Long before there was Brangelina, we had Tom & Jane, two celebrity spouses who taught us what it meant to be a power couple. Today my morning newspaper was full of the death (at the early age of 76) of Tom Hayden: activist, politician, and former husband of Jane Fonda. They were married between 1973 and 1990. During that time, Fonda made important movies like Julia (1977), Coming Home (1978), and The China Syndrome (1979) that expressed the couple’s uncompromising political beliefs. Hayden himself was no actor, but he was often seen on camera. From his days as a student activist loudly opposing the Vietnam War, and then as a defendant in the Chicago 7 trial stemming from disruptions at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, he was prominently featured in news footage. Once he became a California state legislator and then an elder statesman supporting progressive causes, he appeared in countless documentary films. So in his heyday he was as prominent a public figure as his famous wife.
Hollywood has always had its power couples. Think, for instance of Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks. They were both stars of the silver screen, and she was also a behind-the-scenes power in the establishment of the motion picture industry as we know it today. If we skip a number of years, there were Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, a real-life couple who revolutionized the TV sitcom and founded a production empire whose impact is still being felt. But such powerful people seem to have a hard time making a go of marriage over the long haul. The glamorous Pickford-Fairbanks union lasted only 16 years. Lucy and Desi, unforgettable together as a comic duo, couldn’t survive as a couple for more than 20. And of course Tom Hayden and Jane Fonda called it quits after 17 years, with both going on to wed others. (I have a friend with strong left-of-center political leanings who took their divorce quite personally. When they were together, romantically as well as politically, she felt all things were possible. Once they split, the world didn’t seem quite such a hopeful place.)
What is it with showbiz power couples, anyway? Not all of them are leaders within the industry. Some, like Gable and Lombard, are simply beautiful people who can be admired and envied by the public because of their aura of Hollywood glamour. (The tragedy of Lombard’s plane-crash death of course helped to make their pairing all the more starry.) But Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt as a couple were more than just pretty faces. Above and beyond her acting career, she has been recognized world-wide for her humanitarian efforts on behalf of refugees and needy children. And she is starting to make her mark as a director of tough-minded dramatic films, like In the Land of Blood and Honey. Even her health challenges (like her decision, as a carrier of a defective BRCA 1 gene, to undergo a double mastectomy) have had worldwide impact. Pitt, meanwhile, has juggled acting roles along with a new commitment to producing films. He was behind last year’s provocative The Big Short, as well as 2016’s much-admired Moonlight.
I think we like power couples because they “prove” to us that it’s possible to have it all: good looks, high achievements, and a romantic relationship that underpins all the rest. Only problem-- high-achievers don’t seem to make the best long-term spouses. I’m no expert on what went wrong with Jane and Tom, or with Angelina and Brad, but it’s sad that they don’t seem able to live happily ever after.