J-Lo and Ben Affleck
J-Lo and Ben Affleck

The apparent reunion of Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez has prompted mass jubilation. They are in a lineage of star romances that the world has fallen for, writes Christina Newland.

last week, a photo of Jennifer Lopez and Ben Affleck kissing at a Malibu restaurant apparently confirmed what many had suspected: that the pair are once again romantically involved, 17 years after they split up. Since speculation began about the couple being reunited over a month ago, after the both newly-single stars were spotted hanging out, delirious joy has seemed to spread like wildfire over social media.

Maybe, for a generation of millennials, this jubilation is down to nostalgia, the news a reminder of their days idly flicking through gossip magazines back in an era when they had the time and inclination to peruse the glossy pages.

Maybe – after years watching both stars deal with the vagaries of public life, complete with hit roles, Oscar wins, back tattoos, and a string of high-profile relationships for them both – it’s heartwarming to see that love can somehow find a way. Especially the kind of only-in-Hollywood love that inspires a man to kiss his girlfriend’s bottom for all the world to see, as Affleck did in Lopez’s music video for 2002 single Jenny from the Block.

From the moment they started dating that same year, the pair were a designated Hollywood power couple, with Affleck’s down-to-earth Boston guy persona and Lopez’s super-glam style proving a heady contrast, as they graced countless red carpets.

They became affectionately nicknamed ‘Bennifer’, and the press’s love affair with the pair of them was seemingly never-ending, even in the face of Gigli (2003), their flop-of-all-flops romantic comedy which is often called one of the worst movies of all time.

Then, in 2004, the pair broke up only a few days before a planned wedding date, and within a year both would be married to other people. (Affleck to the actress Jennifer Garner, and Lopez to singer Marc Anthony).

Now, come 2021, their relationship is once again being pored over and revelled in, only through new more democratic, social media channels: recently, a snap of a smirking Ben Affleck leaving Lopez’s home in the morning was immediately transformed into a meme. So, what is it about Bennifer’s reunion that seems to have sparked such remarkable fanfare among the general public?

The reasons for people’s fascination

It’s a complex question with more than one answer. Partly, such a response is not unique to Lopez and Affleck; celebrity power couples have fascinated us for a long time. From Beyonce and Jay-Z to Kim and Kanye (who recently divorced) to Brad and Angelina (who divorced in 2016), the combined glamour of two A-listers can seem twice as arresting.

The latter, like Lopez and Affleck, are specifically a Hollywood power couple, adding another layer of intrigue for an audience who can follow them not just in press coverage but also through their appearances in movies together.

With Lopez and Affleck, their screen pairings (so far at least) have never been what we’d call a success; but think of the onscreen rapport over the years between real-life couple Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy, whose fast-paced squabbling and opposites-attract humour took them through classic screwball romances like Woman of the Year (1942) and Adam’s Rib (1949).

Their screen chemistry made them all the more lovable in the public’s eyes. Such was the case, too, with Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, who would star in 11 films together over the 60s and 70s. This run began with Cleopatra (1963).

And on the set of which the two met, but the combination of sexual heat and emotional volatility they were known for in real life is maybe best translated to screen in the vicious marriage drama Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966). It’s not always a necessity that Hollywood power couples have potent screen chemistry, but it certainly helps the public imagination when they do.

Queer couples have largely been erased from the ‘power couple’ equation until, for the most part, the last two decades

It may also be that our fascination with specific Hollywood power couples comes down to our individual preconceptions about what fame, celebrity, or heterosexual romance should look like.

If you were asked to choose a ‘favourite’ Hollywood power couple, the answer may reveal more than you think about your romantic ideals, your ideal self, and what you might identify with in the story that this famous couple is telling the world.

The Hollywood power couple is the forging of two distinct star personas, styles and personal baggage into one amorphous media construct – so amorphous that even their names become blended into something goofy-sounding.

Some, like Brangelina, consist of two people both too attractive to seem real, and the combined force of their sexual chemistry (as displayed in 2005’s Mr and Mrs Smith) is gobsmacking.

The best ones have yin-and-yang, complementary qualities: Lauren Bacall gave Humphrey Bogart youthful zip and sensuality, all velvety smoothness to his jagged demeanour. Liz Taylor was queenly enough to suit a Shakespearean actor like Richard Burtonbut the all-American beauty was brought up a world away from the Welshman’s more humble origins.

Although affairs, romances, flings, and marriages happen in Hollywood as they do everywhere else, the concept of the power couple was a creation first and foremost by the studio-era publicity machine.

That machine operated as an extension of each studio’s interests and was fiercely protective of its contracted actors’ reputations and images. In the 20th Century, that also meant that heterosexuality was compulsory, and even until fairly recently, that’s remained mostly the case. In the case of LGBTQ+ actors, studio publicists of Golden-Age Hollywood were never beyond concocting romantic rumours for fan magazines or even sending stars out on fabricated dates to throw gossip columnists off the trail.

Rock Hudson, Montgomery Clift, and other “confirmed bachelors”, as the coded lingo went, were often set up with starlets for the paparazzi at premieres.

As such, queer couples have largely been erased from the ‘power couple’ equation until, for the most part, the last two decades. Ellen DeGeneres and Portia de Rossi had an extravagant wedding in 2008, covered by all the major entertainment news outlets in the way any lavish celeb wedding might be.

This year, Jodie Foster and her wife Alexandra Hedison made headlines when Foster accepted her Golden Globe via Zoom with the pair and their dog all in adorable matching pyjamas. But the wider exclusion of queer people from this form of imagery is in itself pretty telling: in the eyes of the media, extravagant coupledom seems to still be reserved for straight people.

The history of the Hollywood power couple

The first Hollywood power couple in history was one many might not know of today: Mary Pickford, the silent film actress known as America’s Sweetheart, and Douglas Fairbanks, the swashbuckling actor who played the first Robin Hood.

The couple’s palatial Beverley Hills home, set on 18 acres and featuring everything from a zoo to an old-west style saloon, boasted visitors like F Scott Fitzgerald and Charlie Chaplin in the 1920s. But it’s something else about the house that’s really striking: decades before “Bennifer” hit the press, the house was nicknamed “Pickfair”, a combination of the names Pickford and Fairbanks.

Every move of the husband and wife was followed by the nation’s press, still wide-eyed with the relatively new concept of movie stardom.

Of course, we’ve had a wide variety of Hollywood power couples since then. Eccentric habits, tumultuous affairs, or ridiculous mansions never exactly hurt their status in the press: it’s all grist for the mill, a part of the narrative of their coupledom.

Crucially, it takes more than just two famous people to make one of these pairings. Both must be genuine stars, who are at once each renowned enough on their own merit and on something like equal standing in their fame.

The public can’t help themselves, even while knowing it’s all a little vulgar and a little scurrilous

In the 40s and 50s, there was Ava Gardner, the sultry pin-up, and Frank Sinatra, the crooner that she “stole” from his nice Italian wife Nancy, as the media saw it. The Gardner-Sinatra affair and remarriage caused a scandal, but the pair would forever be associated with a certain brand of mid-century glamour.

Today, there’s Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith, who have grown mature and had children in front of our collective eyes; when Jada publicly admitted she had been unfaithful in a conversation with her husband on an episode of her show Red Table Talk, the discomfort in the audience was palpable.

But the pair seem to have weathered it, joking with each other on the same episode, in a knowing reference to a catchphrase from Will’s Bad Boys franchise: “bad marriage for life!”

Then there were shorter-lived pairings that still burn bright in the cultural imagination: Anjelica Huston and Jack Nicholson were the cool kids of cinematic rebellion in the 70s, while the nattily attired Elliott Gould and Barbra Streisand, two of Hollywood’s most prominent Jewish stars, also ruled the decade.

Those were the sorts of couples whose dinner parties you’d love to be invited to. Taylor and Burton were so madly in love and yet so stormy that they divorced and then remarried again only 16 months later – only to divorce for the second time eight months later. Taylor had a total of seven husbands (eight if you count Burton twice).

Some of them were pretty famous in their day, including actor Eddie Fisher. And yet no one seemed to meet the stature of Burton in her eyes, from the beginning of their torrid affair during the making of 1963’s Cleopatra, when each was still married, to Fisher and actress Sybil Williams, respectively.

Their amour fou and their lavish lifestyles were catnip for the public. As Burton had it, “Our love is so furious we burn each other out”. Or maybe you prefer the steadiness of the adorable Goldie Hawn and the forever-hunky Kurt Russell, who have been together for nearly 40 years and still seem like teenage sweethearts.

In the end, the public interest in the Hollywood power couple – as well as the question of what makes some more powerful than others – comes down to many things. Maybe it’s some pre-conditioned social urge to see other humans romantically paired-off into cute little units, or stems from some prurient sexual desire for one or both people.

Maybe – OK, definitely – we’re just nosy. From Confidential Magazine, the audacious scandal mag that was taken to court in 1957 for its rumours about everyone from Grace Kelly to Robert Mitchum, to today’s Instagram gossip source Deuxmoi, which publishes blind items from anonymous sources directly to its near one million followers, gossip is certainly not a new phenomenon.

The public can’t help themselves, even while knowing it’s all a little vulgar and a little scurrilous. When it comes to the Hollywood power couple, even the break-up or divorce provides something to the audience. In the press and among its consumers, there is simultaneous sadness and schadenfreude: see, people crow, they aren’t perfect after all.

What’s heartening about the reaction to the Jennifer Lopez and Ben Affleck reunion is that it’s born, perhaps, of an inverse collective impulse: a determined, idealistic faith in the prospect of enduring love, even when it seems profoundly unlikely after so many years of two people being apart.

Bennifer has set the whole world talking not because of who they are, but because of who we are. For many millennials, certainly, they make us feel as young and as hopeful as we were in 2002.

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