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It's Still a Guy Thing: The Evolution of Buddy Movies

The Big Picture

October 09, 2001|PATRICK GOLDSTEIN

In the early 20th century, buddy teams became a staple of early vaudeville acts. By the 1930s, films were full of comedy duos, first with Laurel and Hardy, then Abbott and Costello and others.

The formula has been renewed ever since: Hope and Crosby in the '40s, Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis in the '50s, Matthau and Lemmon in the '60s, Richard Pryor and Gene Wilder in the late '70s, Eddie Murphy and Nick Nolte in the 1980s.

"It's a very American thing," says film historian David Thomson. "There are very few buddy movies in British or French films. You just wouldn't see three Englishmen behave the way American men do, who are truly happiest when they are together with other men."

The key to buddy movies is chemistry that derives from opposites that attract. It's why so many modern-day buddy films pair up black and white actors--the stark contrasts in racial style give the movies an extra kick.

In most buddy films, the comedy comes from pure aggravation. In "Silver Streak," Pryor is infuriated by Wilder's honky haplessness. In "The In-Laws," Peter Falk thrives on keeping Alan Arkin in a perpetual panic. In the "Rush Hour" films, Tucker and Chan literally speak different languages. Director Brett Ratner says that when the two actors met, they both said they didn't understand a word their co-star said.

"That's when I knew they'd be perfect together," Ratner says. "The chemistry comes from how they respond to each other. When we put Chris and Jackie together, it was like an explosion in a bottle."

Ratner calls it chemistry. Gallo calls it "the yin-yang thing." For Levinson on "Bandits," it came down to casting. "With buddy movies, you always want some kind of conflict," he says. "In 'Bandits,' Bruce is the great straight man, feeding Billy Bob. It's almost like Martin and Lewis, with one guy setting the other guy up. Without Bruce playing it so straight and setting Billy Bob up, we'd have no contrast, Billy Bob wouldn't have anyone to bounce off of."

Many of the best buddy films spring into high gear when the filmmaker introduces a dramatic irritant, usually in the form of a beautiful, free-spirited woman who sparks the flame of romantic conflict. Could you possibly imagine the Hope-Crosby road movies without Dorothy Lamour? "Some Like It Hot" without Marilyn Monroe? After Blanchett turns up in "Bandits," Willis and Thornton debate what to do with her, with Thornton lobbying for shooting her and burying her body in the woods. From the back seat, Blanchett complains: "What am I, invisible?" Of course not. The men are already fighting over her.

Buddy movies tell a lot about men, but they also tell us a lot about the eras the films come from. The Hope-Crosby films are wartime escapist fantasies. The '70s buddy films are steeped in paranoia and alienation, whether it's "Scarecrow," with Al Pacino and Gene Hackman as hitchhiking losers, or "All the President's Men," which teams Dustin Hoffman and Redford in a political thriller. Even today's bland action comedies make a point. If nothing else, the "Rush Hour" films are an apt symbol of our new colorblind pop sensibility--you'd better believe studio chiefs noticed that a film topped the $220-million mark without a white actor on the marquee.

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"The Big Picture" runs Tuesdays in Calendar. If you have questions, ideas or criticism, e-mail them to patrick.goldstein@latimes.com.

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