announces to her husband, a poet and bus driver named Paterson (Driver), that they’re having quinoa for dinner.
The bond between Laura and Paterson is remarkable in its oddness; whether they’re in bed, at the dinner table, or lounging in their modest living room, and they don’t seem able to talk freely. Yet Driver and Farahani skillfully act out scenes featuring simple but powerful acts of affection, like Paterson supporting Laura’s dream to play guitar, or Laura raging at their dog, Marvin, after he snacks on Paterson’s poetry notebook.
The result of these moments of compassion and the quiet tenderness of Driver and Farahani’s performances is something extraordinary: A portrait of a couple whose inability to fully put their love into words doesn’t diminish its intensity.
6. Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon in “Walk the Line”
An even better combo for Phoenix. While he’s impressively charismatic and belligerent as Johnny Cash, the movie endures because of his interactions with Witherspoon, who plays June Carter. Not only do they sing together with relish, but the clash between his rugged brooding and her tangy spunk is undeniably alluring.
Just watch them together when Johnny makes a veiled attempt to hit on June and she ultimately demolishes him like a lumberjack splitting an oak tree. The whole scene is scabrous yet indecently seductive, and neither one of them would have it any other way.