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Gere is lesson in chemistry

Susan Sarandon and Richard Gere take to the dance floor in Miramax's "Shall We Dance?"
Susan Sarandon and Richard Gere take to the dance floor in Miramax's "Shall We Dance?"
Courtesy Miramax

When Richard Gere, 55, steps onto the floor next Friday with Jennifer Lopez, 35, in Miramax's "Shall We Dance?" audiences will know in a heartbeat whether they've got that mysterious tension known as chemistry. Will his sly magnetism mix with her inner-city warmth to create real heat?

For a casting director like me, Gere is a living, breathing chemistry experiment. In three dozen pictures, he's romanced at least as many actresses (counting his exploits as a serial charmer in "Dr. T & the Women," "American Gigolo" and "Chicago"), with wildly varied results. Here are a few things I've learned by watching him:

This "strong silent type" needs earthy resistance.

If not exactly a nobody, the 23-year-old Julia Roberts was still short of stardom when the director Garry Marshall saw in her just the right combination of sparkle and grit to counter the 40-year-old Gere's potentially off-putting cool in "Pretty Woman." The results were spectacular. But the real miracle is that Roberts' resulting stardom didn't kill the magic: The same reaction boiled up nine years later, when Marshall got her together again with Gere in "Runaway Bride."

He is too sophisticated for sophisticates.

One of the classiest women in Hollywood, Laura Linney, has worked twice with Gere, in "Primal Fear" and "The Mothman Prophecies." Both times, the combination fell flat, because Linney's authority left watchers feeling she was smarter than Gere. The same problem lurks beneath what is arguably his worst pairing ever, with the brilliant but slightly remote Yale graduate Jodie Foster in their failed "Sommersby." She outthinks him, and audiences don't respond.

Age is an issue.

Gere sizzled with Debra Winger, only six years his junior, when the two introduced screen chemistry to the 1980s with "An Officer and a Gentleman." Similarly, he got to a heavy simmer with the age-appropriate Kim Basinger in both "No Mercy" and "Final Analysis." Neither was a smash hit, but the performances didn't freeze, as when he mixed it up with Winona Ryder, 23 years younger, in "Autumn in New York." This should bode well for the moments Gere spends onscreen with slightly older Susan Sarandon, who plays his wife in "Shall We Dance?"

Foreigners can't reach him.

The all-American (and similarly earthy) Roberts and Winger brought out the best in Gere. But foreign-born actresses (beware sophisticates) have often gotten no reaction at all. South Africa's Alice Krige couldn't save the star from himself in "King David," China's Ling Bai didn't register in "Red Corner" and Sweden's Lena Olin left audiences almost as depressed as Gere's manic-depressive character in "Mr. Jones." If the trend holds — and Gere's heady turns with the Welsh Catherine Zeta-Jones in "Chicago" offer hope to the contrary — we should fret about the chemical consequences of combining Gere with the French actress Juliette Binoche in 2005's "Bee Season." (By contrast, Daniel Day-Lewis, with his completely different molecular structure, saturated the screen with both Olin and Binoche in "The Unbearable Lightness of Being.")

The formula.

Gere's pairing with street-smart Lopez may work, but the years between them add risk. If I'm reading things right, Gere, as he ages, will react best with home-grown actresses who match his age and are strong enough to crack him open. The list, not exhaustive, would include Holly Hunter, Jessica Lange and certainly Sarandon (whose scenes with young Jude Law in this fall's "Alfie" promise a chemistry lesson of a different sort).