Movies Starring Real-Life Couples, Ranked From Worst to Best

Photo-Illustration: Maya Robinson

Gene Siskel once said he always judged a movie by whether it would be more interesting if the film were simply a documentary of the actors having lunch. We always think of that when we watch a movie led by a real-life couple. Sometimes their off-screen life clouds what’s onscreen, other times it doesn’t seem to make a difference, and at the best of times, it enhances their chemistry. At the very least, these pairings can make the sparks you see in a film seem more real, like you’re witnessing actual physical and emotional attraction at play.

Following the Friday release of By the Sea, Brad Pitt’s and Angelina Jolie Pitt’s intense relationship drama, we thought we’d take an extensive look at some of the more notable onscreen pairings of off-screen lovers throughout movie history. This list isn’t entirely inclusive, but we purposefully left off movies where the couple met on set, like Brokeback Mountain or, in the Pitts’ case, Mr. and Mrs. Smith. Basically, they needed to be together before they started shooting, and we needed to know it – that’s part of the fun.

26. Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez, Jersey Girl (2004)
An answer to the question, “What would happen if Kevin Smith got sappy and sentimental?” with a resounding, “Actually, turns out Kevin Smith’s not very good at making movies!” This was Smith’s big keep-it-real rom-com, which proposed to show a different side of the perpetually embattled and tabloid-raided Affleck, who at the time was still trying to live down another bad movie with J.Lo (Gigli was too rough to even include on this list). However, the overly earnest, dramatically inert, barely funny Jersey Girl did nothing for Affleck’s career. Lopez exits the movie early on for reasons we’ll avoid in case you desperately don’t want to have an 11-year-old Kevin Smith movie spoiled, but suffice to say, you won’t miss her. Ben must have been envious: Their lone scene together is as antsy and busily overwritten as all of Smith’s stuff, but the good news is, because they’re talking fast, it’s over quickly. This is the sort of movie you watch and realize that you not only hated it, but that you, suddenly, retroactively hate Chasing Amy, too. Jennifer Lopez’s character is named Gertrude Steiney, by the way. The best we can offer: There’s a fun Will Smith cameo.

25. Ben Affleck and Jennifer Garner, Daredevil (2003)
Hey, look, it’s Ben again! Here’s another movie it would take Affleck a few years to live down, and this time he dragged Garner down with him. (Though showing up in Elektra two years later is on her.) This came out in 2003, a few years before Iron Man would usher in the Marvel Cinematic Universe boom, and you can tell: There’s a lack of seriousness and thought here that belies the direction the Daredevil character would take, specifically in the Netflix series. This is cheese through and through; it’s famously the only movie Affleck says he regrets. It is a testament to the charisma and talent of each actor that they lived down this “fight” scene.

24. Marc Anthony and Jennifer Lopez, El Cantante (2007)
Point is: Bennifer should probably avoid onscreen couplings with their significant others. This is a dramatically inert biopic of Puerto Rican salsa legend Hector Lavoe, stuck with a dead-doornail of a lead performance by Anthony, who sort of pulls off the musical scenes and essentially nothing else. Lopez fares slightly better as his wife, Puchi, but she can’t breathe any life into this. The couple also is bizarrely charmless together, though, to be fair, trying to build some heat off the black hole that is Anthony’s performance would be too much for any actress, let alone the already-rusty-by-this-point Lopez. Seriously: These two can’t even pull off the dancing scenes.

23. Warren Beatty and Annette Bening, Love Affair (1994)
The supposedly commitment-phobic playboy Warren Beatty has now been married to his Bugsy co-star, who’s 20 years his junior, for 23 years. (“When I met Warren,” Annette Bening once recalled, “I was 32 and the biological clock was ticking. … If he hadn’t wanted to have children, it wouldn’t have worked.”) Their only film together since becoming a couple isn’t a great platform for either of them, unfortunately. Love Affair, a remake of the 1939 original, which also inspired An Affair to Remember, stars Beatty as a commitment-phobic former football star who’s engaged to be married. But after he meets a beautiful singer (Bening), who’s also engaged, they both start to wonder if they’ve made a mistake. Self-consciously old-fashioned to an increasingly distracting degree, Love Affair only really glides when director Glenn Gordon Caron lets Beatty and Bening fill the screen with their casual charm and palpable sexual spark. Their relationship has endured, whereas no one has thought of this movie for decades.

22. Justin Long and Drew Barrymore, Going the Distance (2010)
By the time filming began on Going the Distance, real-life couple Justin Long and Drew Barrymore had broken up but remained friends, prompting speculation that they had rekindled their romance during production. Unfortunately, that tabloid gossip proved more compelling than the movie, which featured a timely, intriguing premise but lousy execution. In Going the Distance, she’s a flighty Northern California gal who falls head-over-heels in love with a New York record-label guy while spending six weeks in Manhattan. They decide to keep the relationship going when she returns to San Francisco, but will distance make the heart grow fonder? Sadly, we’ll never know, as the film quickly drowns in rom-com clichés, stranding Long and Barrymore’s clear chemistry in a movie that ought to speak more forcefully about our interconnected-but-distanced era.

21. Dennis Quaid and Meg Ryan, Flesh and Bone (1993)
Boy is this a dismal dirge of a movie, featuring Quaid and Ryan in their third consecutive movie together (but first as a married couple) as star-crossed Dust Belt downers whose fates are sealed in the very first scene but drag us through their unhappy tale anyway. They have some chemistry, but it feels strangely dutiful, like they’re afraid to be too sexy together, lest it perish the morose vibe. The movie only comes to life when visited by a 20-year-old Gwyneth Paltrow, who brings with her a surprising sense of danger and sensuality — two traits she’d struggle to re-create the rest of her career.

20. Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie Pitt, By the Sea (2015)
Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie Pitt always seemed content to pursue their own projects and follow their individual career paths, whether it’s doing their own star vehicles or cherry-picking films they’d produce (in his case) or direct (in her case). No wonder, then, that a lot of people lost their mind over the prospect of By the Sea, which represents the first time they’ve shared the screen since falling for one another on Mr. & Mrs. Smith. Alas, this moody marital melodrama is mostly a misfire, Jolie Pitt writing and directing a tepid art-house exploration of a long-term couple on the edge of collapse while vacationing at a French resort. Naturally, it’s hard to watch this picturesque fable and not look for clues into Brangelina’s romantic life, a situation Jolie Pitt seems to anticipate and defiantly subvert, giving us characters so oblique and emotionally closed off that we can’t possibly penetrate their melancholic, photogenic surfaces. It’s a bold comment on the mystery of marriage, but one that she doesn’t quite pull off.

19. Ben Stiller and Christine Taylor, Zoolander (2001)
Taylor has never quite gotten out from under her husband’s shadow, which is a shame: She was funny and smart in both Arrested Development and Curb Your Enthusiasm, no small feat, and her take on Marcia was the best part of The Brady Bunch Movie. Here, though, her job is mostly just to marvel at that crazy Derek Zoolander as yet another female journalist who falls in love with her subject. She’s an excellent at rolling her eyes at Zoolander’s amusing idiocy, but she doesn’t have much to do. Moreover, you never quite buy the two of them together, despite their 15 years of marriage.

18. Paul Bettany and Jennifer Connelly, Creation (2009)
Two attractive people who have been independently sexy apart come together to make a stolid, sturdy, utterly conventional biopic of a most unconventional man, Charles Darwin. The movie follows every biopic path you’d expect, and it’s strange how thankless of a role Connelly’s Emma Darwin is: Her job is essentially to support her husband, who faces criticism of his work after a tragedy early in their marriage. It’s a little depressing when a real-life couple gets together onscreen and plays … the couple we’ve seen in every biopic, particularly when the wife character is so thinly constructed. Still, they look great together.

17. Ryan Phillippe and Reese Witherspoon, Cruel Intentions (1999)
Their careers took such different turns after this film – they were married shortly after its premiere – that it’s easy to forget they’d been seeing each other for a while when it was filmed. The problem with this film has always been with Witherspoon, who would prove to be a far more fiery presence than she’s allowed to be here (and had been before this movie, in Election and Freeway), having to tamp all that down to play virginal; this is certainly the last time you’d ever imagine Sarah Michelle Gellar as the charismatic one and Witherspoon as the mild one. You honestly wouldn’t have imagined Phillippe and Witherspoon married watching this initially. It still doesn’t quite click for us, but then again, this is a film we’ll confess having less affection for now than your nostalgia likely does, so take all this with the appropriate amount of sodium.

16. Will Arnett and Amy Poehler, Blades of Glory (2007)
The celebrity couple you’re still sad split up had their one real big-screen pairing in this Will Ferrell ice-skating comedy. They’re not as uproarious as they were on Arrested Development, but they still have their moments as Team Van Waldenberg.

15. Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith, Ali (2001)
Part and parcel with filmmaker Michael Mann’s principled refusal to turn a blind eye to Muhammad Ali’s failings, Ali doesn’t present his first marriage to Sonji Roi in particularly glowing terms. Playing the infatuated-with-each-other but ultimately doomed couple, Will Smith and wife Jada Pinkett Smith are all smoldering rapport and then bitter resignation, but Mann’s weakness for simplifying his male characters’ romantic lives surfaces in Ali as well, the film gaining in drama and complexity only when the Greatest of All Time steps into the ring. As Roi, Pinkett Smith helps bring out a softer side in Ali, but it’s just not a very meaty role.

14. Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (2014)
Andrew Garfield’s Amazing Spider-Man series only got two installments before Sony decided to shift course, in the process ensuring that the culture would always remember Tobey Maguire’s better-reviewed Spidey more fondly. But give Garfield this: His Peter Parker had fantastic, nerdy chemistry with girlfriend Gwen Stacy. Establishing an immediate rapport on 2012’s The Amazing Spider-Man, he and co-star Emma Stone became an item during filming, and so it’s probably no surprise that their connection is a highlight of the very mediocre sequel. Saddled with boring villains (chiefly Jamie Foxx’s Electro), the follow-up is only really interesting when it chronicles Peter’s angst over possibly losing Gwen while she ponders jumping across the pond to attend Oxford. Stuck in two disposable, blandly overblown Hollywood blockbusters, Garfield and Stone gave us at least a little reason to care — which is why Gwen’s death at the end of 2 wasn’t just tragic but also a franchise deal-breaker. Without her around, why bother watching?

13. Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward, Mr. and Mrs. Bridge (1990)
This one’s mannered and subdued and doesn’t have nearly the level of shit-kicking you would like a movie featuring perhaps the most beloved long-term couple in Hollywood history – they had a lot more fun together back in the ‘60s with Paris Blues and A New Kind of Love – but it’s still a fitting coda to the couple’s decades-long partnership. It seems cruel to have these two fun-loving, almost dangerously charismatic actors play a couple of buttoned-up Kansas City WASPs, and the movie is so repressed and remote that you’re desperate for someone to raise their voice above a whisper. All that said, they’re still compelling to watch onscreen together.

12. Paul Dano and Zoe Kazan, Ruby Sparks (2012)
A smart, clever indie comedy ripe for rediscovery, Ruby Sparks stars Paul Dano as a struggling L.A. novelist who decides to write a book about his idealized lover, only to discover that she’s come to life (in the form of Zoe Kazan) and adores him unquestioningly. The sneakiest twist in this male-wish-fulfillment romance is that Kazan actually wrote the script, and as a result Ruby Sparks constantly questions both how artists try to reshape their reality and how some men try to change their girlfriends in order to paper over their own insecurities. Dano and Kazan make for an adorable onscreen couple, but the film gets its sting from their complicity in telling a story about couples’ constant need to tinker with the person sleeping right next to them.

11. Goldie Hawn and Kurt Russell, Overboard (1987)
Hawn hasn’t been in a movie since 2002 – 2002! – and it’s really a travesty. She’s a uniquely gifted comedienne, capable of being daffy and sexy and uproarious and, above all, the most commanding presence in every scene she’s in. This is a classic Hawn role, as a spoiled heiress who (stick with us) gets amnesia and is claimed by Russell’s Lothario carpenter to be his wife in order to get revenge for her sticking him with a bill. This is as contrived as movies get – amnesia! Mistaken identity! Fish out of water! – but it still works because the leads are so mismatched and so perfect together. Hawn and Russell have been together for more than 30 years now, and since Russell is having a late-career resurgence – he appears to be the lead in Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight and even showed up in the last Fast and the Furious movie – it’s probably time to demand Hawn come back too. Maybe they can even do a sequel:

10. Steve Martin and Victoria Tennant, L.A. Story (1991)
Steve Martin met his future wife while working on 1984’s All of Me, casting her as the romantic lead in L.A. Story, his loopy valentine to the flighty strangeness of the town he calls home. “A lot of people think it’s like a love poem to my wife,” Martin once said of the film, which he wrote. “But it wasn’t, really … I wanted to use my wife because I thought she was good, and I wanted an English person because I wanted it to be a foreigner.” In this fantastical-satirical romantic-comedy, he plays a complacent TV weatherman who falls for Victoria Tennant’s London Times journalist, a bastion of sophistication in an otherwise superficial city. Both skewering and affectionately honoring plenty of L.A. stereotypes — nobody walks, everybody eats so healthily — L.A. Story features one of Martin’s best early “serious” performances, and in Tennant he found a wonderful foil. She’s subtle, elegant, and warm where he’s all slick, wisecracking West Coast wit.

9. Ben Falcone and Melissa McCarthy, Bridesmaids (2011)
This was McCarthy’s breakthrough role, and she steals every scene she’s in. But the chemistry she has with Falcone in just one scene — the film’s comedic climax on an airplane  — is palpable and hilarious. He seems to know the exact way to respond to just how far over-the-top she’s willing to go, and still remains grounded in some place warmhearted and real, right there with her. Fifty years ago, they’d be an amazing vaudeville team. Their chemistry is so good that it was stunning just how bad Tammy, which he wrote with McCarthy, and directed, turned out to be.

8. Javier Bardem and Penélope Cruz, Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2009)
In a proud tradition that includes Dianne Wiest (Bullets Over Broadway), Mira Sorvino (Mighty Aphrodite), and Cate Blanchett (Blue Jasmine), Penélope Cruz won an Oscar in a Woody Allen movie for playing kooky and larger-than-life. But what’s so good about her role in Vicky Cristina Barcelona is how she both plays into the stereotypes Allen knowingly writes for her character and also explodes them. As María Elena, a suicidal photographer with a tempestuous streak, she’s as much a self-aware romantic Spanish caricature as her ex-husband, the rascally free-love painter Juan Antonio Gonzalo (Javier Bardem). Where other real-life lovers seem drawn to playing dour characters whose relationship has run aground, Bardem and Cruz have a blast portraying these two incorrigible nut balls, a perfect articulation of the can’t-live-together-can’t-live-apart couples we all know. But Cruz deserved that Academy Award: She brings out the soul and sensuality of a true artist, something Vicky (Rebecca Hall) and Cristina (Scarlett Johansson) will never be.

7. Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh, That Hamilton Woman (1941)
Just two years after Gone With the Wind, Vivien Leigh once again anchored a historical wartime romantic tragedy in which she doesn’t end up with the man. Starring Leigh and her husband, Laurence Olivier, That Hamilton Woman traces the doomed clandestine love affair between Emma Hart, who was married to the British ambassador, and Horatio Nelson, a British naval hero who already had a wife. With the tumult of the Napoleonic Wars swirling in the background, this lavish period piece can feel a bit stolid at times, but the movie’s examination of an affair’s moral ripple effects is also surprisingly contemporary. Olivier’s sweeping Shakespearean grandeur works well paired with Leigh’s grit and spunky charm. But the finest moment in the film belongs to her, as Emma wordlessly processes the news that her gallant paramour won’t be returning home after one too many battles at sea.

6. Woody Allen and Mia Farrow, Husbands and Wives (1992)
Well, we didn’t say chemistry always had to be good chemistry. Because of how unfortunately their relationship ended, the great work these two did together over a decade is often forgotten; Farrow is fantastic in multiple Allen movies, particularly Broadway Danny Rose, The Purple Rose of Cairo, Alice, and Another Woman. But she was never more raw than she was here, as a woman whose marriage (to Allen’s Gabe) begins to fall apart after their two best friends announce their separation. One of Allen’s best films, Husbands and Wives documents the collapse of a relationship as the Allen-Farrow relationship was collapsing, but that doesn’t give the film the credit it deserves: It’s a harrowing, intense, structurally revolutionary look into fundamental human unhappiness and our terrified desire not to be alone. The ease the two have with each other, even if it’s wrapped in disgust, is undeniable; it’s sometimes too uncomfortable to watch, but then again, that is often the point.

5. Johnny Depp and Winona Ryder, Edward Scissorhands (1990)
Back before Depp ditched the tattoo and became one of the biggest movie stars on the planet, he was the lost weirdo who seemed such a perfect match with Ryder’s faux-innocent, quietly smarter-than-you-and-knows-it outcast that you imagined them making movies together for 50 years. They’re two people who, at their peak, just seemed a little bit too sensitive for the world, which is why you felt relief that they found each other, not just in life, but in this movie: They feel like each other’s only protection. Believe it or not, this is the sole film Depp and Ryder did together. It actually feels like a bit of a shame.

4. Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966)
Back in 1966, the appeal of this black-and-white film adaption was partly due to the critical accolades of Edward Albee’s Tony-winning play about two married couples getting meaner and drunker over the course of one angry night. But there was also the allure of watching Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, one of the world’s most famous married couples, duking it out on the big screen. Shielded by extra security to keep away ravenous autograph hounds and shot entirely at night, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? was, by all accounts, a grueling experience, but Taylor later famously declared, “I never had a better time in my life.” She won her second Oscar for her role as the cruel, seductive Martha, who seems to have devoted her life to berating her failure of a husband (Burton), gaining 30 pounds to more believably play this middle-age battle-ax. The movie makes marriage look like blood sport, but the vicious, weary interplay between Taylor and Burton suggests the amount of love and care that went into such scalding portrayals.

3. Woody Allen and Diane Keaton, Sleeper (1973)
By the time Woody Allen made 1977’s Annie Hall, he and frequent collaborator Diane Keaton had ended their five-year romantic relationship, although their close friendship remains to this day. (In her 2011 memoir Then Again, she says of the filmmaker, “I know he’s borderline repulsed by the grotesque nature of my affection. What am I supposed to do? I still love him.”) But if that Oscar-winning comedy is Allen’s most overt love letter to his co-star, their zingy attraction is just as clear in the work they did when they were still an item, highlighted by Sleeper, an inspired sci-fi laugher that makes jokes about everything from Howard Cosell to Orgasmatrons. Allen plays a hapless loser who finds himself brought out of cryogenic sleep 200 years in the future, only to discover that the state controls the people and that the rich (including Keaton’s vapid socialite) live in a dull stupor. Very much an example of Allen’s “early, funny” years as a filmmaker, Sleeper is nonstop punch lines, but it’s also where he started writing female characters more on par with the ones he assigned himself. Light on her feet and sexy as hell, Keaton was well on her way to cementing her position as the decade’s best comedic actresses, providing one of its strongest filmmakers with an indomitable muse.

2. Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman, Eyes Wide Shut (1999)
Eyes Wide Shut was actually the third film to feature Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman, but it’s the one most people remember, even if you ultimately didn’t care for director Stanley Kubrick’s nervy, dreamlike exploration of infidelity and commitment. It can be easy to forget now what a big deal this film was at the time: Not only was it Kubrick’s first movie in over a decade, the legendarily long shoot (stretching over a year) only helped to raise expectations regarding what he and his ultra-famous leads were working on. With prerelease buzz inaccurately hyping Eyes Wide Shut — in the words of Entertainment Weekly at the time — as the “sexiest movie ever,” it was inevitable that the resulting film would suffer a brutal backlash. Judged 16 years later, though, what stands out even more is how startling and strange this portrait of marriage is, featuring top-notch performances from both Cruise and Kidman. As an enigmatic beauty whose admission of a secret fantasy sets the film’s central story in motion, Kidman proved she had long escaped the shadow of her more famous spouse. But the film belongs to Cruise, whose repressed doctor goes on a fantastical (probably imaginary) nocturnal journey that summons forth kinky, cathartic sexual desires. Rather than normalizing matrimony, Eyes Wide Shut makes it as surreal and mysterious as the real-life celebrity couple at its center. Both Cruise and Kidman have given better performances, but never again have they gone down such a fascinating rabbit-hole of desire, distrust, and fear. Even though they split up a few years later, this movie forever bonds them.

1. Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, The Big Sleep (1946)
This scene simply features two people talking, fully clothed in a restaurant, and it’s probably NSFW. Enough said.

Movies Starring Real-Life Couples, Ranked