The death of Edward Albee this week was an excuse to revisit one of the greatest semi-factual toxic marriages of cinema: the film version of his Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor were in a state of boozy, agonised meltdown, and those performances may well have been a catharsis for personal issues.
Perhaps our generation has its own Woolf-anxiety couple in Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, who today filed for divorce after being an item since 2005. They have only been married since 2014, which will give pause to all those who fear that getting legally hitched amplifies the existing problems in any long-term relationship. For outsiders to speculate about their private pain would be impertinent, especially considering the courage with which Jolie has faced her own health issues. But the fact is that the Jolie-Pitt alliance began with a film about marriage – and now appears to have ended with one.
They got together at the very beginning, after filming the action comedy Mr and Mrs Smith, playing supercool assassins: each of their professions is a secret from the other – and each of them finally gets an assignment to kill the other.
It was, in a semi-intentional way, a brilliant parable for marriage and Hollywood career-partnership and the “frenemy” qualities inherent in a competitive working situation.
Mr and Mrs Smith featured very droll scenes of them side-by-side on the couch, in archly “civilian” mode, apparently attending couples therapy. (It also had a surreally random moment at the very end, in which Mrs Smith confesses out of the blue that she is Jewish.) There was a kind of meta-hilarity in all this, and it might even have given the start of their romance a screwball quality, were it not for the fact that Brad was already married to Jennifer Aniston.
They worked together just twice more. Brad Pitt was the producer of A Mighty Heart (2007), directed by Michael Winterbottom, in which Jolie played Mariane Pearl, wife of the missing journalist Daniel Pearl – a role in which she was controversially required to wear dark makeup to play a woman of partly Cuban descent. It was not a very successful film, though undoubtedly a seriously intended one, and clearly something to which both Pitt and Jolie were committed.
But their relationship appears to have ended on camera, too. The second film in which they acted together, By the Sea (2014), was an agonisingly detailed, 1960s-style portrait of a marriage which is set in the south of France, and which appeared indebted to Antonioni’s L’Avventura and Stanley Donen’s Two for the Road.
There are long scenes of moody, eloquent silence in their hotel room, in which Jolie retreats into depression and Pitt gets picturesquely drunk at a neighbourhood bar.
I felt it was a little absurd at the time – but actually, this is a movie that improves in retrospect. It is ambitious and heartfelt.
Was By the Sea the last therapeutic gasp for Brangelina? The couple they portrayed on screen were working through their problems, and perhaps Brad and Angelina were working through their own problems too. Or perhaps they were doing the opposite: creating a massive delusional diversionary tactic, a fiction that looked equivalent to their own problems but wasn’t, a giant project with which they could wrest back creative control of their personal lives from the gossips.
Jolie’s character in that film had no children, but the actor herself has a large family of adopted and biological children – a source of tension that is not really touched on in the film.
Perhaps they will work together again, and Burton-Taylor nostalgists might even wonder about the possibility of their remarrying. By the Sea deserves another look. They are certainly a really potent on-screen partnership.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010
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