Top 14 Favorite Classic Movie Couples
Love is in the air! With Valentine’s Day right around the corner there’s no better time to cuddle up with your significant other (or enjoy these movies alone) and watch some classic film couples. I’ve picked fourteen of my favorite celebrity pairings that highlight love the best, in no particular order. No, you won’t see Scarlett O’Hara and Rhett Butler, but everyone’s conception of love is different so don’t hesitate to leave your favorite pairings in the comments below! Happy Valentine’s Day!
Honorable Mentions: Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman (Notorious, 1946), Judy Garland and James Mason (A Star is Born, 1954), Betty Garrett and Frank Sinatra (On the Town, 1949), James Garner and Doris Day (The Thrill of It All, 1963), Jane Greer and Robert Mitchum (Out of the Past, 1947)
Victoria Grant (Julie Andrews) and King Marchand (James Garner) in Victor/Victoria (1982)
Julie Andrews and James Garner in Blake Edwards’ gender bending 1982 musical never fail to put a smile on my face. 1982 wasn’t the most progressive time, but this period musical plays on the ultimate sacrifices one makes for love. In this case, King Marchand, an ultra-masculine playboy, finds himself drawn to Victoria Grant, a woman performing as a man impersonating a woman (get it?). For King, he doesn’t know Victoria is really female, leading to questions about his sexuality from himself and those around him. In the end, it doesn’t matter whether Victoria’s a man or a woman; King just knows he’s head over heels.
Connie Ennis (Janet Leigh) and Steve Mason (Robert Mitchum) in Holiday Affair (1949)
This Christmas classic garners more of my respect every time I revisit it. There’s just something about the film’s blend of tragedy, sentimentality, and realistic situations that prevents it from becoming the maudlin spectacle it could be. Connie Ennis is a comparison shopper who ends up getting Mitchum’s shop clerk fired from his job. Feeling guilty, the two spend the day shopping and end up falling in love. They’ve led such different lives – with Connie raising a young boy after the death of her husband – and yet Steve doesn’t plan on wasting a second of his life. When he proposes to Connie at the family dinner table, with her fiancee sitting there no less, it’s a swoon-worthy moment. Steve refuses to keep his love for Connie bottled up, even if it creates tension in the room.
Joe Clay (Jack Lemmon) and Kirsten Arnesen Clay (Lee Remick) in Days of Wine and Roses (1962)
Love is messy, what an understatement, and at its worst it can be utterly destructive. Maybe because I’m a child of divorce but the romances that always stuck with me were the doomed ones. Days of Wine and Roses always devastates me. The depiction of alcoholism has its problems – it’s very much of the era – but watching the idealistic Kirsten and loveable drunk Joe destroy each other, and the love that could have been, is the worst part. These two bring out the worst in each other (their alcoholism starts as a bonding activity) and are ultimately forced to live apart by story’s end if only so one can survive. Would they have lasted without the alcohol? It’s unknown, but the potential hangs heavy.
Ellen Arden (Irene Dunne) and Nick Arden (Cary Grant) in My Favorite Wife (1940)
The story of a man whose wife is declared dead on the day of his remarriage is rife with comic potentialities, and if you’ve watched My Favorite Wife you’ve witnessed the fruit of those potentialities. Cary Grant could conjure up chemistry with a spoon, but his daffy attempts to hide his original wife from his new wife (ice queen Gail Patrick) are fantastic, as much as Dunne’s attempts to conceal her identity from her children. These two are chameleons, and their comic timing – both together and separately – is impeccable. The final scenes in this movie are incredibly saucy, as it’s evident a lot of latent tension has been simmering for almost a decade spent apart.
Cleopatra (Elizabeth Taylor) and Marc Antony (Richard Burton) in Cleopatra (1963)
Let’s talk about sex, baby! Most of the couples on this list are chaste, with any conceivable sexual tension remaining strictly implied. There’s NOTHING implicit about our couple in Cleopatra. Audiences were well-aware of the “Liz and Dick” circus, the infidelities and heartbroken spouses on both sides, and the fact that these two gorgeous people were DEFINITELY getting hot and heavy. Watch Taylor’s chemistry with Julius Caesar (Rex Harrison) in the film’s first half and compare it with her moments with Antony in the second. Taylor cannot hide how much she wants Burton, and that makes their moments some of the sexiest captured on-screen.
Princess Ann (Audrey Hepburn) and Joe Bradley (Gregory Peck) in Roman Holiday (1953)
I’ve detailed my adoration for this couple in my full review of the film, as well as in my Top 21 Most Seductive Scenes but let’s talk about Roman Holiday some more. A) Has there ever been a more gorgeous couple than Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck? I contemplated putting Hepburn and William Holden in Sabrina (1954) on this list, but there’s a greater longing between Hepburn and Peck than anything that happens in Sabrina. By Roman Holiday’s end your heart swells to bursting that these two won’t be together, but you’re left happy knowing the love Princess Ann can have for one man can be applied towards a grander love for one’s country. Dalton Trumbo’s script takes the trite tale of a princess in love with a pauper and gives us a grand romance honoring sacrifice above all else.
Lucy (Lucille Ball) and Ricky Ricardo (Desi Arnaz) in I Love Lucy
I’m cheating by putting a television couple on the list, but can you really say Lucy and Ricky aren’t the most indelible couple in all of popular culture? No matter how many daffy schemes Lucy creates Ricky and her always reconcile at the end. I love a couple that gives us the stability real couples lack; you can count on it. Just look at the image above, from the episode where Lucy tells Rick they’re having a baby. Every time this episode comes on I cry. There’s no denying these two were truly in love and, unlike other real-life couples on this list, it wasn’t perfect but they, and we, enjoyed putting it out there.
Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart) and Ilsa Lund (Ingrid Bergman) in Casablanca (1942)
Rick and Ilsa weren’t originally on this list. I wanted to highlight couples and films off the beaten path. But there’s an air of relatability to our Casablanca couple. For Rick, Ilsa’s the one that got away but who remains forever embedded under his skin. There are some people you just never get over, and Rick gets his opportunity for a second chance, but at what cost. The forlorn air of melancholy is felt in every sequence between these two because, much like with Roman Holiday, there’s something grander that love has to be sacrificed for.
Nick (William Powell) and Nora Charles (Myrna Loy) in The Thin Man (1934)
Nick and Nora Charles are a couple that get each other. Their potential inebriation and penchant for sleuthing in The Thin Man made drinking fun – something that didn’t last long – but also illustrated their utter perfection with each other. Sure, as the series progressed Nora took less time out for drinking, but you never doubt their mutual attraction to each other. In fact, their chemistry was so effortless, audiences demanded they marry off-screen, leaving their respective spouses. Honestly, I can’t imagine any other couple I’d root for more!
Deanie Loomis (Natalie Wood) and Bud Stamper (Warren Beatty) in Splendor in the Grass (1961)
Not only is Splendor in the Grass one of my favorite classic films, but it showed me what a bitch love is and the drama of being a young teen girl getting conflicting information on sex. Despite Beatty’s presence, this is Deanie’s story as she navigates the murky waters of having feelings for a boy – and, honestly, Warren Beatty could engender feelings in a box of rocks! – while living in a town and a time that tells women said feelings are wrong. Similarly, Bud gets his own mixed messages regarding relationships, as his father tells him Deanie is a good girl worth marrying, but not right now. The two become so confused and pent-up that it’s no wonder one is driven to the looney bin while the other finds a life passing for happiness, but not quite. This couple has a lot of similarities with my favorite couple in all of literature – we’ll see them in a bit – in that the fates just don’t align for them. In this case, it is society’s mixed sentiments, camouflaged as parental well-being, that ends up tearing them apart.
Esther Smith (Judy Garland) and John Truett (Tom Drake) in Meet Me in St. Louis (1944)
I don’t necessarily consider Meet Me in St. Louis to be a romantic movie. Yes, the “Trolley Song” and Esther’s relationship with John Truett – the “boy next door” – plays out, but this has always been a movie about a family first. With that being said, their romance is the perfect encapsulation of old Hollywood romanticism. Esther is the girl next door who “can’t ignore” the young man who’s moved in next to her. Their relationship runs from mild flirtation to a sweetly intense turning down of the lights and, eventually, segues into marriage. There’s no deviation from the path we’ve all dreamed of, and that’s perfectly fine with me. In a world where relationships are fraught with issues, it’s nice to see love play out with so few complications.
Stanley (Marlon Brando) and Stella Kowalski (Kim Hunter) in A Streetcar Named Desire (1951)
I honestly didn’t mean for this to follow the above one. So, remember what I said about relationships being filled with issues? Yeah, there’s nothing but issues in A Streetcar Named Desire. Stanley and Stella have a lot of similarities with my choice of choosing Liz and Dick – this is a relationship where you can’t deny sex is involved. When Stella recounts to sister Blanche (Vivien Leigh) about Stanley’s meltdown on their wedding night, being “thrilled” by it, that passion is evident. Sex and eroticism is what binds this couple together – further evidenced in the infamous “STELLA!” scene. Brando’s never been more erotic than he is here, and this relationship is far from perfect, but it’s hot!
Sugar Kane Kowalcyzk (Marilyn Monroe) and Joe (Tony Curtis) in Some Like It Hot (1959)
Some Like It Hot plays around with sex a lot – just watch Joe’s glasses fog up during his date with Sugar – but much of what makes the relationship in the film work is both characters desires vs. expectations. For Sugar, she’s been burned by men who use her, and thus wants a man of means, turning the tables by getting a little use out of the man and some security. For Joe, he wants the beautiful Sugar, but doesn’t have any dough. Their grand desires see them taking on personas they don’t have – Joe being a Shell oil heir and Sugar feigning intelligence. In the end, they know the reality of their situation and accept each other for who they are. I’m also gonna cheat and tie this, since Jerry (Jack Lemmon) and Osgood Fielding III’s (Joe E. Brown) relationship also harbors on reality vs. expectation. Osgood simply wants someone to love, whether they’re a man or woman! “Nobody’s perfect!”
Heathcliff (Laurence Olivier) and Cathy (Merle Oberon) in Wuthering Heights (1939)
I read Wuthering Heights every year without fail. It’s my favorite novel of all time. And, yes, I love this film’s representation of Catherine and Heathcliff above all. The 1939 version only takes half of the novel, but Olivier and Oberon encapsulate the tragic, unconsummated love between Catherine and Heathcliff. These two are highly volatile and imperfect characters, but they love each other deeply. The world doesn’t understand them, society sees their social standing to be at odds, but when they’re on the moors, playing in the heath, their true love shines brighter than any star. They’re also one of those beautiful, doomed couples, but there’s a hope that in death they’re reunited. It’s morbid and depressing but it remains one of the most romantic experiences I’ve watched on film.
Kristen Lopez View All
A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.
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