Tracy and Hepburn. Bogie and Bergman. Fred and Ginger. Liz and Dick. Butch and Sundance. Thelma and Louise.
Sebastian and Mia?
Finding the rare perfect pair with the golden touch on the silver screen -- in the guise of a real-life sustainable couple, a one-off character study or two actors who continue to play it again -- can be either an exhilarating or exasperating experience. Just like watching a doubleheader or double feature, both always aren't a winning combination.
Whether it involves BFFs or best frenemies, a dynamic duo or an old-fashioned romantic couple, there has to be a chemical attraction/reaction between the two lead actors to make us want to believe in them.
The 39th Denver Film Festival gets off on the right foot in that department this week with its Red Carpet presentation of La La Land, a modern take on the Hollywood musical that pays homage to the City of Angels, matches made in movie heaven and anyone else who dares to dream another day.
The Nov. 2 showing at the Ellie Caulkins Opera House in downtown Denver that opens the festival's 12-day run stars Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone as hopeful romantics with artistic aspirations seemingly as unreachable as the moon.
It's a mesmerizing piece of work by writer-director Damien Chazelle, who will be in Denver that night along with Stone to discuss the film that will surely land them Oscar nominations.
"To me, it was important to make a movie about dreamers, about two people who have these giant dreams that drive them, that bring them together, but also tear them apart," Chazelle said in the press notes, setting the stage for what could be a bumpy ride for the film's main characters.
Both the director and his leading lady have been making the rounds on the festival circuit since Venice, where Stone was named best actress for her role as Mia, who yearns to be a movie star one day while auditioning for bit parts and blending into the Hollywoodwork as a barista. As Old School cool jazz pianist Sebastian, Gosling plays a "stubborn guy who thinks he knows exactly what the music he wants to do is and is not going to be swayed by anybody," Chazelle said at the Telluride Film Festival in September.
That's where many American cinephiles like myself and Denver Film Society Festival Director Britta Erickson discovered La La Land for the first time.
"My most immediate impression was that it couldn't be a more perfect opening night film for the 39th Denver Film Festival," said Erickson, responding to a series of email questions for the first of two articles featuring some of the event's most significant pairings. "I envisioned how well a musical that celebrates the movies would play in the beautiful Ellie Caulkins Opera House."
Stone, who received her first Academy Award nomination for Birdman in 2015, will undoubtedly receive more accolades leading up to the Oscar telecast in February.
"I have thought highly of Emma's work ever since Superbad and then Easy A came along and I knew she was going to be the star of her generation," Erickson added. "I think she is a shoe-in for an Best Actress (Oscar) nomination this year with a very good chance of taking home that little gold man statuette. And best thing about that is that I bet she puts it in her bathroom -- she seems to have a delightful sense of humor."
After the 8 p.m. screening on Nov. 2 in Denver, Erickson will present Stone (at right in Telluride) with the festival's Excellence In Acting Award. "I hope she doesn't want to dance (afterward), because there is no way I could keep up with her talented toes," joked Erickson, who found Stone's Mia reminiscent of Debbie Reynolds' role as wannabe-a-star Kathy Selden in Singin' In The Rain, "a movie that I have watched over and over again with my son."
The versatile Stone, who will soon star as tennis legend Billie Jean King opposite Steve Carell's Bobby Riggs in Battle of the Sexes, might be too pooped to party after joining Chazelle for a Q&A hosted by Denver film critic Lisa Kennedy to finish the evening's festivities.
Stone and Chazelle have practically been inseparable on the festival trail, spending the four-day Labor Day weekend in Telluride, where La La Land first wowed U.S. audiences. The packed patrons' screening they attended at the 500-seat Chuck Jones' Cinema in the Mountain Village on Sept. 2 also attracted stars Tom Hanks and Jennifer Garner.
Three days later at the Labor Day picnic in Telluride's Town Park, Chazelle and Stone (left) took part in a noon seminar with Bleed For This director Ben Younger called: "Word, musical note or image? Are today's films still anchored in screenplays?"
That subject didn't bring any definitive answers but served as a jumping off point for moderator Annette Insdorf to heap praise on their films, particularly La La Land. She called Chazelle's opening sequence, during Mia and Sebastian's not-so-cute meet in the middle of a traffic jam on a freeway overlooking downtown Los Angeles, "an extraordinary overlap of music, dance and lives" that caused her to gasp at a New York screening.
Asked if the overhead shots came from a drone, Chazelle said, smiling, "No. I think that's an awesome idea. I should have tried that. It was a crane. ... You try to make stuff feel lighter than air even though you're doing it with heavy equipment like a crane on a freeway. ... You hope the result of watching it does feel like you're just floating."
Through movie magic, Stone also had the chance to dance among the stars in a dazzling scene with Gosling that compares favorably to the fantastical experience Nicole Kidman and Ewan McGregor shared in Baz Luhrmann's Moulin Rouge.
Ryan Gosling (left) and Emma Stone sing, dance and act in La La Land.
Having acted alongside Gosling previously in the marital crisis dramedy Crazy, Stupid, Love and also starring with him in Gangster Squad, there were other significant lures besides the screenplay -- such as the singing and dancing -- that brought Stone to this project.
"I think a script like this with these sort of visual descriptions of us floating off into space, it was necessary to hear what his vision for the film was," Stone told the Telluride crowd. "I think the script alone would have been slightly confusing, although beautiful. And the ending was absolutely stunning on the page. It felt, while reading it, the way that I think it feels watching it. So that was pretty incredible and that definitely was bolstering. But it was really nice to hear (Chazelle) kind of describe what all this would look and feel and sound like."
While Justin Hurwitz's marvelous music, with songs such as "City of Stars" and "Audition" (the latter beautifully performed by Stone), and Linus Sandgren's luscious cinematography make La La Land quite an artistic achievement, it doesn't hurt to have co-stars as attractive as Gosling and Stone, who established herself as a dancer when she made her Broadway debut in 2014 as Sally Bowles in Cabaret.
They went through an artistic booting camp of sorts before filming La La Land. Building up her stamina with more than 100 performance of Cabaret, she prepared for tap and ballroom dancing by spending most of a summer learning from scratch the choreography of Mandy Moore (So You Think You Can Dance). Stone called Moore, not to be confused with the singer-actress, "an absolute hero."
On top of the dance lessons and, according to Stone, getting his feet stepped on when they worked as partners, Gosling (left) committed to playing the piano four hours a day for months, she said.
"There's not a single shot with a piano double in the movie," said Chazelle, who in 2014 directed the rough-and-tumble tale of a jazz drummer in the Oscar-nominated Whiplash after making his first feature, Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench, a jazz musical that served as his senior thesis at Harvard in 2009.
"That's all (Gosling). ... I was ready to hire a piano double," Chazelle added. "That wasn't me being a dictatorial director. That was him saying, 'Oh, no, I'm gonna play every note.' ... And he did it and it's amazing."
Added Stone: "Having worked with Ryan before, his amount of dedication as an actor in terms of what he will do for a role is unbelievable."
What is believable is how well Stone and Gosling play off each other. Just starting to write a script for La La Land about the time Crazy, Stupid, Love was released, Chazelle said their interaction and recurrence as a pair reminded him of golden age of Hollywood couples such as Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers, Katharine Hepburn-Spencer Tracy and William Powell-Myrna Loy.
"Or like other old Hollywood couples who would recur and you could do variations on their pairing in each movie because they would bring baggage from other movies," he added. "There's something about that that I thought would be cool for this. Sort of take a duo that we'd seen before that feels very old Hollywood to me but also very contemporary. But hopefully kind of subvert it a little bit, strip back stuff from the course of the movie."
While Stone and Gosling certainly step up in La La Land, it might be unfair to compare them to prominent pairs of the past.
Believing that the modern Hollywood ending has changed, Erickson said, "That changes the way we look at a Hollywood dream couple. Emma and Ryan, though, are sure dreamy to watch as a screen couple, always. They make for a very pretty picture and always make me believe that crazy, stupid love is possible."
Part 2 of this Denver Film Festival preview on Tuesday (Nov. 1) recommends five more pretty fair acting pairs to watch. Publicity photos courtesy of the Denver Film Festival. Telluride photos by Michael Bialas. See more from the 43rd Telluride Film Festival.