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Gere and Lane do make a nice couple

September 24, 2008|RACHEL ABRAMOWITZ

ONLY once in her career has Diane Lane ever been asked to meet an actor to ascertain if the pair would have enough onscreen "chemistry" to make the screen sizzle. That was for the 1984 movie "The Cotton Club," and director Francis Ford Coppola wanted Lane to come meet Richard Gere.

"I was filming 'Streets of Fire' and graduating high school," she recalls with a throaty chuckle. "On a Sunday, I had to fly to New York and then fly back the same day. I was 18 and very upended by that feeling of auditioning -- when I had already made two films for the director. I kind of felt rebellious against that whole sweet-and-sunshine kind of popularity contest that one assumes an audition might be. Richard just cut through my whole awkwardness and laughed at me, and we've been laughing every since."

Indeed, the duo reunited to play a married couple torn asunder by Lane's character's infidelity in 2002's "Unfaithful" and now reteam, yet again, for "Nights in Rodanthe," playing two broken souls who inadvertently meet and fall in love during a hurricane weekend in North Carolina.

"Nights in Rodanthe," which opens in theaters on Friday, has a lot of old-fashioned pleasures that, after this boom-boom summer, I've practically forgotten exist in movies. It doesn't have explosions or superheroes. It has real characters with real, recognizable life problems. (She's a housewife escaping from her unfaithful husband; he's a doctor whose life implodes after one of his patients dies.)

Mostly, though, it has movie stars who look a lot better than real people when they suffer, and connect, and canoodle. And movie stars who don't look to have had plastic surgery, which seems to be practically an epidemic in the over-40 Hollywood set. Let's face it, in the so-called sexy older woman category, Diane Lane could give Gov. Sarah Palin a serious run for her money.

Indeed, I don't know what has happened to Hollywood recently, but established cinematic couples -- of the male-female kind -- are practically a rarity these days. Yes, Hollywood is loaded with bromance: Brad Pitt and George Clooney, Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly, and the entire Judd Apatow oeuvre. Yet heterosexual romance seems to be a dying breed.

It didn't used to be like this. In the glory days of Hollywood, screen couples pranced through movie after movie. Remember Hepburn and Tracy, Astaire and Rogers, Bogey and Bacall? According to film historian Jeanine Basinger, a lot of those legendary couples started off as "accidents," though during the days of the studio system (which lasted until 1960), the moguls made some effort at finding the perfect pairing. "[The studios] were always looking for it," Basinger explains. "They had a system where they paired a young woman, like Lana Turner, who was up and coming, with an established star, like Clark Gable. People would go to the Gable movie and discover her. If it was a good pairing, they'd repeat it."

Even the Clinton era gave us Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan and their fairy godmother, Nora Ephron. But since then, romance also seems to have moved from the big screen to the small screen, where McDreamy and Meredith can dither to their heart's content.

Gere and Lane are an exception. On screen, neither is too gooey, and they have a cool exterior that protects a palpable vulnerability and the rare ability to seem larger than life. In fact, Gere is one of the few male movie stars who consistently partners women well, such as Debra Winger and Julia Roberts. And he, unlike some other actors, is happy to do it. "I really like women," Gere says, and then adds, "I love women. . . . I think most men will say their thoughts and their emotions revolve around their relationship with women."

When they first started working together, Lane was still essentially a kid and Gere was 35. "I was older, but that doesn't mean I was grown up!" Gere says, recalling the legendary tumult of the "Cotton Club" filming. Centered on the real-life Harlem nightclub of the 1920s and '30s, the film starred Gere as a musician who falls in love with a gangster's moll (Lane).

Both Gere and Lane recall the shoot as chaotic but fun. "That's a wormhole," Gere says, chuckling. "It was a peculiar shoot because there never really was a script. It was an enormous amount of improvising."

"There was a script, but it was just a suggestion," Lane remembers. "We would film beautiful scenes lit at night in Harlem. . . . I was coming literarily from the avant-garde theater of the early '70s. I was comfortable making movies like that. If I'd had a bunch more experience in regular filming, I might have raised an eyebrow, but I had already worked for Francis. I never questioned the little man behind the curtain."

Over the years, Gere and Lane kept in Christmas-card kind of touch but then rejoined for "Unfaithful," a production that featured a lot of smoke-filled scenes and myriad takes.

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