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10 Extraordinary Pairings That Made Unforgettable Films

by Barbara J Petoskey
fact checked by Darci Heikkinen

Chemistry: an unexplainable yet unmistakable connection. In films, the perfect melding of talent and temperament can make audiences laugh or cry or put them on the edge of their seats. These ten creative collaborations have each generated unique movie magic that is even greater than the sum of its impressive parts.

Related: 10 Most Convincing Duet Performances by Non-Couples

10 Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy

Laurel & Hardy Show | “The Music Box” | FULL EPISODE | Oscar winner | Comedy, Golden Hollywood

As a teen, Arthur Stanley Jefferson performed with a comedy troop in English music halls. After emigrating to the U.S. in 1912, he shortened his name to Stan Laurel to better fit on promotional posters. In his new country, he enjoyed modest success in silent shorts as both a performer and director.

Young Norvell Hardy started out singing in vaudeville. At age eighteen, he took the first name of his father, Oliver, who had died shortly after he was born. Billed variously as O.N. Hardy or Babe Hardy, he soon began working in short comedies, westerns, and melodramas.

As members of Hal Roach’s stable of comic actors, Laurel and Hardy first appeared together, independently, in The Lucky Dog (1921), and Laurel directed Hardy in Yes, Yes, Nanette (1925). But beginning with Putting Pants on Philip (1927), the contrast of their acting personas—thin, simple Stanley and rotund, overbearing Ollie—made them a hit team, playing what Laurel described as “two minds without a single thought.”

Moving seamlessly into talkies, the duo made more than forty shorts, including The Music Box (1932), winner of the Academy Award for Best Short Subject, Comedy, as well as many feature-length films. While not credited onscreen, Laurel wrote and directed much of their best work.[1]

9 Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy

Spencer Tracy Speech – Guess Whos Coming To Dinner (1967) Final Scene HD

In a career that spanned six decades, Katharine Hepburn more than held her own with many of her era’s greatest leading men, starting with her screen debut playing the daughter of matinee idol John Barrymore in A Bill of Divorcement (1932). The following year, she won the first of what would become four lead actress Academy Awards for her role in Morning Glory (1933).

Spencer Tracy had himself earned back-to-back Oscars for Captains Courageous (1937) and Boystown (1938) by the time he costarred with Hepburn in Woman of the Year (1942). Although they chose not to marry, from then on, they would be linked both professionally and personally, setting a benchmark for wit and intelligence in movies such as State of the Union (1948), Adam’s Rib (1949), Pat and Mike (1952), and Desk Set (1957).

Tracy’s scenes in their last collaboration, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967), were completed only seventeen days before his death from a massive heart attack suffered in the home he and Hepburn shared. Afterward, she found it too painful to ever watch the completed film.[2]

8 Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant

Bringing Up Baby (1/9) Movie CLIP – The Torn Dress (1938) HD

Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant first crossed paths in the gender-bending Sylvia Scarlett (1935), but their sophisticated style truly clicked in three “screwball” comedies. Film critic Andrew Sarris described this post-Production Code genre as “sex comedies without the sex,” with sexual tension redirected into clever banter between seemingly mismatched couples in outlandish plots with zany supporting characters.

For Bringing Up Baby (1938), a Ziegfeld Follies comic coached Hepburn for her first crack at comedy, while Grant’s performance was modeled on the great silent comedian Harold Lloyd. During production, the Independent Theatre Owners Association declared Hepburn “box office poison,” and RKO shelved the project. Hepburn’s then-boyfriend Howard Hughes bought the film and released it, but it flopped despite good reviews.

Rather than accept a low-budget assignment, Hepburn bought out her contract and paired up with Grant again at Columbia in Holiday (1938), where they showcased both their acting and acrobatic skills. They reunited for The Philadelphia Story (1940), which scored six Oscar nominations, including Best Picture, and wins for James Stewart and its spirited screenplay. Today, all three movies are considered classics for their combination of sparkling wisecracks, playful farce, and physical humor.[3]

7 Myrna Loy and William Powell

Clip HD | The Thin Man | Warner Archive

The second time was also the charm for Myrna Loy and William Powell. Manhattan Melodrama (1934) first brought them together onscreen, but The Thin Man, released only weeks later, wed them in pop culture history as the urbane Nick and Nora Charles. Powell later said of the pair, “We weren’t acting. We were just two people in perfect harmony.” Shot on a shoestring budget in only twelve days, the hit spawned five sequels.

Loy also played Powell’s wife in Evelyn Prentice (1934) and The Great Ziegfeld (1936), his future wife in Libeled Lady (1936) and Double Wedding (1937), and his soon-to-be ex-wife in I Love You Again (1940) and Love Crazy (1941). For their final matchup, she had an unsurprising cameo as his wife in the political satire The Senator Was Indiscreet (1947).

Despite all this cinematic matrimony, Loy and Powell were never more than great friends. Loy married (and divorced) four husbands. After two failed marriages, including to comedian Carole Lombard, Powell was involved with Jean Harlow and reportedly paid for her lavish funeral in 1937. In 1940, he married actress Diana Lewis and found real-life marital happiness until his death in 1984.[4]

6 Doris Day and Rock Hudson

Doris Day and Rock Hudson – “The Deception Begins” from Pillow Talk (1959)

Doris Day and Rock Hudson only costarred three times, but their names became shorthand for the mid-century romantic comedies popular as America crawled out from under the straightlaced morals of the 1950s and into the swinging ’60s. A former big-band singer born Doris Kappelhoff, Day had established herself in films through musicals such as Calamity Jane (1953) and The Pajama Game (1957) as well as the Alfred Hitchcock thriller The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956).

Then, she was paired with Hudson, a handsome leading man with an Oscar nomination for Giant (1956). Their film Pillow Talk (1959) was tame by today’s standards, but it sold tickets and earned Day her only Oscar nod. Lover Come Back (1961) and Send Me No Flowers (1964) soon followed.

Hudson continued to romance beautiful actresses and co-starred in the TV series McMillan & Wife (1971–1977). The extent of his acting chops became apparent in July 1985 when he outed himself with an announcement of his AIDS diagnosis. Over the years, he and Day had remained close. She said after his death, “I think the reason people liked our movies is because they could tell how much we liked each other.”[5]

5 James Bond and Albert Broccoli

The Family Behind The James Bond Empire

While seven actors have played James Bond in more than two dozen films, a consistent element has been producer Albert “Cubby” Broccoli. A former assistant director and talent agent, Broccoli and business partner Harry Saltzman made the first Bond adventure, Dr. No (1962), for an estimated £1 million. To play the master spy, Broccoli cast a little-known Scotsman whose fistfight he had admired in the Disney fantasy Darby O’Gill and the Little People (1959). Broccoli’s wife vouched for Sean Connery’s sex appeal. From Russia with Love (1963) was released only seven months later, with twice the budget.

Starting with The Spy Who Loved Me (1977), Broccoli became the sole Bond producer through Licence to Kill (1989), with the exception of the comic version of Casino Royale (1967) and Never Say Never Again (1983). As Cubby’s health failed, his daughter Barbara Broccoli took over the reins for GoldenEye (1995) along with Cubby’s stepson, Michael G. Wilson.

Barbara was well prepared, having gone from visits on location as a child to studying film and working as an assistant producer. As of No Time to Die (2021), the most successful movie series ever has remained a family affair.[6]

4 Paul Newman and Robert Redford

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969) – The Shootout Scene (4/5) | Movieclips

The first pairing of Paul Newman and Robert Redford almost did not happen. Newman was already a major box office draw with four Oscar nominations for dramatic roles when he signed on to a script about Western bank robbers. After Steve McQueen pulled out of the project over the question of top billing, director George Roy Hill replaced him with Robert Redford, whose biggest acting credit to date had been the Neil Simon comedy Barefoot in the Park (1967).

Casting against type, Hill wanted Redford for the laid-back gunslinger and switched Newman to the light-hearted idea man. To acknowledge the bigger star, the character names in the original title were flipped. Word-of-mouth made Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969) the top-grossing release of its year.

By the time Newman and Redford reunited as Depression-era grifters in The Sting (1973), they were equally huge. The film was another success and won seven Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Director, which brought Redford his only nomination as an actor. They may have only worked together twice, but as Butch and Sundance, Newman and Redford are forever linked as #20 on the “hero” side of the American Film Institute’s list of The 100 Greatest Heroes and Villains.[7]

3 Steven Spielberg and John Williams

The Fabelmans – Steven Spielberg & John Williams Featurette

Few in Hollywood come close to the fifty-year collaboration between director Steven Spielberg and composer John Williams. The twenty-five-year-old Spielberg was developing his debut feature, The Sugarland Express (1974), when he was introduced to Williams, who was already experienced in scoring for movies and TV.

Together, they created some of the screen’s most memorable sight and sound experiences: the ominous DA-dum of Jaws (1975), the five-note intergalactic communication of Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), Indiana Jones’s rousing theme for Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) and its sequels through 2023, and the soaring melody of E.T. The Extraterrestrial (1982).

Rather than read the script in advance, Williams preferred to see the initial cut and then discuss with Spielberg where music was needed. Sometimes, they agreed to have no music at all, such as during the long battle scene that opens Saving Private Ryan (1998). As Spielberg has characterized Williams’s contribution to their more than two dozen projects, “I tell a story, and then John retells the story musically.” Two masters of their craft, totally in tune.[8]

2 Frances McDormand and the Coen Brothers

FARGO (1996) The Best of Francis McDormand as Marge | MGM

The creative threesome of Frances McDormand and the writer/producer/director duo of Joel and Ethan Coen began when she auditioned for Blood Simple (1984) at the suggestion of her roommate, Holly Hunter. That film gave McDormand and the Coens their first major exposure, and McDormand married Joel not long after its release.

Minor parts in the Coens’ Raising Arizona (1987), Miller’s Crossing (1990), and Barton Fink (1991) were prologue to McDormand’s break-out role as the pregnant police officer Marge Gunderson in Fargo (1996), for which she earned her first Academy Award as lead actress. Joel and Ethan each took home Oscars for their original screenplay.

Since then, McDormand and the Coens have spanned genres together: thriller (The Man Who Wasn’t There, 2001), farce (Burn After Reading, 2008), and a spoof of Hollywood during the Red Scare (Hail, Caesar!, 2016). Joel’s first solo directorial project partnered him with Shakespeare when he cast McDormand as the murderous Lady Macbeth in The Tragedy of Macbeth (2021).

As she explained during a 2017 interview for the New York Times Magazine, “It was a revelation that I could have a lover who I could also work with, and I wasn’t intimidated by the person… Oh, my God! I can actually love and live.”[9]

1 Martin Scorsese and Robert DeNiro

Casino | “Meeting in the Desert Always Made Me Nervous”

Although raised in the same area of Lower Manhattan and only a year apart in age, Martin Scorsese and Robert DeNiro did not meet until adulthood at a party in 1972. The following year, Scorsese would fire up both their careers with Mean Streets (1973), set in the Little Italy neighborhood they each knew well.

Over the next half-century, Scorsese and DeNiro teamed up in nine more films, including Taxi Driver (1976), Goodfellas (1990), Casino (1995), and The Irishman (2019). Along the way, they each garnered multiple Oscar nominations, including a win for DeNiro in Raging Bull (1980) under Scorsese’s direction.

DeNiro also brought to Scorsese’s attention a young actor who became the director’s other frequent collaborator, starting with Gangs of New York (2002), Leonardo Caprio. All three of them would reunite in Killers of the Flower Moon (2023).[10]

fact checked by Darci Heikkinen