It’s a well-known fact that high profile actors sell films. The attachment of a name is a publicity tool which the industry has used for over a century; however, in the past decade it appears that one star name is no longer enough to satisfy audiences. Consequently, more films are paying homage to each other, or at least to loyal fans, with their use of recurring acting duos.
The decision for actors to repeatedly work together raises the debate as to how far these are creative decisions versus box-office-fuelled contracts. The latter often has generic characters, a regurgitated plot and an all too glossy use of cinematography, reminding audiences that this perfectly imperfect world is a film. What is more interesting are the acting pairs who attach their names and joint on-screen personas to projects which disrupt audience expectations. A prominent duo at the moment is Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper – a pair in which one name, just two years after the release of their first collaboration in Silver Linings Playbook (2012), now instigates the others.
The acting duo brought a sincerity to David O. Russell’s endearing characters, in their unconventional and unlikely romance. These roles were certainly not far removed in the duo’s following film American Hustle (2013), in which whilst not playing directly opposite each other, they maintained a psychotic urgency. It is doubtful that not a single screening passed without comment on Lawrence and Cooper’s collaboration once again. For the lack of scenes the pair shared in American Hustle, audiences can rejoice in the duo’s upcoming third union, Serena (UK release 24th October), in which the couple play newlyweds Serena and George; a barren wife of a timber empire businessman respectively, in North Carolina during the Depression. ‘No doubt movie bosses are banking on the chemistry between Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence paying off yet again’ (GLAMOUR Magazine).
It can even be considered that former roles are reprised by acting pairs with each new film they take on. It is easy to suspend one’s disbelief in Lawrence and Cooper’s portrayal as newlyweds as audiences have already witnessed them fall in love on-screen. There is therefore an unspoken and unavoidable coherence between films with the same leading pairs. In drama, this adds a mark of quality to performances, which become stronger with each collaboration. In comedy, this coherence generates familiarity.
The famous ‘Frat Pack’, a term first coined by Entertainment Weekly and brought back into parlance by USA Today in 2004, describes the elite group of comedy actors who continually collaborate in pairings across the group: Ben Stiller, Jack Black, Owen Wilson, Will Ferrell, Vince Vaughn, Steve Carell, Jason Segel and Paul Rudd.
With Ben Stiller and Owen Wilson having collaborated in thirteen films, and Jason Segel and Paul Rudd six, the demand and longevity of comedy duos is evident. It is not to be overlooked that even with a bad script, certain comedy duos and acting pairs can sustain a film with the momentum of their own chemistry. The issue of multiple stars really only comes into play when overdone. High profile films including Valentine’s Day (2010), New Year’s Eve (2011), What to Expect When You’re Expecting (2012), and most Adam Sandler films, overindulge in a mass of known actors, to no real creative or character driven avail. British casts appear to use the strategy more diligently as The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (2012) brilliantly demonstrated.
So are two names really better than one? When it’s purposeful, contributing to the story, and a genuinely appropriate casting choice, yes. That does not mean films like Valentine’s Day are not successful – commercially, they are. What they lack however is anticipation. Anticipation that an acting pair will live up to expectation, whether their characters will indeed reflect nuances of their previous roles, and whether they will collaborate again in the future. Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet’s eleven year hiatus from reuniting on-screen allowed Revolutionary Road (2008) to attain a poignancy beyond the capacity of the script. Acting pairs consequently have their place in the industry and they certainly have an audience demand, but what makes them creatively successful is when they refuse to collaborate to each of these demands, instead supplying the anticipation of their reunion.