Never one to buy into the formulaic notion of love so often presented in today’s cinema, the movie couples that stay with me most are the ones that capture the most accurate depictions of love. Some of these couples are happy, most of them aren’t – but the point is, they’ve lived through the ups and downs, they’ve gone through the motions. For better or worse, they know what love is.
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf (1966) – Martha & George
The only real interest Martha and George have in each other is the challenge of making the other one look more foolish. In doing this, Martha and George (played by real-life couple Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton) pull no punches. Alcohol is consumed by the gallons, throats are strangled, affairs are consummated, words are spit like venom; all for the sake of I gotcha. It’s hard to believe that these two were ever once happy, because all’s we get is pure, unadulterated acid.
Scenes from a Marriage (1973) – Marianne & Johan
Ingmar Bergman’s masterful chronology of Marianne and Johan (Liv Ullmann and Erland Josephson) represents, perhaps, the finest encapsulation of marriage ever caught on film. Granted, Bergman allowed himself five hours of screentime to flesh this couple out, but through the couple’s many episodes, we’re witness to love, loss, divorce, reconciliation - you name it, all with precise execution. It’s the type of love that is true, but due to limitless factors involved, can never be as good as it’s imagined.
A Woman Under the Influence (1974) – Mabel & Nick
Mabel’s in bad shape. Mentally unstable (which is an understatement) for no clear reason, she is soon encouraged by her dedicated husband, Nick to seek treatment in a mental institution. Her initial episodes of instability are prolonged and jarring, but it’s when Mabel returns home that the horror really begins. I couldn’t possibly reveal what happens, but if I said Nick was pleased with the “normal” Mabel, I’d be lying. It should be noted that I consider Gena Rowlands’s performance as Mabel to be the very best female acting performance in film history.
Manhattan (1979) – Issac & Tracy
I’d be interested to know if a 42-year-old dating a 17-year old was as creepy in 1979 as it is today. Woody Allen and Mariel Hemingway’s onscreen romance in Manhattan should in no way work, let alone come off as believable. But thanks to the incredibly convincing acting by Allen (delivering his finest work as an actor) and Hemingway (who received the film’s sole Oscar nomination for acting), this May-December romance feels exactly as authentic as it should.
Before Sunrise/Sunset (1995/2004) – Jessie & Celine
I’m still not entirely sure if a young woman would get off a train with a complete stranger for an impromptu walk around Vienna, but, thankfully for us, that’s exactly what Celine does. And while their walk around Austria’s capital represents as whimsical a romance as you’re likely to find in ‘90s American cinema, it’s Jessie and Celine’s reunion nine years later in Paris that still melts my heart. With age, the two have learned maturity, loss, and turmoil. They’ve learned from their mistakes, but, as the last scene hints, they have no problem repeating them.
Leaving Las Vegas (1995) – Ben & Sera
It’s a romance as old as time: the flawed man and the hooker with the heart of gold, but to view the world through writer/director Mike Figgis’s eyes, is to view a very bleak land. When suicidal alcoholic Ben Sanderson (Nicholas Cage, in arguably the best acting performance of the ‘90s) meets Sera (Elizabeth Shue, equally as good) on the streets of Vegas, a delicate, earnest romance soon blossoms between them. He knows what she is and she knows what he is, and they promise to never try and change that. The result is a tender, emotionally draining film with one of the most sincere romances I’ve ever seen. Kills me everytime.
Eyes Wide Shut (1999) – Bill & Alice
There’s a great hypocrisy at the core of Stanley Kubrick’s marvelous final film that isn’t discussed as often as it should be. After getting stoned one night, Alice (Nicole Kidman) tells her rich doctor husband, Bill (Tom Cruise) that she came very close to sleeping with a military officer while on vacation with Bill and their child last summer. But that’s not really the case. She considered coming very close to sleeping with the officer, but her thoughts were never more than that. She was tempted, but she did nothing about it. Upon hearing this, Bill sets out on a haunting, episodic mission to do anything in his power to get laid. In the course of his comings and goings, Bill kisses prostitutes, fondles women and is witness to a massive orgy. So, in effect, he’s cheated more than Alice ever did.
I’ve often heard people refer to Eyes Wide Shut as misogynistic. I couldn’t disagree more. The man, in this case, is the fool.
In the Bedroom (2001) – Ruth & Matt
Ruth and Matt Fowler are a perfectly happy, blue collar couple in New England whose lives are thrown into radical disarray after their grown son is murdered. Matt, disillusioned in his denial, and Ruth, cold and withdrawn, both quietly blame each other for their son’s death, which culminates in as discomforting and honest a movie argument as you’ll ever find. Their heated exchange is long and gut wrenching, but also needed. Through their shared anger, they elect to do something that the justice system won’t. The words, “Did you do it?” never stung so hard.
Closer (2004) – Dan & Alice & Anna & Larry
As the years seamlessly pass by in Mike Nichols’s thrilling romantic drama, I always find myself trying to label the character most at fault. Is it Jude Law’s Dan, who leaves his girlfriend for a woman he meets on the street, only to engage in a year-long affair months later? Or maybe Julia Roberts’s Anna, who uses her quiet sensibility to downplay how she uses sexuality to get what she wants. And there’s Clive Owen’s Larry whose only real motive, after he’s been deceived so exquisitely, is pure revenge. And finally Natalie Portman’s Alice, who appears to never do anything wrong, but is ultimately the one who lies most consistently. I’m not sure who the film’s biggest snake is, but you can bet I enjoy trying to find out time and time again.
Brokeback Mountain (2005) – Ennis & Jack
My favorite screen couple of all time is the desperate, passionate Ennis Del Mar and Jack Twist, played to perfection by Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal in Brokeback Mountain. Because of when they live and where they live (think about it, if Ennis and Jack lived in New York City in the ‘60s, there’d really be no conflict here), the two men cannot openly express the undying love they have for one another. Instead, they are forced to secretly meet up once or twice a year to share what they both feel so much of.
One thing I love about this movie (and there are many things I love about this movie), is when Ennis and Jack meet up, we often observe them as two guys simply catching up on old times. They don’t (always) immediately jump on each other – they sit around the fire, passing a bottle of whiskey and a small joint, talking about the lives they wish they had, the kids they love, and the wives they want to leave. These guys are more than just secret lovers, they are best friends. Which makes the resolution of their affair that much more heartbreaking.
Blue Valentine (2010) – Dean & Cindy
Many of the films thus far depict their couples in the best of it, or the worst of it. Rarely have both the honeymoon and the rock bottom been depicted with equally captivating measure as they are in Derek Cianfrance’s Blue Valentine. As we cut back and forth between Dean and Cindy’s time of great happiness and great despair, we try to make sense of how something so right could end up as anything but. And because of Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams’s tour de force performances, we end up knowing these characters far better than we do in most movie romances. I’ve always wondered what life had in store for these two.