It’s rare that the phrase "shocked the world" is really warranted when it comes to celebrity news. But the news of Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie’s divorce has earned that honor for a number of reasons.
Despite their relationship beginning in scandal, Pitt and Jolie seemed to have a fairy-tale marriage. For years they were the poster children for Hollywood activism, big families, and transparent communication between couples. Theirs was among the most famous romances in Hollywood history.
So what went wrong? To understand the dissolution of Brangelina, we need look no further than one of Hollywood’s most famous breakups: Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton.
Brangelina may have ended the way it began — with an on-set romance
The media has alleged various reasons for Pitt and Jolie’s divorce, including Jolie’s political aspirations, different styles of parenting, alleged drug abuse, and Pitt’s rumored affair with one of his recent onscreen leading ladies, Marion Cotillard. If that last rumor is indeed based in truth, then it lends an interesting twist to the story of Brangelina, who famously fell in love on set.
The Jolie-Pitt relationship began in 2004, when the two A-listers filmed Mr. and Mrs. Smith, which has earned a reputation as one of the steamiest films ever made, thanks to the pair’s on- and offscreen chemistry. The on-set spark fanned into a flame that famously ended Pitt’s marriage to Jennifer Aniston. (Jolie’s long-term relationship with Billy Bob Thornton had ended the year prior.) The scandal surrounding these breakups and the subsequent ease with which Pitt and Jolie became the "ruling royals of Hollywood" made their romance the literal stuff of legend.
But the most legendary Hollywood romances are never the ones that last. Whether it’s a relationship that ends in tragedy, like William Powell and Carole Lombard, or one that simply fizzles out, like Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez, stories of couples falling in love on set at work are rarely simple or easy.
No relationship embodies this truth more clearly than that of Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. Their affair is one of the most notorious in Hollywood history — and for many of the same reasons that made Brangelina such a mythic relationship in the public imagination.
There are numerous parallels between Pitt and Jolie and Burton and Taylor
The relationship between Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton is arguably the most famous in Hollywood history. Like Brangelina, they fell passionately in love on set while filming Cleopatra in Rome in 1962. One famous anecdote from the production states that director Joseph L. Mankiewicz felt like he was "intruding" on the couple during scenes where they continued to kiss long after he’d called "cut."
Like Brangelina, Burton and Taylor were already in committed marriages when they met, and spent a significant amount of time fighting their connection because of it. The couple was dogged during the production by Italian paparazzi desperate to chronicle evidence of their forbidden relationship.
"Liz and Dick," as they came to be known, referred to the affair as Le Scandale as a way of mocking the media frenzy. Things got so heated that Mankiewicz actually issued a snarky press release mocking the speculation with a gay joke:
When an Italian newspaper alleged that Burton was a "shuffle-footed idiot" deployed by the director to cover up the real scandal—that it was Mankiewicz who was having an affair with Taylor—Mankiewicz released a statement declaring, "The real story is that I’m in love with Richard Burton, and Elizabeth Taylor is the cover-up for us."
Forty-three years later, responding to rumors of his relationship with Angelina on the Mr. and Mrs. Smith press tour, Brad Pitt would follow Mankiewicz’s example to the letter. When a brave reporter broke protocol to ask about the couple’s onscreen chemistry, Pitt deflected by making a gay joke about Vince Vaughn:
"Between me and [Smith costar] Vince [Vaughn]? It was palpable. I mean, we knew immediately when we looked into each other's eyes."
The course of true love never did run smooth, but in the case of these Hollywood relationships, being born out of scandal seemed to set the tone for everything that followed. Forever after, the couple’s offscreen relationship overshadowed their onscreen collaborations.
When Taylor and Burton famously starred as a warring couple in the 1966 film Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? the public universally accepted that they were watching the breakdown of Taylor and Burton’s real-life relationship. When, years after their second and last divorce, they appeared onstage together as bickering exes in a stage production of Private Lives, the saga of Taylor and Burton took over the production.
Since their collaboration on Mr. and Mrs. Smith, Pitt and Jolie have starred in only one other film together: last year’s By the Sea, which Jolie wrote. Even so, the media rumors that the film was a real-life allegory were inescapable.
Like Liz and Dick, Brangelina was bigger than its component parts
Perhaps the most significant parallel between Liz and Dick and Brangelina is the way in which their relationship became an entity unto itself.
Taylor and Burton were already Hollywood royalty when they first got together — though it’s arguable that Burton would not have ascended to his subsequent level of fame had he not become involved with Taylor, who had been an international star since childhood.
But "Liz and Dick" represented a relationship that was larger than the sum of its parts. When they bought jewelry, it became "the Taylor-Burton diamond." When they vacationed in southern Africa and spontaneously got remarried, Burton wrote of being "trapped" in their camp by all of the press. The Boston Globe headlined the news of their re-nuptials, "Sturm has remarried Drang and all is right with the world."
Earlier this year, blogger W.D. Fyfe tried to sum up the impact the Burton-Taylor merger had on the world in the '60s and '70s:
There’s no way to describe Liz and Dick to the 21st century. In a world of 24/7 celebrity, they sound trivial — even trite. They were not. They didn’t soar above everyone else; they lounged there. They simply did not share top billing with anyone, and only Marilyn was ever mentioned in the same breath. There was never any debate. It was Liz and Dick and then everybody else. They were celebrities without even trying; to call them Hollywood Royalty or larger than life actually diminishes their stature. In a time before regulated celebrity gossip, they made news — right alongside Kennedy, Khrushchev and Castro.
If this sounds eerily familiar to Brangelina, it should. Through the course of their intermittent but consistent communication to the public about their relationship, Brangelina became a personal brand for Jolie and Pitt. Brangelina was a family cooperative entity, publicly discussing major life milestones: their decision to adopt, their reluctance to marry until marriage equality was achieved (they eventually changed their minds), Jolie’s mastectomy, and even their child Shiloh’s gender exploration. Their brand was consistent and clear: Brangelina was about progressive family values, stability, and Hollywood power. And they were always on brand.
Of course, if "Liz and Dick" was a brand, it was an accidental one, famously tempestuous and characterized by dysfunction. Burton and Taylor were known for their addictive sexual chemistry, Burton’s infidelity and alcoholism, and the pair's tendency to overshare details of their relationship with the press. Burton was never as well-equipped as Taylor was to handle the relentless public scrutiny; the details of their affair, marriage, divorce, and remarriage were carried out entirely in the spotlight.
In 2010, years after Burton’s death in 1984, Taylor revealed dozens of erotic, sensual love letters Burton had written her and basically called him her lifelong soulmate. Even if the brand was accidental, it was one they both profited from and remained committed to even after their final separation. Taylor even allegedly told the Daily Mail that she always assumed they would marry for a third and final time.
Given all the other Liz/Dick and Brad/Angie parallels, who knows? Perhaps this little detail from the past foreshadows a happier future for our favorite power couple.