A Brief History is a recurring feature that offers a crash course on some sliver of music or film history. Today, we look at real-life lovers who appeared as on-screen couples while together.
By the Sea, written and directed by Angelina Jolie (In the Land of Blood and Honey, Unbroken) and starring Jolie and husband Brad Pitt, is not a vanity project in the traditional sense. Gorgeous shots of two of the most photogenic people on earth lounging in a Maltese seaside villa notwithstanding, By the Sea is a film about a marriage rotting and imploding — a bold move from a couple who is not only married in real life but also held aloft as the pinnacle of Hollywood royalty.
Instead of projecting the image and thus the idea of a perfect relationship that we so often see in romantic films (not to mention on red carpets and inside glossy magazine spreads), the reigning King and Queen of Hollywood allow themselves to be seen as something more grotesque and realistic: two beautiful people who get almost unbearably ugly with each other.
Jolie and Pitt’s first outing, 2005’s Mr. and Mrs. Smith, is an example of a safer bet, one that real-life couples often enter into when acting in a film together, perhaps to preserve the myth that their relationship is indeed as golden as it appears in the public eye. It’s one thing to portray a moderately dissatisfied couple who play at trying to kill each other (all in good fun!) and end up happily-ever-after in a romp like Mr. and Mrs. Smith. It’s quite another to play a desperately unhappy couple in a trenchant drama like By the Sea, as two people drowning in a marriage too toxic to be saved.
The following 10 films are rare examples of that latter category: real-life couples, past and present, exposing the dark underbelly of relationships — and, it stands to reason, their own relationships — by playing acrimonious couples onscreen. Mining such uncomfortable and unflattering territory must have been difficult to film, as many of the relationships mentioned here, perhaps in direct response to the grueling emotional demands of the shoot, disintegrated in the aftermath. But whether the couples stayed together or not, the fascinating theater of their crumbling will live on in celluloid — forever. Lucky us.
Greta Garbo and John Gilbert
Here’s what you need to know about Love, a silent film starring screen legends Greta Garbo, then 22, and John Gilbert, then 30. MGM made the film in order to capitalize on the electric pairing of Garbo and Gilbert, who had previously starred in the 1926 smash Flesh and the Devil and whose chemistry extended to their personal lives. Love, an erotic retelling of Anna Karenina, ends tragically, with Garbo’s character making a deal to spare the social status of Gilbert on the condition that she leaves him and their homeland of St. Petersburg forever.
In real life, Garbo and Gilbert had been having an affair. According to the excellent podcast You Must Remember This from former film critic Karina Longworth, Garbo almost married Gilbert in September 1926, but on their wedding day, she didn’t show, and Gilbert spent the night binge-drinking and crying over what felt like a stab in the heart. Several more attempts at marriage were made by Gilbert in the ensuing years, but when Garbo finally ended their affair in 1928, Gilbert, hurt and angry, rushed into the arms of another actress, Ina Claire, whom he married in 1929. Meanwhile, Garbo successfully transitioned into “talkies,” and Gilbert did not; he died from complications of his alcoholism at age 40.
Relationship Status: Dissolved. Gilbert married and divorced another woman after Claire and was dating Marlene Dietrich when he died in 1936. Garbo never married; she died in 1990 at the age of 84.
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966)
Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor
What better way to hype your hot Hollywood relationship than making the ultimate sad sack’s film about failed relations? Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Mike Nichol’s daring first film, featured a peak Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton in full-on disaster mode as a married couple having a barn burner of a night.
Taylor won Best Actress, and Burton got a nod for Best Actor. Oof, the pillow talk over that one. The movie’s a domestic classic, and Burton and Taylor exposed their souls in this epic marital disaster. In ’67, Burton and Taylor starred in the delightful but slightly forgotten adaptation of Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew, but it didn’t capture the raw power and volatility of Virginia Woolf.
Relationship Status: Did you know that Burton and Taylor got hitched and split twice? Seriously, two of the last century’s best actors were also two of the most passionate, wild, and frankly booziest couples in Hollywood. Burton allegedly nicknamed Taylor his “little fattie,” and Taylor would constantly mock Burton’s heavy drinking. They were in hate with each other and occasionally in love. Hell, the Vatican condemned the star couple’s relationship as “erotic vagrancy.” How’s that for “crazy in love”?
Funny Girl (1968)
Barbra Streisand and Omar Sharif
Although both Barbra Streisand and Omar Sharif were married to others during the filming of Funny Girl (Streisand to actor Elliott Gould and Sharif to actress Faten Hamama), that didn’t stop the onscreen couple from having an affair that lasted through the end of production.
“Barbra Streisand, who struck me as being ugly at first, gradually cast her spell over me,” said Sharif, “I fell madly in love with her talent and personality. The feeling was mutual for months — the time it took to shoot the picture.”
In Funny Girl, Nick (Sharif) and Fanny (Streisand) do not end up together, but that’s just as well; we wouldn’t have Streisand’s thrilling and career-defining performance of “My Man” otherwise.
Relationship Status: Sharif and Hamama divorced in 1974, and Sharif never remarried; he stated that since his divorce, he had never fallen in love with another woman. In July, Sharif died of a heart attack at the age of 83. Streisand released this statement to People shortly thereafter:
“Omar was my first leading man in the movies. He was handsome, sophisticated and charming. He was a proud Egyptian and in some people’s eyes, the idea of casting him in Funny Girl was considered controversial. Yet somehow, under the direction of William Wyler, the romantic chemistry between Nicky Arnstein and Fanny Brice transcended stereotypes and prejudice. I feel lucky to have had the opportunity to work with Omar, and I’m profoundly sad to hear of his passing.”
Streisand and Gould divorced in 1971; they had one son, Jason, born in 1966. In 1998, Streisand married James Brolin and remains the stepmother of Josh Brolin to this day.
The Godfather Trilogy (1972 – 1990)
Diane Keaton and Al Pacino
Although he’s not the only co-star Diane Keaton has dated off-screen (see also: Woody Allen and Warren Beatty), Al Pacino, it seems, is the one who got away. Here are some nuggets of their relationship from Keaton’s memoirs, 2011’s Then Again and 2014’s Let’s Just Say It Wasn’t Pretty, which oscillate in that tender space between juicy and heartbreaking:
On meeting Pacino in a bar in New York City before the filming of The Godfather in 1972: “His face, his nose, and what about those eyes? I kept trying to figure out what I could do to make them mine. They never were. That was the lure of Al. He was never mine. For the next 20 years I kept losing a man I never had.”
On filming The Godfather Part II: “At the time of the rehearsal [of the “it was an abortion” scene], we weren’t speaking, or, rather, he wasn’t speaking to me. Maybe I said something to hurt his feelings. I don’t remember. In any event, before our supposed altercation, I managed to worm my way into his good graces by teaching him how to drive in the parking lot of the Cal Neva Hotel in Lake Tahoe.
“He was so sensitive that he was insensitive to his surroundings. I know that sounds like an odd description of the Godfather, but sometimes I swear Al must have been raised by wolves. There were normal things he had no acquaintance with, like the whole idea of enjoying a meal in the company of others. He was more at home eating alone standing up. He did not relate to tables or the conversations people had at them.
“Recently I went to a screening of [The Godfather Part II] and fell in love with Al all over again. The whole package. You know what I came away with? It was better he had been raised by wolves. It was better he couldn’t drive. It was better he didn’t love me and got mad without an explanation. It was worth it, just to be in that scene with him, just to feel his face against mine.”
Later, when their on-again, off-again relationship finally broke apart during the filming of The Godfather Part III (she wanted to get married; he didn’t): “Of all the beauties I’ve shared a bed with, Al’s blacker-than-midnight version was unmatchable. It was his love of language. It was the sound of his voice. It was his continuously evolving face.
“For me, the Godfathers, all three of them, were about one thing — Al. It was as simple as that. As for the role of Kay? What epitomized it? The picture of a woman standing in a hallway, waiting for permission to be seen by her husband.”
Relationship Status: A mirror of the relationship between the characters they played in three Godfather films over three decades: a woman (Keaton/Kay) longing to know a man (Pacino/Michael) who is, in essence, unknowable.
Annie Hall (1977)
Diane Keaton and Woody Allen
Annie Hall is best remembered for its endless meta-jokes and “la-di-dah,” but in its quintessentially Woody Allen way, it’s also a surprisingly searing film about Alvy (Allen), a self-centered man realizing his faults in detail and somehow cloistering himself away from them even as he forces himself to live with them. The small notes are telling: how Annie herself seems to be as much a creation of Alvy’s perceptions as a functioning, separate person at times; how Alvy never once says “I love you” even as he pines over her; how the whole film seems to hinge on Alvy’s famed opening joke that “I would never want to belong to any club that would have me for a member.” Despite Keaton and Allen’s kismet chemistry on set (much of their laughter in the film is genuine), Annie Hall lingers on how self-loathing never just affects you once somebody else enters the picture.
Relationship Status: After Manhattan in 1979, they would split, both continuing on their storied paths. Keaton would become involved with Warren Beatty, and Allen wound up with someone who may or may not have been his stepdaughter, depending on who you ask.
Cruel Intentions (1999)
Ryan Phillippe and Reese Witherspoon
How do you make classic French literature sexy and appealing to the youths? Cast late ‘90s teen stars in your hip update of Dangerous Liaisons and play the story for disaffected youth laughs with bourgeois R-rated material. Roger Kumble’s Cruel Intentions brought together powerful, Aryan, blonde teen actors Reese Witherspoon and Ryan Phillippe as they trounced around in a New York romp full of teens and tawdry behavior. Oh, what a wicked game the kids weave when they learn to deceive. And do coke.
Phillippe and Witherspoon met on set, and, uh, the sexual tension is palpable by gum. They married soon after Cruel Intentions was released. The film itself became a cult hit over time, but was a commercial failure. Witherspoon and Phillipe’s marriage? Uh…
Relationship Status: Phillipe and Witherspoon split apart after nine years of marriage in 2008. Bummer. Witherspoon won an Oscar for Walk the Line in 2006 and married Jim Toth while Phillippe had a bit part in The Lincoln Lawyer … last we recall. Look, Reese Witherspoon’s just swell.
Eyes Wide Shut (1999)
Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman
You might’ve heard some stories about this one over the years. (Like the one about Woody Allen being director Stanley Kubrick’s first choice for the Cruise role when he first started to piece together the project in the ‘70s. Can you even imagine?) Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman’s real-life relationship was still humming along at the time, and the two ended up enacting no shortage of drama in Kubrick’s examination of a struggling couple’s attempts to seek the sexual validation that’s eluded their relationship. There’s all kinds of meta-text to read into that we’ll avoid here since it can’t really be discussed without devolving into the gossipy and the lurid, but Eyes is still a sharp, envelope-pushing investigation of the secrets even the most seemingly well-off couples keep from one another and the places they’ll go to find what they can’t at home.
Relationship Status: Welp. Kidman and Cruise would divorce shortly thereafter. She would refer to the whole proceeding as “awful,” and Cruise would move on to endless, pervasive rumors about the nature of his relationships. There’s some stuff involving a couch somewhere in there, too.
Will Smith and Jada Pinkett-Smith
What did Ali have to do with Will Smith and Jada Pinkett-Smith’s love life? Nothin’. How much onscreen chemistry did the real-life couple have? None. But hey, Will and Jada got to play lovey-dovey onscreen as Muhammad Ali and Sonji Roi. Roi was Ali’s first wife for two years in the ‘60s. It ended uninterestingly. So yeah, it’s not totally, like, an epic romance and stuff and totally deserves two minutes of screen time in a 165-minute biopic.
To be fair, Ali is remembered for Will Smith’s knockout leading performance as the legendary pugilist. The romance, the real-life love affair of Will and Jada, was more a secondary bit of lucky casting than it was about flaunting their love onscreen.
Relationship Status: The Smiths are still hitched, and their spawn are trying to take over Hollywood! Just look at Sony leak emails. The studio’s terrified that the Smith kids are running the studio. That’s the power of love, kids.
Jude Law and Sienna Miller
In Charles Shyer’s remake of the camp classic Michael Caine romance, Jude Law played a lecherous, loving Brit in New York that may have found the woman of his dreams in the attractive, young Sienna Miller. Right, we’re not here to talk about the art of Charles Shyer. Law left his wife of several years to run away with Miller after they met on the set of Alfie. The chemistry seems real onscreen, and the two were engaged in a big, splashy, public way around Christmas of 2004. Then the nanny. Law got busted for canoodling with his kids’ nanny while engaged to Miller, and despite a public apology (and sort of begging for forgiveness that perhaps he should have directed at Miller), the power couple split in 2006.
But wait, there’s more. They got back together in the fall of 2009. Aww, true love…
Relationship Status: Nevermind. They called it off in early 2011. Law and Miller never got hitched, despite several makeups and breakups. Law’s having a silver-foxed renaissance as a Brit character actor with a silky voice, and Miller’s getting cast in a million-and-one good movies, so the kids are alright.
The Break-Up (2006)
Jennifer Aniston and Vince Vaughn
Even the promotion of The Break-Up traded heavily on Jennifer Aniston and Vince Vaughn’s real-life relationship at the time. The dramedy (billed as a straight comedy, which was a mistake that turned off some audiences) about a couple mutually torpedoing their relationship while each attempting to keep their nicely appointed Chicago condo for themselves is less a wacky comedy of opposites than an examination of mutually assured destruction. It’s a surprisingly pointed piece of work, especially when considering the film’s bleak, later-changed original finale, in which months after the titular split, the two run into each other, each arm-in-arm with somebody bearing a striking resemblance to the other instead. The Break-Up is unwieldy, but also cuts to the heart of how most splits aren’t based on singular, cataclysmic events, but instead a series of small affronts that pile up over time and crush everything beneath them.
Relationship Status: While they came together making the film, ultimately both would move on, much like their protagonists.