With love well and truly in the air recently with Prince William tying the knot with the rather lovely Kate Middleton a few days ago, it seems an appropriate time to take a look at some of the most legendary on/off screen couples that have fascinated us film lovers over the years. Chemistry sparks when a real romance lies behind the scenes and when a new relationship begins the tabloids go crazy!
So to celebrate the union of the Duke & Duchess of Cambridge – and to appease my wife’s (yes, we just beat the Royals by getting married on 24th April!) constant requests to chronicle the following – here are the top ten on/off screen lovers the past century has immortalised…
10. KIM BASINGER & ALEC BALDWIN
Back in the early 90s, Kim Basinger and Alec Baldwin were one of the more popular on and off screen couples in Hollywood. Meeting on the set of The Marrying Man (1991), sparks immediately flew and they quickly became an item. However, it is in the remake of The Getaway (1994) that their romance is truly captured on film. A gritty, sex fuelled thriller, The Getaway displays the raw attraction between the two stars and sexual chemistry binds together plot and character development. Whilst both worked on numerous films away from each other, neither found a co-star that matched the chemistry between them.
Privately, the couple were very much in love and decided to marry after completing The Getaway. Having a daughter together, the couple lived in marital bliss until seven years after marrying they declared ‘irreconcilable differences’ and divorced in 2001. Since the divorce the couple have been locked in a bitter custody battle that has seen Basinger’s father blame Baldwin’s violent temper on the split, whilst Baldwin has questioned the state of his former wife’s sanity on numerous occasions. Needless to say, it’s not likely that we’ll be seeing the steamy chemistry between the stars on screen again!
The Marrying Man (1991)
The Getaway (1994)
09. KATHERINE HEPBURN & SPENCER TRACY
Starring in nine films together, Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn formed one of Hollywood’s most successful screen pairings. They met through producer Joseph Mankiewicz and immediately hit it off, employing the age-old love tactic of sparring with each other! This translated well on to the screen in a number of productions, including the celebrated Adam’s Rib (1949). Playing battling lawyers working on the same case, their affection for each other is perfectly exemplified in their comically scathing attacks on each other in the courtroom. They relish in mocking each other and it is through this chemistry that real underlying feelings of love pervade. Working on films in a variety of genres, it is the filmed capture of the stars’ real life romance that kept audiences flooding back to watch them. Rarely displaying any obvious sexual chemistry – perhaps because of the period in which the majority of their films were made – their on screen romances generally hinted at something much deeper than simple attraction and lust. It is perhaps for this reason that they proved so popular with contemporary audiences, as well as todays.
Off screen, the couple were devoted to each other until Tracy’s death in 1967. They were never able to marry however, as Tracy was a devout Catholic and had already married Louise Treadwell (since 1923) when he met Hepburn. Unable and unwilling to divorce, from 1942 onwards, Tracy spent the remainder of his life with Hepburn. Entirely dedicated to each other despite his refusal to go against his religion, Hepburn was dealt an unforgiving blow by the bitter Treadwell when she was denied access to Tracy’s funeral. The enduring love of a couple that faced so much controversy is truly a Hollywood story in itself!
Adam’s Rib (1949)
Desk Set (1957)
Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? (1967)
08. LUCILLE BALL & DESI ARNAZ
Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz are possibly the most recognisable couple from the annals of Hollywood history. Meeting as supporting players on the set of Too Many Girls in 1940 they went on to marry, have two children, build an entertainment empire and produce & star in one of the most successful television shows of all time. Very much a match made in heaven at the beginning, the two possessed an instant charm on screen that would be beamed into audiences’ homes once a week with the infallible I Love Lucy (1951-1957) series and it’s subsequent spin-offs.
Ball was exceptional at playing the dippy, infuriating Lucy to Arnaz’s easy-going and logical Ricky. No matter what daft situation Lucy found herself in, Ricky would always bail her out and ultimately an intense love was evident between the two. Sparked by the real life love between co-stars, Ball and Arnaz ignite the screen with a charming and realistic depiction of marriage. Their forays into feature film productions similarly captured the romance and chemistry between the two, which helped forge a unique brand of marital comedy that has yet to be surpassed.
The real life relationship between Ball and Arnaz did not manage to endure as long as that of Lucy and Ricky’s. The pressure of recording a weekly television show whilst maintaining a media conglomerate lead to Arnaz working 14-hour days and embarking on extra marital affairs to relieve the stress. Despite having managed to create a happy and welcoming home, Arnaz turned to drink and began to lash out at Ball in fits of violent rage. The marriage ended in divorce in 1960, but the reality of their earlier, happy years remains encapsulated on celluloid in the wonderful work they produced together.
I Love Lucy (TV, 1951-1957)
The Long, Long Trailer (1953)
Forever, Darling (1956)
07. VIVIEN LEIGH & LAURENCE OLIVIER
Many would consider Vivien Leigh’s greatest leading man to be Clark Gable in the ever-popular epic, Gone With the Wind (1939). However, her real life love affair and marriage to legendary actor Laurence Olivier produced some potent images of on screen romance. Working on only three films together, the majority of their collaborations were on stage. Starring in such Shakespeare classics as Romeo & Juliet, Anthony & Cleopatra and Hamlet, audiences were treated to intense performances and images of true love. On screen, Fire Over England (1937) – the couples’ first work together – is fuelled by a passionate sexual chemistry that portrays the excitement of the characters’ illicit affair. Mimicking their real life situation, the actors’ performances in Fire Over England wreak of genuine romantic feelings. The talent both stars’ held, helps create some truly remarkable moments of love in cinema.
Away from the screen, Olivier and Leigh embarked upon a secret affair in 1937, whilst both were still married. Their passions grew whilst working on Fire Over England and eventually in 1940 both were granted divorces, leaving them free to marry. Events (predominantly assisted by studio executives or directors) continually ensued to keep the lovers apart and Leigh was overlooked for a number of desired roles opposite her real life leading man. These included roles in Rebecca (1940) and Pride and Prejudice (1940), after the couple’s marriage. Leigh suffered from Bipolar Disorder and this had a huge detrimental effect on the couple’s off screen romance. Standing by her through the terrible lows she suffered, Olivier helped her overcome breakdowns and mental deterioration enough to work again. By 1960 Leigh considered the marriage to be over and the couple finally divorced. What remains is a legacy of exceptional performances that display a deep and powerful – but tragic – love that mimics some of their finest Shakespearian productions.
Fire Over England (1937)
21 Days (1940)
That Hamilton Woman (1941)
06. ANGELINA JOLIE & BRAD PITT
Their relationship began amongst a storm of controversy, as Brad Pitt left wife Jennifer Aniston to shack up with Hollywood’s hottest babe at the time. However, six years down the line Angelina Jolie and Pitt are still together and are raising one of the largest families known to mankind! When rumours of their affair began to circulate during the shooting of Mr & Mrs Smith (2005), the world’s media went into a frenzy. Not since the likes of Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton had a celebrity couple received so much attention. The burgeoning attraction between the two illicit lovers is clearly evident on screen and the sexual chemistry is immense. Despite the fact that they denied having had a relationship whilst Pitt was still married to Aniston, the close nature of their performances in Mr & Mrs Smith begs to differ. Although they play assassins out to kill each other, the sexually charged performances they give as man and wife are nothing short of convincing: in fact, this is probably the most convincing element of the entire film!
Off screen, Pitt and Jolie remain very private and rarely afford the press the privilege of interviews about their relationship. Having both adopted and given birth to numerous children, the couple are very family focused and it is clear that it is this rather than work that is their number one priority. Having said this, both continue to star in big budget vehicles and both still have enough box office appeal to grant another co-starring production a possibility.
Mr & Mrs Smith (2005)
05. GRETA GARBO & JOHN GILBERT
Greta Garbo was possibly the most popular star of the 1920s and 1930s; the leading lady all men wanted to star opposite. John Gilbert – an equally popular leading man that oozed the charm and charisma expected of an on-screen hero – had the pleasure of starring with her on four productions, as well as off screen for a number of years. Meeting on their first film, Flesh and the Devil (1926), the pair began a very open relationship and both were passionately devoted to the other. On screen the pair always displayed a raw chemistry that exposed their true feelings for each other and Flesh and the Devil is an excellent example. Whilst it is a silent film (which generally calls for overacting through exaggerated facial expression and body movement), Garbo and Gilbert refrain from acting to excess and the charisma between the two is clear.
In their private lives Gilbert fell madly in love with Garbo and whilst she felt passionately about him too, never felt like the romance would be forever. Gilbert asked to marry her but Garbo never showed up on the day, leaving the actor heartbroken. Despite the off screen drama between the two stars, Gilbert was encouraged to work opposite Garbo again in Queen Christina (1933). Arguably one of Garbo’s greatest performances, the film proved extremely popular with contemporary audiences and remains one of Hollywood’s greatest classics. The relationship between the two stars is much more taut and the chemistry exhibited in their silent films is much less apparent. The fact Garbo left Gilbert at the altar undoubtedly affected the performances between the two here. Garbo always preferred her own company to that of a lover’s and famously became a recluse after she retired from the screen in the early 40s. Gilbert had always clashed with MGM head Louis B. Meyer and when arguments arose over his relationship with Garbo, the studio exec vowed to ruin the star’s career. Falling into a deep despair, Gilbert turned to alcohol and began to drink excessively. Garbo (amongst other Hollywood leading ladies such as Marlene Dietrich and Joan Crawford) remained devoted to him, constantly trying to get him back to work, but failed to do so. Gilbert died at the age of 40 in 1936 from a heart attack, which was ‘Hollywood-ised’ by the contemporary press into a broken heart at the fact Garbo refused to marry him…
Flesh and the Devil (1926)
Queen Christina (1933)
04. GOLDIE HAWN & KURT RUSSELL
One of Hollywood’s most enduring couples; Goldie Hawn and Kurt Russell have famously never married. They proved one of the hottest pairings back in the 1980s and Overboard (1987) is one of the quintessential romantic comedies from the era. Combining laugh-out-loud moments of comedy genius with a tender and realistic image of a relationship, the chemistry between the two stars is apparent even in the opening sequence that sees Hawn’s character despise Russell’s! A raw sexuality permeates through the narrative and the charged performances both give reveal the true nature of their relationship, which makes the film that little bit more successful. Their relationship has lasted 28 years and the couple have raised four children, including fellow actors Oliver and Kate Hudson from Hawn’s second marriage. Their relationship began on the set of Swing Shift (1984), which saw the couple reunite after meeting originally on the set of The One and Only, Original, Family Band (1968). Whilst the film is not fantastic, it does reveal the blossoming romance between the stars and a solid chemistry is definitely there.
Off screen, the couple have often stated that they have never felt the need to get married and are completely devoted to each other despite never getting. Perhaps it’s down to this reason that the couple have stayed together for so long; particularly by Hollywood standards, where relationships seem to come and go faster than awards ceremonies. The couple still work occasionally and are rumoured to be collaborating once more in the Hawn penned and directed Ashes to Ashes (however, this hasn’t yet been confirmed as going ahead). It seems then that true romance Hollywood style doesn’t necessarily mean a trip down the aisle!
Swing Shift (1984)
03. JOAN CRAWFORD & CLARK GABLE
Starring together in a total of eight films, Joan Crawford and Clark Gable were never a public item off screen. Audiences delighted in their on screen escapades from 1931 to 1940. What audiences didn’t realise was that for well over twenty years, behind closed doors the stars picked up where the end credits left off! From their initial pairing in Dance, Fools, Dance (1931), when Gable was a little known actor and Crawford was the Queen of MGM, audiences were enchanted by the sparks of chemistry that flew between them. Spanning a number of different genres, from musicals and romantic comedies, to action adventure and gangster/crime flicks, the couple were box office gold during the 1930s. Learning of their off screen, extra-marital affair, MGM exec Louis B. Meyer refused to star Gable opposite Crawford in Letty Lynton (1932) despite the leading lady’s requests. Meyer eventually yielded to popular demand and allowed the couple to star in a further six features, under the strict proviso that no off screen action was performed! However, the affair naturally continued.
It is undeniably the fact that the pair were unable to display their affection for each other in public that their fictional romances are so taut with emotion. Their last film together, 1940s Strange Cargo, is arguably their best work together and it’s ironic that by this time audiences had become tired of the pairing. After Gable’s portrayal as Rhett Butler in Gone With the Wind the previous year and with Crawford’s MGM star beginning to wane despite her success in The Women (1939), audiences no longer found the two Hollywood’s hottest couple. The film did well at the box office despite this loss of interest and the different direction the narrative took. Here, Crawford lost the heavy make-up and the Adrian designed gowns and allowed her acting talent to come to the forefront of her performance. Gable played the tough, but suave criminal who is serving time in a French penal colony prison. He too gives a rough performance that equally displays his action hero credentials and his charismatic allure. The lure of forbidden love off screen, certainly led to one of twentieth century Hollywood’s greatest on screen couples.
Dancing Lady (1931)
Love on the Run (1936)
Strange Cargo (1940)
02. LAUREN BACALL & HUMPHREY BOGART
Hollywood’s most iconic film noir couple, Lauren Bacall and Humphrey Bogart were an equally iconic couple off screen. Their work together in their first co-starring vehicle, To Have and Have Not (1944), is exceptional. Bacall has recalled her nervousness in the scene where hers and Bogart’s characters first meet, claiming that her hands were shaking so much she was unable to light a cigarette! However, what’s also apparent is how smouldering and sexy she is and how an instant attraction is evident between both stars. They went on to produce some of the most iconic films of the 40s, where the magnetism and chemistry between the two co-stars has rarely been rivalled since.
Their off screen relationship began amidst a whirlwind of controversy, not least because she was 25-years younger than him. Bogart was already married to Mayo Methot, a little known actress, but the relationship had gone sour and he had begun to drink heavily. Bacall was his saviour during this period and out of her compassion and concern blossomed one of Hollywood’s most stable relationships. However, tragedy struck in 1957 after twelve years of marital bliss, when Bogie died from throat cancer. The news hit Hollywood fans hard and Bacall lost her leading man. In recent years, former Hollywood starlet Verita Thompson has claimed that she was Bogart’s secret mistress (lasting from 1942 until her marriage to Walter Thompson in 1955). However, whatever the truth in this matter is, it’s undeniable that the relationship between Bogie and Bacall was anything but deep. Bacall has oft repeated her wishes to not be seen as simply Bogart’s widow: she doesn’t believe someone can make a career out of being one. However, having read her autobiography a few years ago, her love for Bogie is unquestionable and the celluloid proof of it will remain forever.
To Have and Have Not (1944)
Dark Passage (1947)
Key Largo (1948)
01. ELIZABETH TAYLOR & RICHARD BURTON
Spanning two decades, two marriages, two divorces and twelve performances together, Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton’s tumultuous relationship is essentially a Hollywood story in itself. Beginning in 1963 on the set of their first film together – Cleopatra – amid a storm of scandal (both were already married), Taylor and Burton quickly became Hollywood’s hottest couple. Despite the frequent – and often violent – rows the couple had in their private life, their first marriage lasted ten years. Their performances opposite each other lasted the same amount of time. Producing a selection of films of varying quality, no matter how successful they proved with audiences, what is undeniable is the infallible chemistry between both of them on screen. Similar in effect to Jolie and Pitt’s performances in Mr & Mrs Smith, Taylor’s performance of Cleopatra and Burton’s of Marc Anthony, ignite the screen with a chemistry rivalled by none. Arguably it is this – not the lavish costumes and sets – that drives the film forward and allows audiences to engage with its narrative.
Often cast in films simply to showcase their celebrity ‘couple-dom’ (The V.I.Ps in 1963 for instance), together Taylor and Burton starred in one of the greatest films of the twentieth century. Their performances in the screen version of Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966) are outstanding. Taylor went on to win the Academy Award for Best Leading Actress, but Burton was unfortunately overlooked. Having always been interested in ‘serious’ acting, Burton took Taylor’s career in a new direction. Leaving behind the glamorous star image, she went on to make film versions of classic works by some of the world’s greatest playwrights. She dazzles as Katharina in Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew (1967) and is believable as “the face that launched a thousand ships” playing Helen of Troy in Marlowe’s Dr. Faustus (1967). It is also impossible to imagine her playing these roles opposite anyone other than Burton: the roguish, gritty leading man that perfectly combines with her flawless beauty.
Off screen, Burton also fed Taylor’s obsession with fine jewels. After a string of purchases, he finally presented her with the famous Taylor-Burton diamond: a flawless, 69-carat stone that was placed in a Cartier necklace of smaller diamonds. Taylor famously said that she would always love Burton, despite the rows and the divorces. As the giver of such incredible gifts, quite frankly, I’m not surprised! Whilst I’m sure William and Kate’s marriage will be full of dazzling jewels, lets hope it’s far less turbulent!
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966)
The Taming of the Shrew (1967)
This article was first posted on May 4, 2011