Ed. Note: Last week’s article, The Sacred Wall Awards, have been delayed in order to properly cover all the categories. As I wanted to make sure this Valentine’s Day article went up in time, I am delaying that article until the end of this week
Happy Valentine’s Day, everyone! As usual, I thought I would take a brief pause from my Best of 2017 articles in order to provide the couples out there something to read as they snuggle on the couch or the singles something to weep over while eating chocolate Bridget Jones style (guilty). This year, I thought we would take another look at the wonderfully romantic schmaltz coming out of Hollywood with the Top Ten Movie Couples of All Time.
My criteria for this list was simple: I wanted a couple that felt real and alive, and one that demonstrated the undying nature of love. These are the couples that had natural chemistry onscreen and grew and evolved over the course of the film. I also want couples whose relationships dominate the film they occupy. This means that popular couples, like Rick and Ilsa from Casablanca or Scarlett and Rhett from Gone With The Wind, may not qualify, for despite their memorability, their relationship is more of a crux to a greater theme than the movie’s driving force (look, even if Casablanca’s the greatest romance of all time, that doesn’t change the fact that none of us want to be Rick and Ilsa). Still, even without these old staples, I still managed to find a decent field of contenders, including some strong honorable mentions. The Thin Man’s Nick and Nora Charles are, in my opinion, the epitome of relationship goals, while La La Land’s Mia and Sebastian get by on Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling’s uncontainable chemistry. Belle and the Beast demonstrate the growth and compromise that go into a relationship, even if it’s all built on Stockholm Syndrome (it’s a metaphor? I hope?). Out of Sight’s sexily charming Jack Foley and Karen Sisco make a strong case from the genre fare, President Shepherd and Sydney Wade woo us from the White House in The American President, and there are few couples as romantic as Rocky and “ADRIAN!” from Rocky. And from 2017, I would be remiss not to include the smolderingly romantic Elio and Oliver duo from Call Me By Your Name, the epitome of first relationships and heartbreak. With all that said, let’s take a look at the Greatest Couples in film history!
10. Carol and Therese – Carol
Starting out simple, elegant, and touching, we have Carol (Cate Blanchett) and Therese (Rooney Mara) from 2014’s Carol. The two meet at Christmas in 1952 – Carol is shopping for her daughter while Therese works at the counter. Both of them are on the tail end of a failing relationship, and they both see something extraordinary about the other. Carol sees the raw potential in the meek younger woman, and Therese sees the woman she aspires to be. As the two form a friendship, they find in each other a partner who can meet the emotional needs that they have not found previously in life. As we watch the friendship slowly progress into romance, we see the type of fulfillment we want in real life, all played out by two actresses at the top of their game (It helps that Todd Haynes stages the entire thing perfectly, with the perfect lighting capturing the dazzling outfits to create an atmosphere of romance and sophistication). Their final scene together, as the two reunite after a bitter breakup, is hands down one of the most romantic in all of film history. Carol and Therese are the type of memorable, romantic couple that we all aspire to be – the kind that sees the potential in each other, that builds up those positive traits, and demonstrates why we as humans love cheering for pretty people getting together in the end.
9. Zack Mayo and Paula Pokrifki – An Officer and a Gentleman
The reason I know that Zack Mayo (Richard Gere) and Paula Pokrifki (Debra Winger) are one of the greatest movie couples of all time is because the audience falls in love with them long before Mayo swoops her up in his arms and carries her off into the sunset while “Up Where We Belong” plays. Zack is the f*ck-up who wants to escape the destructive patterns inherited from his father by becoming an officer, while Paula is trapped in a dead-end factory job and taught that the only way she can escape is through entrapping a husband. Both looking for an escape, the two lost souls find solace in each other, and when Zack does come to carry her out of the factory, it’s not some silly moment where he saves a damsel in distress – it’s a triumphant moment. There was no Prince Charming, and there was no Cinderella. These two saved each other through their love, helping their partner overcome their worst qualities, and push them to achieve their best possible life. Gere has never been better than he was here, capturing the emotional journey of the recruit in the shadow of his abusive father, while Winger demonstrates why she was one of the hottest figures in the business at the time, helping Pokrifki stand out as different from the field of broken women (and a symbol of hope for them). It doesn’t hurt that these two are the epitome of beauty, helping us care for them in even greater detail. Paula and Zack show us the importance of support in relationships, and their bond makes them one of the best in cinema history.
8. Westley and Princess Buttercup – The Princess Bride
Ah, yes: one of the most famous couples on this list, especially in modern history. The epitome of the fairy tale romance, Westley (Cary Elwes) and Princess Buttercup (Robin Wright) are what many people think of as a great cinematic relationship. It’s not because they are realistic, or perfect, or unique in any way. It’s simply because we love the idea of the fantasy, and to us, there’s nothing more romantic than a swashbuckling hero and the wise woman who loves him. And quite frankly, it’s never been done better than with these two. I think what makes Westley and Buttercup work is that unlike most characters in these situations (i.e. Robin Hood, Aragorn and Arwen, Shrek and Fiona), these two come from nothing. Westley wasn’t born a fancy prince, and Buttercup wasn’t born a rich maiden. They grew up on a farm, on equal footing (mostly), and they earned each other’s affection through playful teasing and shirtless smoldering. Everything that came after had no effect on their storybook love – the fact she becomes a princess, the fact he becomes a pirate, the fact she is nearly forced into a loveless marriage, all irrelevant. The only thing that has ever mattered to Westley is Buttercup’s happiness, and the only thing that has ever mattered to Buttercup is Westley’s love. It also doesn’t hurt that the two of them have instant chemistry, killer dialogue, and charming personalities. Westley and Buttercup have a love that transcends the screen and storytelling, memorable in their actions, their words, and above all, their love.
7. Dr. Yuri Zhivago and Lara Antipova – Doctor Zhivago
Sometimes couples are more memorable for their time not together than they are for their time together. Such is the case with Dr. Yuri Zhivago (Omar Sharif) and Lara Antipova (Julie Christie), a couple that struggles to express their love over the course of twenty-something years against the backdrop of an ever-changing Russia. Despite feeling their attraction at first sight, they face a series of obstacles – both are married to someone else, they are consistently separated by the changing political situation (World War I, the Russian Revolution, the rise of Stalinism), and the rugged terrain (nothing helps romance more than sweeping shots of a beautiful landscape to frame the protagonists against, and despite doing its damndest to separate them, the shots of them framed against snowy palaces and winding Moscow cityscapes). We know from the get-go that this relationship is doomed (as with many great romances, including Romeo and Juliet), as the narrative is framed as the hunt for their orphaned daughter, and yet that’s what makes them so memorable. No matter what their fate, we root for these people to make their relationship work, despite the odds. Any love that is passionate enough to inspire a poet to risk execution in order to write a series of mesmerizing poems is worth mentioning. And like the great Golden Age couples of old, we see this love played out by two unassumingly gorgeous faces. Omar Sharif has an air of unassuming handsomeness, making him feel real despite his beauty. Meanwhile, Julie Christie has a face and a passion that could launch a thousand ships. Despite only being together for a fraction of the film’s three-and-a-half hour runtime, Yuri and Lara formed a relationship that no force on Earth could eliminate, and they are amongst the most memorable in film history for that very reason.
6. Theodore Twombly and Samantha – Her
Undeniably the strangest relationship on this list, I can’t think of a better representation of modern romance than Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) and his OS Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson). It’s easy to write off the couple as a metaphor for humanity’s relationship with technology and our desire to cut ourselves off from personal communications in the face of heartbreak, and it’s true that all of these themes and allegories do exist. However, to simplify the relationship to such a level is to write off what writer/director Spike Jonze is trying to accomplish here. In using these two specific figures, Jonze is trying to explore the very nature of humanity and love, in all its messy, incomplete perfection. On the surface, Theodore and Samantha follow the tropes of the classic rom-com. We watch as they meet and bond, flirt and form rapport, and we see the awkward exchange after their first time together. We watch as the relationship thrives and hits walls, as they fight and they make up. And while their relationship is, indeed, a spoof of the Tom Hanks/Meg Ryan dynamic, what makes them memorable is how much deeper Jonze, Phoenix, and Johansson go. We understand that they are able to give each other exactly what they need at that period of time – Theodore needs confidence after a devastating break-up from his wife, while Samantha uses the relationship as a means of discovering what it means to be human, and to discover what her role is in the universe. Watching the two of them flirt is a joy, and watching them try to make it work is fascinating. However, while the relationship is, indeed, unusual, it is, at its core, one of the most bittersweet, intelligent portrayals of a relationship ever seen, and their uniqueness makes Theodore and Samantha one of the most memorable couples in film.
5. Tony and Maria/Captain Von Trapp and Maria – West Side Story/The Sound of Music
In this list’s one and only tie, we have two couples that find themselves in incredibly similar situations in execution, but far apart in narrative. Here, we have the two Singing Marias: Tony (Richard Beymer) and Maria (Natalie Wood) from West Side Story and Captain Von Trapp (Christopher Plummer) and Maria (Julie Andrews) from The Sound of Music. Both Marias are fiery individuals who want to live their best lives, both express themselves through song and dance, and both find their perfect match throughout the course of the film, however, the similarities end there. Tony and Maria are the hot, fiery kind of love that we love seeing on film: the kind that starts quickly, burns brightly, and fades in a flash. Yes, like the couple they are based on (Romeo and Juliet), they end in tragedy, their fantasy ripped apart by racism and hatred, but what makes them memorable is how brightly they burned while alive. The scene where the dancing and music slowed down the moment they first see each other is extraordinary, and hearing them sing about their love in such wonderful hits as “Somewhere,” “Maria,” and “I Have A Love” is iconic. On the other hand, Von Trapp and Maria are a much cooler couple, one whose love is represented through long looks, subtle flirting, and romantic moonlit dances. While Tony and Maria represent the dark fantasy (the dream ripped apart by reality), the Captain and Maria are a much more grounded couple, one who have to work at their relationship, overcoming their own personal flaws (Maria’s flightiness and indecisiveness, the Captain’s pained stubbornness) together as a way of demonstrating their love. The fact that the couple is based on reality (albeit heavily fictionalized) helps to immortalize the relationship’s memorability. Musicals and romance often go hand-in-hand, and thanks to both Marias and the men who love them, the relationship is made clearer than ever.
4. Alvy Singer and Annie Hall – Annie Hall
It is impossible to think about love without thinking of the complicated, realistic look at love as presented by Alvy Singer (Woody Allen) and Annie Hall (Diane Keaton). I think the reason for this is because they don’t exist as a literal couple, but more as an idea – the film wishes to explore their relationship as an exploration of the sort of mental gymnastics we do when we fall in love, and the way our own psychoses can either sabotage or illuminate our chances at happiness. For the crux of Annie Hall’s portrayal of their relationship isn’t meant to represent a straightforward, realistic relationship – it’s supposed to reflect our insecurities in a heightened sense of reality. All of our little missteps, our fears and hopes, our misery and actions are amped up inside Alvy and Annie, so that we can see our own behaviors in an attempt to study that crazy little thing called love. Alvy is our self-loathing, put off by society and unable to understand why someone would ever love us, while Annie (an icon in her own right) shows us a woman trying to balance her exuding confidence with her moderately tempered awkwardness. Their exchanges feel alive, thanks to the film’s unique way of portraying the more mundane details of love. In order to tell each other about their backstories, they walk hand in hand through flashbacks. When they first meet, subtitles explain the subtext to their conversations. And when they fight and are drawn apart, we literally see their minds start to wander. Their relationship is memorable because it is meant to serve as a funhouse mirror of our own relationships, and helps us to understand why we do the things we do when we fall in love ourselves. Alvy and Annie may not end up together, but their unique doppelganger quality reflects the real world of love, and thanks to the highly original performances of Allen and especially Keaton, Alvy and Annie are one of history’s most memorable fictional couples.
3. Harry Burns and Sally Albright – When Harry Met Sally…
Harry Burns (Billy Crystal) and Sally Albright (Meg Ryan) are both the best and worst thing to ever happen to the world of relationships. On the one hand, the unhealthy expectations they set up for a generation of young adults is unforgivable, not to mention a few nasty habits (Harry spends a good deal of the movie being a chauvinist pig who constantly belittles Sally for daring to have opinions on things). However, they also set out to show one of the funniest, most honest portrayals of watching two people fall in love the screen has ever seen. For one, the film wisely manages to walk the line between showing two people who initially despise each other fall in love without setting any unhealthy lessons up for audiences about harassing people into liking you. Theirs is a relationship borne out of time, maturation, and kismet, as can often be the case. After that, the film chooses to do things the opposite of almost any other film (thus making Harry and Sally a more memorable couple): they choose to establish the relationship and the bond first, as opposed to starting with the love and building everything around it. Harry and Sally spend most of the movie simply as friends, learning each other’s likes and dislikes, their hopes and dreams, their fears and desires, so that when the attraction does take hold, and they find themselves powerless to its grasp, they are already each other’s perfect match. They also share one of the most romantically honest moments in film history, when Harry meets up to comfort Sally, and their witty back-and-forth through tears ultimately leads to their consummation. It’s sweet, realistic, and the embodiment of a healthy (ish) relationship forming out of friendship. And because of that iconic status, they make for one of the greatest couples of all time.
2. George and Mary Bailey – It’s A Wonderful Life
Sometimes the best film couples come from movies that are decidedly not romances. That’s the case with It’s a Wonderful Life, and the fairly honest, perfect portrayal of romance by George (Jimmy Stewart) and Mary Bailey (Donna Reed). George and Mary aren’t memorable because of some silly meet-cutes or drawn out love story – they are memorable because they show what happens after the happily ever after. Oh, don’t get me wrong: watching these two flirt is great, especially because Jimmy Stewart is utterly charming and Donna Reed is instantly lovable. Their dancing is charming, their exchanges sexy, and that phone call scene oozes sex in the most chaste film of all time. However, they also marry thirty minutes into a two-hour film. This allows us to explore an aspect of relationships often ignored in films such as this – how they make it work after the honeymoon phase, when things don’t go as planned. We watch as George and Mary try to make each other feel fulfilled in their small-town life in spite of everything, from a damaged house to the efforts of known sociopath Mr. Potter. We feel for them as they fight and make up, as George falls into depression and Mary takes up the reins to save her family. And in the end, when he realizes how important she is to him, and he rushes to her and kisses her face, it feels triumphant. George and Mary have a very down-to-earth, realistic nostalgia in their relationship, the way we want to imagine our parents. While we come for the Christmas cheer, the defining feature of It’s A Wonderful Life has always been George and Mary’s loving relationship, and watching their compromise, their flaws, and their unifying, overwhelming love for each other makes for one of the greatest power couples we’ve ever seen.
1. Jesse and Celine – The Before Trilogy
The silver screen has never seen a couple like Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy). Theirs is a love that has broken all the rules. Actually written by the stars (along with director Richard Linklater) and spanning three very different, very emotionally rich films, Jesse and Celine show us three different times in the lives of soulmates, from their first meeting to their struggle to make it work. Each sliver of time along their eighteen-year-journey provides us a different look at love in its purest, most honest form, and represents it through love’s greatest tool: communication. Their first meeting, while fraught with attraction and sexual tension (when will they stop talking and just f*ck?) It’s romantic, and alive, and representative of that fresh love we feel in our twenties. However, they miss their window, and they go their separate ways. Which is why it’s so wonderful nine years later when they finally meet up again, and we see that their chemistry still exists. They continue to communicate their hopes, dreams, and struggles. Each glance, each detail tells us more about who Jesse and Celine are as people, as well as about how they feel about each other (two of the best moments in film history come when Celine reaches for Jesse in a moment of pain, unbeknownst to him and when Jesse looks longingly at Celine, unbeknownst to her). And then, just when we feel fulfilled with a story of love lost and love regained in our thirties, we get the final film. Like It’s a Wonderful Life, Before Midnight is about the struggle to make love work in our forties, when we begin to feel unfulfilled in life. However, unlike the fantasy film, this time things don’t feel as safe. The arguments feel more real, more built upon the previous eighteen years, and more painful. They fight like a real couple, they make up like a real couple, and above all, they love like a real couple. It’s absolute and utter perfection, and the world is better off for knowing Jesse and Celine.
Well I hope you all had a very lovely holiday this year! I’ll be back soon with the rest of the Best of 2017, and please let me know in the comments who your favorite onscreen couples are! Are there any I’m missing? Or is it just this one?
Thanks again, and I’ll see you all very soon!