Chemistry lessons

By David Sturm, Copyright © 1996


"Boy meets girl. So what?" groused playwright Bertolt Brecht. So, they go to the movies.

This list includes a variety of features in which the romantic or sexual chemistry between a man and woman is the central plot element.

"Blue Angel" (1930), directed by Josef von Sternberg, is the enduring classic about the respectable university professor, Emil Jannings, who becomes so entranced by a tawdry nightclub singer, Marlene Dietrich, he throws everything away to be with her. You know how this turns out.

"Anna Christie" (1930), directed by Clarence Brown from Eugene O'Neill's play, gave Greta Garbo her first talking role. She's a weary ex-prostitute come home to live with her barge captain father in New York, finding romance with boisterous sailor Charles Bickford.

"Queen Christina" (1933), directed by Rouben Mamoulian, has Garbo at her most touching, funny and radiant. She's the 17th Century queen of Sweden who falls in love with the dashing Spaniard John Gilbert. Her final fade-out gazing out at the ocean is legendary.

"Camille" (1936), directed by George Cukor from the Alexander Dumas novel, is one of Garbo's great vehicles in this lavishly produced story of the tragic heroine who sacrifices all in the name of love.

"Gone With the Wind" (1939), directed by Victor Fleming from the novel by Margaret Mitchell, is about the ups and downs in a love affair in the Old South. People seem to find this movie most enjoyable.

"Now, Voyager" (1942), directed by Irving Rapper from Olive Higgins Prouty's novel, is Hollywood's great paean to platonic love. Bette Davis is the woman who, after therapy, overcomes her shyness and goes on to lead a rich and fulfilling life even though the man she loves, Paun Henreid, is always just out of reach.

"Brief Encounter" (1945), directed by David Lean from a Noel Coward play, is the quintessential British romance about a man and woman--decent, ordinary, married to other people--who happen to meet in a train station and fall in love. Trevor Howard and Joyce Carey are perfectly cast.

"A Streetcar Named Desire" (1952), directed by Elia Kazan from the Tennessee Williams play, gets plenty of sexual sparks flying when aging belle Blanche, Vivien Leigh, who is at the end of her rope, has to move in with her sister in New Orleans, where she brings out the worst instincts in her brute of a brother-in-law Stanley, Marlon Brando.

"The Quiet Man" (1952), directed by John Ford, has a Connemarra village in Ireland in an uproar when American boxer John Wayne moves in and begins romancing the tempestuous Maureen O'Hara. Kitschy but fun.

"Miss Sadie Thompson" (1953), directed by Curtis Bernhardt, casts Rita Hayworth memorably as the exuberant young woman on a tropical island who attracts the attentions of good-hearted Marine Aldo Ray and priggish minister Jose Ferrer.

"Marty" (1955), directed by Delbert Mann from Paddy Chayefsky's script, is the little movie that America clasped to its heart. Ernest Borgnine is the shy butcher who is resigned to lonely bachelorhood when he meets an equally shy woman who, in a memorable line, ain't such a dog as she thinks she is.

"Bus Stop" (1956), directed by Joshua Logan from the William Inge play, introduces Don Murray as the impetuous and none-too- sophisticated cowboy who no sooner meets singer Marilyn Monroe than he decides to marry her. She's not so sure, at first.

"Lolita" (1962), directed by Stanley Kubrick from Vladimir Nabokov's novel, offers James Mason as the worldly Humbert Humbert whose affair with the sultry teenager Dolores (Lolita), Sue Lyon, is followed from beginning to its sad, sordid end.

"Love with the Proper Stranger" (1963), directed by Robert Mulligan, a tough-minded romantic drama set in working class New York, treats out-of-wedlock pregnancy as the crisis it was back then. Fine chemistry between Natalie Wood and Steve McQueen.

"A Man and a Woman" (1966), directed by Claude Lelouch, combines lush production, dreamy music, and engaging cast to create the great romance movie of the 1960s. There's no denying the French have a knack for this.

"Georgy Girl" (1966), directed by Silvio Narizzano from Margaret Forster novel, is set in swinging 1960s London but features the decidedly dumpy Lynn Redgrave as the young woman who becomes a nervous wreck when romance barges into her drab life from unexpected directions.

"Far from the Madding Crowd" (1967), directed by John Schlesinger from Thomas Hardy's novel, is the greatest of all historical romances, featuring a radiant Julie Christie as a Victorian woman whose romantic entanglements have an epic grandeur. The men in her life are Peter Finch, Terence Stamp, and Alan Bates.

"Two for the Road" (1967), directed by Stanley Donen, examines a marriage in trouble by showing the evolution of the relationship, from first blush to weary bickering, in flashbacks during a trip by car across France. Albert Finney and Audrey Hepburn are the couple.

"Women in Love" (1969), directed by Ken Russell, gives the flamboyant Russell touch to D.H. Lawrence's novel about two women friends, Glenda Jackson and Eleanor Bron, and their knotty love affairs with two men friends, Oliver Reed and Alan Bates. The Victorian Age is over; long live the 20th Century!

"Goodbye, Columbus" (1969), directed by Larry Peerce from Phillip Roth's novel, explores the passions and conflicts that emerge when an inner city librarian, Richard Benjamin, woos a girl above his station, a Radcliffe University princess played by Ali MacGraw. Though steeped in Jewish folkways, the themes are universal.

"A Touch of Class" (1973), directed by Melvin Frank, exploits culture clash perfectly when swaggering, self-absorbed American George Segal takes his sophisticated British mistress, Glenda Jackson, off for a little no-strings European romp. As they cope with one hassle after another, they fall in love.

"The Last Tango in Paris" (1973), directed by Bernardo Bertolucci, startled audiences with its sexual frankness. Marlon Brando, an expatriate American in Paris, is still grieving over his dead wife, who committed suicide, when he recklessly starts a torrid affair with the lubricious Maria Schneider. No good is going to come of this.

"Robin and Marian" (1976), directed by Richard Lester, has romantic charisma to spare with Sean Connery as virile Robin Hood, still winsomely in love with Maid Marian, Audrey Hepburn, after many years have passed.

"An Unmarried Woman" (1978), written and directed by Paul Mazursky, shows unusual perception and intelligence in following the process of awakening and self-discovery that occurs when a woman, Jill Clayburgh, is abruptly jilted by her husband and left to her own devices. An authentic love blooms when painter Alan Bates enters her life.

"Smithereens" (1982), directed by Susan Seidelman, is a city mouse-country mouse romance featuring gangly New York punkette Susan Berman being pursued amusingly around the hipper low rent districts of Manhattan by a moonstruck hick, played by Brad Rinn.

"She's Gotta Have It" (1986), written and directed by Spike Lee, is an early low-budget outing by Lee that presents Tracy Camilla Johns, seen usually in her bedroom, as the cheerful girl who juggles the three men in her life with insouciant ease.

"sex, lies and videotape" (1989), directed by Steven Soderbergh, is the essential post-modern romance. A sour marriage gets turned upside down when the husband's old buddy turns up and begins pursuing his favorite hobby, which is videotaping people's sexual fantasies.

"Say Anything" (1989), directed by Cameron Crowe, is one of the few teenage romances that don't place a premium on horniness and stupidity. John Cusack is the aspiring kickboxer who falls for a girl way out of his league, Ione Skye, who is being groomed by her father for princesshood. The script takes some surprising directions.

"Ju Dou" (1990), directed by Zhang Yimou, is a magnificently acted and filmed account of a tragic love triangle in 1920s China. Set colorfully in a dye plant, it has a mean old rich man, his beautiful but unhappy wife and the virile young worker who has eyes for her. Take it from there.

"Cyrano de Bergerac" (1990), directed by Jean-Paul Rappenau, casts Gerard Depardieu as the intrepid French swordsman with a big nose who loves but is too embarrassed to woo Roxanne, Anne Brochet. Best filming of the French classic.

"Jungle Fever" (1991), directed by Spike Lee, examines, with empathy and amusement, the uproar when a black architect, Wesley Snipes, has a passionate affair with his Italian-American temporary secretary, Annabella Sciorra. Lee adroitly navigates this minefield.

"The Piano" (1993), directed by Jane Campion, is the austere and hypnotic tale of a mail order bride who finds herself, her daughter, and her piano in New Zealand one day. She must choose between her ostensible husband, the uptight Sam Neill, and the gone-native hunk Harvey Keitel.


Back to The Indispensable Movies Home Page.