On the movie screen, chemistry is easy to see. A couple either has it or they don’t. Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy: yes! Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones: definitely! Jennifer Aniston and Gerard Butler in The Bounty Hunter: nay! Tom Cruise and any other human: not buying it! Cruise is a loner movie star who works best solo, ideally dangling from a building.

But while it is easy to identify the sizzle of a pair of actors who work well together, the formula that successfully binds a director and his or her star is more difficult to define. Clearly, Richard Linklater and Ethan Hawke understand one another: Before Sunrise, Before Sunset and Before Midnight add up to a trilogy masterpiece, and Hawke will soon be seen in Boyhood (out 11 July in the US), a project that a patient Linklater shot between 2002 and 2013. Likewise, Australian director David Michôd and actor Guy Pearce speak one another’s language. Following the crackling menace of Animal Kingdom (2010), the duo have now paired up for The Rover, an intriguingly bleak, post-apocalyptic tale with an acrid whiff of Mad Max – or is it Samuel Beckett?

Some terrific performances dazzle us on screen with no hint of the strife that took place during filming. Just ask Dustin Hoffman about the fights he had with director Sydney Pollack while making Tootsie. Or request a report from any woman who has ever worked with Lars von Trier, including Nicole Kidman, Charlotte Gainsbourg, and Björk. Although each actress has produced some of their best work with the complicated Danish filmmaker, they all have the war wounds to show for it.

Still, why make war when love is available? Fruitful collaborations between certain directors and actors account for some of the finest, most enduring achievements in movie history, including those of John Ford and John Wayne, Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune and John Huston and Humphrey Bogart.

Celluloid avatar

The difference between the filmmaker-actor bond and that of two co-stars is that the performer can serve as muse to or even autobiographical substitute for the director. Jean-Pierre Léaud was utterly essential to the early work of François Truffaut – and the actor, now 69 years old, was a 14-year-old schoolboy when he was first discovered by the New Wave auteur in 1958. Léaud embodied the quintessential Truffaut homme, Antoine Doinel, in The 400 Blows, and over the next 20 years, the two worked together on three feature-length Doinel films and a short. Federico Fellini, likewise, found an ideal male muse in Marcello Mastroianni. And Alfred Hitchcock saw an exemplary ordinary-man-in-the-wrong-place in Jimmy Stewart.

As for the pairing of Johnny Depp and Tim Burton, Depp may not be the embodiment of Burton per se – Burton’s universe is much too bizarre and shape-shifting a place for consistency. But the actor’s preference for characters festooned with baroque oddities is clearly in sync with the aesthetics of the filmmaker who has turned to Depp for eight projects, beginning with Edward Scissorhands in 1990. Dark Shadows, in 2012, appears to have worn the charm of those shared oddities thin for awhile; no future film collaboration is planned at the moment.

Meanwhile, it is impossible to imagine the talky, intelligent movies of writer-director Nicole Holofcener sparkling so brightly without the participation of Catherine Keener, who has appeared in every one of the director’s projects, beginning with Walking and Talking in 1996. Though she often takes the lead, Keener played a subsidiary, if vital role in 2013 in the glorious Enough Said, Holofcener’s most critically acclaimed and commercially successful movie yet. In stories about contemporary women trying to define independence, intimacy and friendship in their lives, Keener is the embodiment of a Holofcener heroine – funny and imperfect, optimistic and insecure, articulate and endearing. Or to borrow from one of the filmmaker’s own titles, lovely and amazing.

Shared sensibility

An actor doesn’t have to be his or her director’s muse to form a perfect union, but a shared language is essential. No matter what one thinks of the comedy oeuvre of Adam Sandler, there is no denying that Sandler and his longtime friend and director Frank Coraci (The Wedding Singer, Blended) are on the same wavelength. Likewise, Ryan Gosling and the trendy Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn share a certain aesthetic of anomie, evident in Drive (2011) and Only God Forgives (2013). Indeed, for better or worse – loud boos were directed at it in Cannes this year – Gosling’s directorial debut, Lost River, owes much to Refn for style and existential moodiness. And Wes Anderson has built a whole little clubhouse of fellows who share his delight in creating odd and intricate cinematic biodomes, with charter members including Jason Schwartzman, Owen Wilson and Bill Murray.

No survey on the subject is complete, of course, without saluting the redoubtable master Martin Scorsese and the two great director-actor relationships of his creative life. I refer, naturally, to Scorsese’s rich collaborations with Robert De Niro (in eight pictures) and Leonardo DiCaprio (in five). It’s difficult to imagine two more different movie stars than De Niro and DiCaprio, one blazing with street toughness, the other an internally combustible brooder. One (dating back to Mean Streets in 1973) is more of a brother to Scorsese, the other (beginning in 2002 with Gangs of New York) more of a son. But each actor, capable in his way of fierce intensity, has inspired such great flights of cinema for Scorsese that audiences can only hope these beautiful friendships never end.

With all due respect for the auteur theory of cinema in which the director’s vision prevails, moviemaking is a collaborative process. And when the formula for a great friendship between a director and actor works just right – involving percentages of luck, trust, commitment and pleasure combined with all that talent – collaboration looks and feels a lot like love.

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