Marriage in the Movies


Friday, March 22, 2013

Not much makes a Hollywood executive more jittery than the word "marriage." Love in the movies is about the flirtation, the exciting courtship, the comic mismatch, the embarrassing one-night stand, the one-night stand on the spaceship before time-traveling into a wormhole — not waking up next to someone every day for the rest of your life.

Jeanine Basinger argues that a genre of “marriage movies” flourishes in secret, often camouflaged by other plots. She is the author of the new book I Do and I Don’t: A History of Marriage in the Movies, and one of the country’s leading film historians. She claims other “impeccable credentials” on the subject, as party to a 45-year (and counting) marriage.

From the silents to Blue Valentine, Basinger was struck by the fact that “the problems that are in marriage are the problems that are in marriage. You can have frank sex scenes or whatever, but fundamentally they’re the same issues: class issues, compatibility, competition, in-laws, money, adultery, addiction, and, my personal favorite, murder.”

She notes that television, with its season-long plot developments, has a natural edge over film in this regard. “Television can give you an honest marriage more easily,” Basinger explains, where “a movie’s got to make a roller coaster ride out of what is essentially a merry-go-round ride.” The best onscreen depiction of a marriage of all time, she says, belongs to Friday Night Lights’ Eric and Tami Taylor. She remembers a struggle over who takes out the garbage cans — an insignificant moment plotwise — as capturing perfectly the lived reality of marriage.

Basinger put no pressure on her husband to watch the films with her; she’s been writing about movies for decades, and he’s watched his share. “Here’s the way you stay happily married: you don’t make each other do each other’s thing.”

→ What is your favorite marriage in a movie, and why? Tell us in a comment below.


    Music Playlist
  1. Marriage Is For Old Folks
    Artist: Nina Simone
    Album: I Put A Spell On You
    Label: Verve Records
    Purchase: Amazon
  2. Love Like The Movies
    Artist: The Avett Brothers
    Album: Carolina Jubilee
    Label: Ramseur Records
    Purchase: Amazon


Jeanine Basinger

Produced by:

Julia Lowrie Henderson and David Krasnow

Comments [32]

Henry Shaffner

Hi! My wife and I are much taken with the marriage of Van Johnson and

Elizabeth Taylor in "The Last Time I Saw Paris." That this film is

based on an F. Scott Fitzgerald tale "Babylon Revisited" is a well-

known fact, but Richard Brooks, the Director, has brought it up to the

end of WWII and he has done a superb job. Van & Liz carry on like

F. Scott & Zelda and they are a wonderful match. Both so beautiful it

is heartbreaking to see the marriage go "South." But Van Johnson in this

film gives a performance worthy of an Oscar. Why he never received one

is a Hollywood mystery yet to be solved.

We do know that Jeanine Basinger is a big Van Johnson much

so that she just signed a Petition that is circulating to put his face

on a US Postal

Apr. 04 2013 03:20 PM
Susan E Naruk

I was a student of Ms. Basinger's more than 30 years ago at Wesleyan and have the greatest admiration for her. But I have to disagree with her that there is no movie which could serve as a blueprint for a good marriage. Operating on the premise that a happy marriage is the union of two good forgivers, I would recommend "The Grass is Greener" as, indeed, a primer for a good, lasting, marriage with all its imperfections.

Mar. 30 2013 12:36 PM

How can we leave out (my favorite) Morticia and Gomez Addams?!
Another "similar" marriage is Peter and Elizabeth Burke from "White Collar". But, oddly enough, that one comes off as less realistic to me than the Addams family!

Mar. 29 2013 12:42 PM
Eva from San Francisco, CA

Oh, how could one not choose Nick and Nora Charles from the Thin Man series? There have been terrific marriages portrayed through the years (commenters above also pointed to Professor and Mrs. Potter in Holiday and Mad About You), but nothing comes close this iconic couple. A clever "retired" detective and his more-than-a-match wife, both of them sauced all the time, indulging each other's fancies but also bickering, hard-headed, purposefully misunderstanding one another... it's just the kind of marriage that makes you want to snuggle up with your sweetheart of many years––and have a martini.

Mar. 29 2013 11:28 AM
David Conrad from Austin, Texas

My favorite marriage movie is "The Sundowners" (1960), directed by Fred Zinnemann and starring Deborah Kerr and Robert Mitchum. This is a marriage in which shared experiences as migrant workers in turn-of-the-century Australia have produced an equal, loving partnership between husband and wife. Yet it is also a marriage in which both individuals have independent and sometimes conflicting aspirations. It is a joy to see the on-screen couple deal with their differences through compromise rather than through the bickering and bellowing that is more typical of movie marriages. The film is beautifully-shot, to boot.

Mar. 27 2013 11:48 PM
Armen from Philadelphia, Pa

Albert Finney and Audrey Hepburn in Two For The Road. They love each other, they hate each other, they come together, they tear apart. In the end, they make each other better together - and that's a great marriage.

Mar. 26 2013 09:57 PM
Eileen from Easton, PA

I loved the relationship of Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr in "The Grass is Greener". It's a sophisticated treatment of a marriage surviving infidelity.

Mar. 26 2013 09:39 PM
Steve from Staten Island, NY

Roseanne and Dan Connor. They are Americas middle class family

Mar. 26 2013 11:30 AM
Pat from North Jersey

My nominee for a great film couple is "Mrs. Miniver", a great British film that shows a couple in love in the ordinary life, and shows a bonding made stronger in a time of war.

Mar. 25 2013 10:38 AM
Barstron from Jersey Shore

Mr. and Mrs. Smith

In a marriage, the truth about who we are often doesn't come out until years after saying, "I do".

Mar. 25 2013 08:27 AM
Jeff from Salt Lake

For me it's Mabel and Nick in John Cassavetes' 'A Woman Under the Influence'. The desperation and insecurity they inflict in each other (starting with his) is incredibly human and portrayed with unbelievably humane performances.

Mar. 25 2013 02:23 AM
Kristin R from Seattle, WA

One of my favorite marriage movies is "Another Year", a British movie depicting a very ordinary, yet lovely couple's lives over the course of a year. Their lives aren't anything extraordinary, but are still so beautiful. They have a somewhat dysfunctional friend group who rely on the stability of their marriage as a constant. The couples garden plot serves as a symbol of continued, healthy, growing life, through all seasons, and it also brings them together. It gives me a lot of hope for what marriage can be.

Mar. 24 2013 11:35 PM

Marriage movie? "Two for the Road." Audrey Hepburn and Albert Finney show us the many facets of a romantic relationship. Attraction, courtship, early marriage, parenthood, infidelity, reconciliation, acceptance. And if you don't like the actors, you can always appreciate the cars; each stage of their lives is represented by a different car.

Mar. 24 2013 07:04 PM

I was interested in hearing Kurt Anderson say that he didn't think that the film Amour presented anything new in cinema. Could he please provide a list of movies that did a better job on some of the major subjects covered in Amour (i.e., a non-comedic presentation of issues surrounding a couple living to an age where the simulation of existence is questioned because passions have died and one of the partner's selfhood and integrity have disintegrated)?

Mar. 24 2013 03:14 PM

"Mr. and Mrs. Smith" portrayed a great marriage: they're super-spies, she nearly kills him a few times, and they need each other to work together as a great team. Also I agree with a previous comment about "The Incredibles": another super-cool super-marriage. You walk out of the theater feeling good to be married.

Mar. 24 2013 02:44 PM
Capp from NYC

An unusual choice for a film about marriage, Hitchcock's SUSPENSE with Cary Grant and Joan Fontaine says a lot about what marriage or a significant relationship should be by showing what it shouldn't. Joan has a firm opinion about Cary which Cary's actions can't change. She doesn't trust him. Even when reality refuses to confirm her suspicions, she won't let go of her negative feelings about him. They don't talk openly. As Cary says at the end, "You could have confided in me and we cold have worked things out together." He loved her and tried to do all in his power to please her, but she didn't have a clue because the reality in her head prevented her from seeing the reality in front of her. By the time she realizes her mistake, it's too late. Great film!

Mar. 24 2013 12:04 PM

It's hard to beat the Baileys (Mary and George) from "It's a Wonderful Life" in terms of great movie marriages.

Mar. 24 2013 11:47 AM

For TV, the best marriage was on "Mad About You"--with Helen Hunt and Paul Reiser.

Mar. 24 2013 11:28 AM

I love the marriage of Julia and Paul Child as depicted in "Julie & Julia." It was a delight to watch such a sweet and loving portrayal of these characters! Not boring!

Mar. 24 2013 11:26 AM
carolita from nyc

The marriage of Professor and Mrs Potter, in Holiday. Runner up, Nick and Norah, from The Thin Man series. Both are equal, all about humor and dialogue, and very intelligent.

Mar. 24 2013 10:35 AM

I have little kids at home so perhaps my perspective is different (certainly the films I watch these days are), but I thought the family dynamic in the Pixar animated feature "The Incredibles" was pretty good. Obviously there is fantasy and comedy mixed in, but the relationships issues were there too.

Mar. 23 2013 11:14 PM

Married couple Rita and Raymond Cappomaggi almost steal the show from the leads in "Moonstruck."

Mar. 23 2013 11:12 PM

Best married couple in the movies? Jane Fonda and Robert Redford in "Barefoot in the Park."

Mar. 23 2013 10:57 PM
Tracy Warren from Washington, DC

Hands down (for me) it's Preston Sturges' "Palm Beach Story." Claudette Colbert leaves her unsuccessful architect husband, Joel McCrae, to go find someone with more money. Following a manic, madcap (brilliant) train and yacht journey to Florida with a Rockefeller (Rudy Vallee) and the Ale and Quail Club, McCrae meets Colbert at the dock and in Rockefeller's mansion seduces her back. The film is both knowing and sexy -- and like all Sturges' films, hilarious about Americans and money.

Mar. 23 2013 10:57 PM
Peter from Minnesota

The couple in Mike Leigh's Another Year, as an example of a happy married couple. So, of course, the story is mostly about the tribulations of the woman's friend.

Mar. 23 2013 10:29 PM
Stephen Hoffman from Long Island New York

I think the best movie marriage is The Best Years of Our Lives
The scene where Theresa Wright's character is talking to her mother Myrna Loy and her father Fredric March (who has just come home from World War II) and telling them that they don''t know what it''s like to be unhappy in love .Telling them that they have this great marriage and have it easy. Then her mother tells her all the times that they fought and told each other that they hated each other and wanted to kill each other. That,s a great marriage moment .

Mar. 23 2013 05:02 PM
Drew Joseph from Washington, DC

As a marital therapist, I like much of the marriage writing in the NBC series, "Parenthood." I particularly appreciate how the partnerships between Julia & Joel and between Christina & Adam have evolved through the seasons. In the short-lived TV series, "Tell Me You Love Me" (readers may recall its particularly graphic sex scenes) I liked the marriage of the 40-something couple. Perhaps it's not a coincidence that they, too, had children in the story.

Mar. 23 2013 04:41 PM
Anna from Ellicott City

Rabbit Hole (2010) with Nicole Kidman and Aaron Eckhart. Tells a moving story of a married couple coping with the death of their child. The husband and wife go on separate emotional journeys and come back in the end through love and perhaps with a deeper connection.

Mar. 23 2013 02:46 PM
Mike Baker from Baltimore

Jim Broadbent and Ruth Sheen are a long-term married couple, still incredibly in love in the Mike Leigh film, "Another Year"

Mar. 23 2013 02:31 PM

Hands down it's Nick and Nora Charles.

Mar. 23 2013 11:28 AM

The Americans currently running on FX is doing an incredible job portraying marriage. Not sure anyone else is portraying the struggle of marriage so well on television currently.

Mar. 22 2013 08:19 PM
Pj from Tempe AZ

I like Bonnie Hunt and Jim Belushi in "Return to Me" because it's a hilarious depiction of reality--vomiting children, overweight husbands, playful insults, etc.

Mar. 21 2013 08:56 PM

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