HOW TO STEAL A MILLION (1966)
Peter O’Toole & Audrey Hepburn in How to Steal a Million (1966)
A most unusual screen pairing was that of Peter O’Toole and Audrey Hepburn in How to Steal a Million, just four years after O’Toole had taken the world by storm with his portrayal of Lawrence of Arabia in 1962. The chemistry between the two stars is palpable in this terrific caper/romance set in Paris. They seem to genuinely enjoy each other’s company, not surprising I suppose, considering the couple became intimately involved off-screen throughout the shoot. Audrey has always had a love affair with the camera, but to see O’Toole in such a charming romantic comedy and handling it with ease and panache, is a welcome and unexpected treat.
IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT (1967)
Sidney Poitier & Rod Steiger in In the Heat of the Night (1967)
Two of the all-time great acting performances in movies were delivered by the main protagonists in the iconic In the Heat of the Night in 1967. Rod Steiger was rightfully the receiver of the Best Actor Oscar that year for his portrayal of local police chief Gillespie, but Sidney Poitier as Virgil Tibbs was not even nominated. In fact, that particular year saw him starring in three major film successes; Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, To Sir with Love and this one, yet went un-nominated for any of them! In the Heat of the Night was a highly dangerous project for him to be involved in, so much so that it was decided to do most of the filming, not in America’s Deep South, but north in Illinois. A major moment in this great picture was undoubtedly the scene in which Tibbs slaps the face of cotton baron Endicott (played by Larry Gates), and that scene was actually shot on a cotton plantation in Tennessee (there was no such plantation in Illinois). Poitier spent that brief time in Tennessee with a loaded revolver under his pillow!
MIDNIGHT RUN (1988)
Robert De Niro & Charles Grodin in Midnight Run (1988)
Robert De Niro has never been recognised as an actor who plays his roles for laughs, so his turn as bounty hunter Jack Walsh in Midnight Run comes as a pleasant change of pace for both him and his fans. His character and that of Jonathon Mardukas (‘the Duke’), played by Charles Grodin, are poles apart, yet both are basically decent people who are gradually drawn together over the course of the picture. I thought De Niro, in particular, was terrific in this film and showed a genuine flair for comedy. There is a great scene in which Walsh is arguing on the phone with his employer, as ‘the Duke’ stands nearby, listening. Walsh loses his temper and threatens (over the phone) to shoot his prisoner and dump his body in the river. He quickly shakes his head in ‘the Duke’s’ direction mid-sentence, indicating he was only making a point with his employer, much to his prisoner’s relief. A very funny moment. The two stars work marvellously together throughout.
MY COUSIN VINNY (1992)
Joe Pesci & Marisa Tomei in My Cousin Vinny (1992)
I consider My Cousin Vinny to be one of the funniest pictures ever churned out by Hollywood. Of course, fans of, for instance, the monumentally unfunny Will Ferrell would no doubt whole-heartedly disagree. What one generation thinks is hilarious, another often finds boring, so I am aware my statement is fraught with danger. Be that as it may, Joe Pesci and Marisa Tomei seem ideally matched as the lovers caught up in a mistaken identity murder trial in the Deep South. Evidently, bookmakers had Marisa as the rank outsider to win the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her portrayal of Mona Lisa Vito. And they got it completely wrong because she was victorious. Both she and Pesci are wonderful together, the latter winning the American Comedy Award for his efforts. There are so many wonderfully rib-tickling moments in this movie, most of them delivered by the two stars.
SOME LIKE IT HOT (1959)
Tony Curtis & Jack Lemmon in Some Like it Hot (1959)
Jack Lemmon’s credentials as a comedian are unquestioned, but the performance of screen idol Tony Curtis in Some Like it Hot (1959) took most cinema-goers by surprise. In fact, his versatility over the course of his career was proven time and again without reward. Unfortunately, the Academy appears to have pigeon-holed him as a ‘face’ and little else, so he never received the recognition his acting ability merited. For what it is worth, I believe Tom Cruise has been assessed similarly. Consequently, only Lemmon was Oscar-nominated for this picture and only costume designer Orry-Kelly picked up a statuette for it. The Academy’s tendency to overlook comedy performances was alive and well in 1959. Personally, I think Curtis was just as good as Lemmon in Some Like it Hot. And together they were a blast!
THELMA & LOUISE (1991)
Susan Sarandon & Geena Davis in Thelma & Louise (1991)
No surprise to find this iconic ‘women’s’ film on my list. Thelma & Louise has probably been unfairly labelled as a ‘women’s picture, for it is much more than that. Thanks to the fabulous performances from Susan Sarandon (Louise) and Geena Davis (Thelma) it has achieved cult status, not just from feminist groups, but from the public in general. The writing picked up an Oscar for Callie Khouri, while both female leads and director Ridley Scott were nominated, but unsuccessfully. Susan and Geena were also unsuccessfully nominated for Golden Globes. It is difficult to choose between their performances, but if forced to choose, I would opt for Geena Davis – just. She had more to do and accomplished some difficult scenes flawlessly. I find myself watching Thelma & Louise two or three times a year, just to savour these great ladies’ performances.
SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS (1957)
Tony Curtis & Burt Lancaster in Sweet Smell of Success (1957)
My appreciation of Tony Curtis as a talented actor is established here by the fact that he appears twice in my list of memorable screen pairings, and in entirely diverse movies. He was hilarious as a woman in Some Like it Hot (1959), and he is equally impressive as a snivelling, scheming press agent named Sidney Falco in Sweet Smell of Success (1957). Burt Lancaster, an actor whose career has always puzzled me, is also at his very best here as the arrogant, tyrannical newspaper columnist J.J. Hunsecker. Lancaster, in my opinion, was outstanding in this movie, From Here to Eternity (1953), Seven Days in May (1964), Ulzana’s Raid (1972) and Atlantic City (1980) – and that’s it! Mostly, he was an over-acting, grinning fool (and that includes his Oscar-winning role in 1960’s Elmer Gantry). Needless to say, many would disagree with me. So be it. Unimaginably, Sweet Smell of Success was Oscar-nominated for absolutely nothing! Not for either of its stars, not for director Alexander Mackendrick, not for writers Clifford Odets or Ernest Lehman, not for cinematographer James Wong Howe, not even for composer Elmer Bernstein’s score! The Academy has racked up an impressive number of low-points over the decades, but this one just about takes the cake.