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Marriage At The Movies

Why marriage doesn’t work for Hollywood.  The troubled history of going the distance on the silver screen.

Myrna Loy and William Powell of "The Thin Man" film series. (Wikimedia Commons)

Myrna Loy and William Powell of “The Thin Man” film series. (Wikimedia Commons)

We go to the movies, or watch them at home, to escape.  For romance.  Adventure.  Something wild.  Something different.  So maybe it’s obvious why marriage has not been Hollywood’s favorite theme.

After all, marriage is about constancy and, in some ways, the familiar.  Hollywood loves the chase, the seduction.  Marriage is the capture.  And yet, marriage is a big part of a lot of lives.

So what to do?  Make them assassins trying to kill one another?  Mr. and Mrs. Smith?

This hour, On Point:  Hollywood’s long and difficult wrestling match with marriage.

-Tom Ashbrook


Jeanine Basinger, chair of film studies at Wesleyan University. Author of “I Do and I Don’t: A History of Marriage in the Movies.”

From Tom’s Reading List

Salon Marriage is both mundane and notoriously mysterious. It is also a subject that has perplexed Hollywood from the very beginning, according to Jeanine Basinger, a film historian and author of the lively new book “I Do and I Don’t: A History of Marriage in the Movies.”

The Boston Globe “As a bonus prize inside her Cracker Jack box of a book, Basinger also compares marriage movies and 1950s TV sitcoms. Despite happy endings, she reminds us, monsters lurked close to the surface of movies; beneath sitcoms, where marriage was de-sexed and familial problems easily solved, ‘lurked the sponsors.’”

Denver Post “What could be more weighty than the slow encroachment of mortality at the end of a long, well-lived life? Especially for a couple that seem to have gotten the rhythms of their romantic partnership down to a delicate, authentic minuet of casual touches, matter-of-fact conversations and binding memories?”

Excerpt From “I Do And I Don’t”

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  • Mike_Card

    That’s a silly question.  Must have been asked by someone who has never seen a Hollywood movie.

  • astrom1970

    Old fairy tales always ended wisely right before a couple was about to marry. What was to follow was usually summarized by “… and they lived happily ever after.”  

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_Y6CO5C2HE4WM2OYGCDVWGPRXXM oldman

    A mandatory ingredient for any movie is some sort of conflict seeking resolution – so if the subject is marriage…

    When marriage is not the focus, some of them do very well – The Thin Man series just one example.

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1408098372 Mari McAvenia

      Yes, Nick & Nora Charles had a great Hollywood marriage, if one understands that Nick was a chronic drunk who Nora enabled & supported with her own inherited family wealth. As cute & whimsical as their 1930′s era marriage appears on film I wonder how the same marital dynamics would be portrayed in 2013. “The Thin Man Goes to Rehab”, perhaps? Or, “The Thin Man Loses a Custody Battle”, maybe.  

      • http://profile.yahoo.com/JXSANCUDPIKQSPID5KT2U4XK5Y TF

        Updated for modern technology and drunk driving: “The Thin Man Blows a .28″?

  • SamEw

    Even though it isn’t a movie. I would like to hear the author discuss Mad Men. 

    • Beth_in_NH

      Me, too! Especially since Matthew Weiner went to Wesleyan and probably studied with Jeanine Basinger.

  • Steve_the_Repoman

    Comments on Amour?

  • http://profile.yahoo.com/S2SYAP7KNWFYFQH6DMCGCGD3UQ SamanthaK

    I do not look to movies for models of normalcy. I watch movies to take a break from normalcy.  What a waste of $10 it would be otherwise.

  • http://profile.yahoo.com/XOXKE3SOOSOO4USMQCJHD5JBDA Mo

    Tyler Durden and Marla Singer. Best couple since Bogie and Becall.

  • http://www.facebook.com/fahy.bygate Fahy Bygate

    how about Meryl Streep and Stanley Tucci in the Julia Child movie?

  • DeJay79

    Date Night! funny, full of action, and they address serious issues of the relationship. 

  • JennaJennaeight

    Margaret and Enoch “Nucky” Thompson in HBO’s Boardwalk Empire – good example of how film-level high cost production of TV today can go where movies can’t.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1408098372 Mari McAvenia

    Myrna Loy & Frederic March in “The Best Years of Our Lives”. That was a strong film marriage.”

  • bezzis

    I like Marge and Norm Gunderson in Fargo.

  • http://profile.yahoo.com/RFYMKG4J3CX4YGSDBCQX7AV6TY Diane Kirilin

    How about The Four Seasons with Alan Alda and Carol Burnette?  Fantastic film about the evolution of marriage.
    Diane in Salem, NH

  • http://www.facebook.com/steven.valleau Steven Valleau

    I was going to recommend Nick and Nora. Mr. Blanding’s Dream House comes to mind. Maybe  movie marriage needed more Myrna Loy. There was never enough Myrna Loy.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1408098372 Mari McAvenia

    Asta & the Fire Hydrant! (Sorry, I am an ardent B&W film buff, too, who absolutely adores the “Thin Man” series.) Great show today!

  • ToyYoda

    Aren’t stories inherently conflict based?  Man  vs man, man vs himself, man vs nature.  I don’t think people want to go to the theaters to watch a happily married couple… unless the marriage is on the rocks, man vs wife.  

    • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_Y6CO5C2HE4WM2OYGCDVWGPRXXM oldman

      They have to be – otherwise you’re just watching somebody’s family movies.

      • http://profile.yahoo.com/JXSANCUDPIKQSPID5KT2U4XK5Y TF

        “Fiction is reality with the dull parts taken out.”

        –stolen from somewhere

    • DrewInGeorgia

      “unless the marriage is on the rocks, man vs wife.”

      That made me think about Mr. and Mrs. Smith., not the greatest movie ever by any stretch but it was entertaining.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_Y6CO5C2HE4WM2OYGCDVWGPRXXM oldman

    Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn did some good marriage conflict movies – “Adam’s Rib” being one.

  • http://profile.yahoo.com/JXSANCUDPIKQSPID5KT2U4XK5Y TF

    New Jeanine Basinger? Must read must read must read.

    And for marriage, King Vidor’s “The Crowd” is great. But don’t see it with someone you love.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1408098372 Mari McAvenia

    How about Renato & Albin in “La Cage aux Folles”?

  • Call_Me_Missouri

    When I think about marriage in the Movies I think of recent movies Couples Retreat and This is 40.

    We portray marriage when we want a very good laugh cause let’s be honest, marriage is kinda funny!

  • http://www.facebook.com/mary.miechowicz Mary E Miechowicz

    What about Audrey Hepburn and Albert Finney in “Two for the Road, one of my favorite movies.

  • siskoe

    My favorites:
    The Bishops Wife, Guess Whose Coming to Dinner, The Blindside, Father of the Bride

  • http://www.facebook.com/seth.nichols.372 Seth Nichols

    A letter to Three Wives (1949) 
    - A great old movie
    about conflict, appreciation and resolution in three marriages

  • melitad

    Spoiler, dude!! AMOUR doesn’t even open here in New Orleans for two more weeks. So now you’ve SPOILED it. Thanks.

  • Michiganjf

    Michael Douglas and Kathleen Turner in The War of the Roses.

    I thought that was a pretty hilarious, though dark, representation of marriage.

    I also liked John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara in The Quiet Man.

    Not the two rosiest Hollywood examples of marriage, of course.

    • http://profile.yahoo.com/JXSANCUDPIKQSPID5KT2U4XK5Y TF

      Yep. WATR was not romantic, but nary an emotionally false moment in it.

  • hellokitty0580

    I think a great movie exploring the troubles of a married relationship is Cat on a Hot Tin Roof with Paul Newman and Liz Taylor. Talk about chemistry, heat, and passion in a movie. I think this movie definitely proves that a marriage can be racy, passionate, and anything but boring.

  • http://profile.yahoo.com/JXSANCUDPIKQSPID5KT2U4XK5Y TF

    Does repeated couples pairings of actors, like Hepburn/Tracy, make marriage an easier subject for a movie? I ask because the audience brings with them some memory of previous roles or real life to any new movie.

    To contrast, “True Lies” had Arnold Schwarzenegger secretly play a spy, and married to a woman who didn’t know. Not his regular type.

  • http://www.facebook.com/steven.valleau Steven Valleau

    Life with Father, William Powell again. It’s about a good wife worrying about her atheist husband’s soul. Maybe unrealistic but fun and touching in showing the great amount of love and sacrifice in the marriage. Those old movies were so good.

  • Laura Barr

    Anyone seen “Away We Go”? Modern couple (John Krazinski and Maya Rudolph) travelling around the country, visiting friends and trying to find a place to raise their soon-to-be born child. Lovely movie contrasting their strong marriage with the falling apart relationships of their friends.

    • ElleNoel

      That was an awesome movie

  • JohnInSC

    Hollywood is about drama; otherwise, like Tom just said it’s about “Who’s going to carpool.” 

    I’m thinking of a couple of films that may not be directly considered about marriage, but I think they are: Sam Peckinpah’s “Straw Dogs,” in which Dustin Hoffman’s character protects his family; and Kubrick’s “Eyes Wide Shut.”  Nicole Kidman’s soliloquy about her fantasies in that film is, in my opinion, the best part of the film, and it’s the beginning of the test of the couple’s marriage.

  • Laura Barr


  • maryrita

    “Mr. and Mrs. Bridge” is a great 1990 movie starring Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward. The two books from which the film is derived (“Mr. Bridge” and “Mrs. Bridge”) are wonderful, too.

  • Gary Beckwith

    a great movie about marriage:

    the Story of Us (a Rob Reiner film with Bruce Willis).   

  • AaronNM

    For me Bogart/Bacall was one of the great couples in cinema’s history. Perhaps “marriage” wasn’t a part of their work together, but if ever a couple allowed their deep love to shine through on the big screen, it was these two.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1575183850 Jennifer Wampler

    How about Big and Carrie Bradshaw…moving from small screen on again, off again storybook (sort of) romance to big screen (awful and petty) married life.

  • DoggerAD

    PAUL NEWMAN AND JOANNE WOODWARD: Mr & Mrs Smith (from the amazing novels by Evan S Connell) and then the ridiculous Mr & Mrs Smith starring the ridiculous Branjolie.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1408098372 Mari McAvenia

    Marie Dressler & Wallace Beery in “Tugboat Annie” made a solid, loyal & devoted married couple. Not pretty people to look at, they were salt-of-the-earth folks who, together, would do anything for their child.

    • http://profile.yahoo.com/JXSANCUDPIKQSPID5KT2U4XK5Y TF

      Did you go to film school?

      Serious props for that reference, and what can you say about Marie Dressler? Just about the first non-pretty film star; perfect for the realism of sound drama in the ’30s.

      • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1408098372 Mari McAvenia

        I began my career as a newspaper journalist writing movie reviews. No degrees in film studies, sorry to say, but my love & respect for the creative arts involved in film making go back to my teen years as an amateur stage actor. Marie Dressler was permitted to continue her acting career, onscreen, into her advanced years because she was a master of her craft. “Dinner at 8″ had her playing opposite Lionel Barrymore (another silverscreen giant) as the love of his life, despite the ravages of age & marriages to other people. A scenery-chewer extraordinaire, this colorful broad could hold her own with any man on stage or screen. That’s what I love about her. Thanks for the complement : )  

        • http://profile.yahoo.com/JXSANCUDPIKQSPID5KT2U4XK5Y TF

          Ah, writing movie reviews for money, which is fast becoming a lost art (and lost vocation). You had to balance being a film geek with not getting too far ahead of the paper’s audience, I figure. Good training for any career in writing.

          I’m surprised this hour didn’t talk about one of the oldest tropes: The “we’re not married” plot, wherein a couple discovers they’ve been living as not-legally-husband-and-wife, and have to decide whether they want to say “I Do” for real after what they’ve been through together.

          Hey, and while I’m dreaming, an hour on Pre-Code movies would be great. Some of that stuff would surprise people–but I’m sure you know it.

  • 65noname

    the movie “nothing but a man” is a wonderful portrayal of the first years of a marriage and figuring out how to become a couple while remaining individuals.

  • MarkVII88

    Is Jeanine Basinger at all related to actress Kim Basinger?  My nomination for marriages in the movies has to go to Steve McQueen and Ali MacGraw in “The Getaway”

  • http://www.facebook.com/garret.woodward Garret K. Woodward

    TWO FOR THE ROAD…an up and down, chaotic marriage through the eyes of each spouse…classic story…Audrey Hepburn and Albert Finney…one of the finest films about marriage, one of the finest films anyhow…

  • ElleNoel

    The Thin Man, Myrna Loy and Powell’s banter is to die for.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1180121869 Eileen Shine

    how about Margie and Wade Gunderson in Fargo? A solid and understated marriage surrounded by the drama and horror of others’ troubles.

  • http://twitter.com/morahjudy judy alexander

    Surpised you haven’t mentioned The Best Years of Our Lives… an examination of 3 couples – a long term marriage, one about to start and one falling apart.  

  • ElleNoel

    My sister says “Wall-e is the perfect boyfriend,”…she’s only half-joking.

  • AaronNM

    My favorite poem about marriage by the great Donald Hall,

    Summer Kitchen In June’s high light she stood at the sink    With a glass of wine,And listened for the bobolink,And crushed garlic in late sunshine.I watched her cooking, from my chair.    She pressed her lipsTogether, reached for kitchenware,And tasted sauce from her fingertips.”It’s ready now. Come on,” she said.    “You light the candle.”We ate, and talked, and went to bed,And slept. It was a miracle.

  • http://www.facebook.com/gregg.walker1 Gregg Walker

    How about “Best Friends” Glodie Hawn and Bert Reynolds best friends who live together for years get married and fall apart – “EnDeIdo”

  • rosemaryofsharon

    How about the Descendants? Got to know George Clooney and his marriage to ?  in retrospect..

  • ToyYoda

    Another great film on marriage and family is “Once Were Warriors”

  • http://www.facebook.com/carrie.youngblood1 Carrie Youngblood

    Has anyone mentioned Being There? Shirley MacLaine is married to a much older man and there is a priceless moment of eye-contact between the two of them, as he gives her permission to seduce Chauncey Gardner.

  • http://profile.yahoo.com/JXSANCUDPIKQSPID5KT2U4XK5Y TF

    “The Philadelphia Story”.

    (SPOILER ALERT) With its story of a divorced couple remarrying when she calls off her second wedding, does it qualify as being about a marriage?

  • http://www.facebook.com/david.emerson.7543 David Emerson

    On Golden Pond

  • http://profile.yahoo.com/2FMDO2HG4GX7EGKCG7AIVTQOAM donald s

    Did not appreciate you giving away the plot of “Amour.” Guess you thought millions of us had already seen it.

  • Noreen1

    The 2011 Iranian film, “The Separation,” reveals the unresolved strains
    in a marriage as it breaks up, even as the couple’s 11-year old daughter
    unsuccessfully tries to hold them together.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=591649299 Laurie Harrison Karnatz

    Audrey Hepburn and Albert Finney in “Two For the Road”. It’s the ups and downs.

    • freethinkerstill

       I also thought of this film.  I liked the flashbacks over the course of a marriage.

  • homeplace

    What the hell is wrong with you, Tom!  No spoiler alert and you just blurt out what happens in Amour.  That was a film I was really looking forward to and you go and spill the beans.  ?????????

  • sdeneke

    I turned in late, so perhaps someone already mentioned it, but the classic marriage movie, better known as a Christmas movie is it’s a wonderful life. Marriage as compromise.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=33500436 Jacqueline Moss

    Darling Companion, featuring Diane Keaton and Kevin Kline is a brilliant portrait of a marriage.  Loved that movie, and wish it go more attention.  

  • cfjackso

    I always thought the marriages depicted in the (1946) Best years of our lives were extremely interesting.  Myrna Loy and Fredrick March in particular display a great degree of understanding for one another while Dan Andrews and wife have lost any understanding for one another.  

    • freethinkerstill

      You read my mind!  I immediately thought of Loy and March from this great film.  They exuded the best of marriage with love, familiarity and passion. 

  • imjust Sayin

    We need to protect the sanctity of marriage from heterosexuals.  The divorce rate among heterosexuals, not counting Hollywood, is over 60% regardless of religion.

  • Regular_Listener

    Movies are best at showing couples just before marriage or in the middle of breaking up.  For good depictions of marriage, you need to look at the subtler arts, particularly fiction.  But there too, a stable, happy marriage is not very interesting.  Rule number one for writers is that a story – pretty much any kind of story, be it tragic, funny, dramatic, whaever – requires conflict.

  • Regular_Listener

    “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” is one of the most successful depictions of a happily married couple I can think of.  And that of course is the big revelation and the source of the drama – that this horrible couple, who seem to loathe one another and be on the verge of divorce or worse, are in fact deeply devoted and, in their own way, very much in love.

  • MoListener

    How about these underrated gems from the ’80s:
    1) Author! Author! — Al Pacino and Tuesday Weld
    2) Shoot the Moon — Albert Finney and Diane Keaton
    3) Falling in Love — Robert DeNiro and Meryl Streep
    4) Heartburn — Jack Nicholson and Meryl Streep

  • http://www.facebook.com/karl.widerquist Karl Smith Widerquist

    “Barefoot in the Park,” I can’t believe this show missed that movie. It is a love story about a husband and wife that BEGINS on their honeymoon. They have trials, but the end up happily together.

  • Ian Boardman

    I just heard this podcast, and as a movie fan and married father of 3 kids, really enjoyed it.  As for some of the book’s points being right on target, check out this recent posting:
    “Julian Fellowes: Dan Stevens had to leave Downton because ‘nothing is harder to dramatise than happiness’”


  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=10104502 Victoria Ruan

    I heard this play on NPR in Washington DC this past Saturday. There was a song that played during the broadcast- it sounded like an older song- that was sort of tongue-in-cheek and described marriage as a prison sentence?  Do you know the name of the song?  Thanks!

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