Mixed Doubles

Tracy and Hepburn. Taylor and Burton. Now Pitt and Roberts. But while `The Mexican' might be America's No. 1 movie, history shows Hollywood can't bank on superstar pairings to pay off.

March 07, 2001|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,SUN FILM CRITIC

Adam and Eve. Romulus and Remus. Romeo and Juliet. Tippecanoe and Tyler, too. Sears and Roebuck.

Hard to think of one without the other, isn't it? Is there a chance future generations will think of Brad Pitt and Julia Roberts, stars of the just-released "The Mexican," the same way?

Probably not. But probably doesn't mean necessarily, and that's why filmmakers will keep trying to catch lightning in a bottle.

History is replete with couples whose names have been passed down through history forever entwined. Some couples achieved glory (Lewis and Clark), some notoriety (Sacco and Vanzetti), some immortality (the Monitor and the Merrimac). And some may have wished they never met each other (Haldeman and Ehrlichman come to mind). But all achieved fame greater than they could have achieved individually.

The movies, too, have had their share of famous couples: Nelson Eddy and Jeannette MacDonald, Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy, Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin, Tom and Jerry. Many came together by accident; no one knew, for example, that Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers would work so well together on screen.

Working on the theory that having two major stars in the same picture helps at the box office, Hollywood's heavyweights have routinely been cast together. Sometimes it works (Mae West and W.C. Fields). Sometimes it doesn't (anyone yearn for another team-up of Sylvester Stallone and Sharon Stone?).

Sometimes, the results are for masochists only (they wouldn't really cast Steven Seagal and Jean Claude Van Damme in the same film, would they?).

Remember these famous pairings?

Jean Harlow and Clark Gable in "Red Dust" (1932): She was the era's pre-eminent sex symbol, he was a rising star soon to outshine them all. When MGM put them together in this drama about a three-way love affair (Mary Astor was the third star), set at an Indo-Chinese rubber plantation, the sparks flew. Movie house temperatures were said to rise noticeably during the (pre-code) love scenes between Harlow and Gable. The two also became fast friends and were starring together in "Saratoga" when Harlow died in 1937.

Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi in "The Raven" (1935): The two mainstays of Universal's horror roster teamed up in this macabre flick, loosely based on Poe's poem. The men who made Frankenstein and Dracula famous made a handful of other films together (including the 1945 classic "The Body Snatcher"), but this helped set the table for all that would follow.

Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh in "That Hamilton Woman" (1941): Their romance caused something of a scandal, since he was married to someone else at the time, and it nearly cost her the role of Scarlett O'Hara. But by 1941, these leading lights of the British stage were properly married, and the studios were sure the public would pay to see them together on screen - especially playing the parts of a scandalous couple of yesteryear, naval hero Horatio Nelson and Lady Emma Hamilton. Too bad Leigh and Olivier weren't better at bringing their passion to the big screen.

Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn in "Adam's Rib" (1950): Has there ever been a movie couple who were more fun to watch? Their obvious affection for each other showed (they carried on a decades-long affair, even though Tracy never divorced his wife), and their choice of material was flawless. This screwball romp, with Tracy and Hepburn playing opposing lawyers, is their finest film together, but "Woman of the Year" is no slouch, either.

Laurence Olivier and Marilyn Monroe in "The Prince and the Showgirl" (1957): Chemistry doesn't always work, as this mildly amusing comedy about a nobleman's lust for an American showgirl proves. Separately, Monroe and Olivier could be magical on screen; together, they mixed as well as oil and water; when this film works, it's in spite of the performances.

Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton in "Cleopatra" (1963): This bloated beast, which started a tempestuous on-again, off-again romance between the two principals, is about as enthralling as watching a tree grow. Hard to gauge what manner of sparks were flying between Taylor and Burton, who were too busy letting their costumes do the acting to show much in the way of passion.

Robert Redford and Paul Newman in "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid" (1969): The film that made Hollywood safe for buddy pictures. Men liked it because of the way Redford and Newman played off each other (and how they both loved the luminous Katherine Ross, something guys could understand). Women liked it because they got two gorgeous guys on screen for the price of one ticket.

Warren Beatty and Dustin Hoffman in "Ishtar" (1987): The film that almost killed buddy pictures forever. Everybody hated it - even, one suspects, Beatty and Hoffman, who acted throughout this woefully leaden farce as though their cars were double-parked outside the studio.

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