Why do certain celebrity relationships continue to engage our attention long after they are over?
What is it about some love stories that they simply refuse to fade from public imagination? I asked myself this question yet again last week as Jennifer Aniston began doing the usual round of publicity interviews for her new movie, Cake. Actually, make that ‘poor old Jen’ who lost her husband, the great love of her life, Brad Pitt, to the evil machinations of that sultry siren, Angelina Jolie. Poor thing, she never found love again, moving from relationship after relationship, grasping for the same magic she had with Brad. But no, that wasn’t to be.
Watching Aniston answer the same questions (about Brad, Jolie, their many kids, her striking lack of them), you could be forgiven for thinking that Brad and Jen had split a year ago. Actually, it’s been ten years. And still the same questions keep cropping up in every interview Aniston does.
She and Brad may have moved on, but we are unwilling – or unable – to do so. We seem more committed to the eternal love triangle of Jen-Brad-Jolie than Brad ever was to Jennifer, trying to tease out some meaning from it, puzzling over what went wrong, and sighing about what could have been. So, every couple of months, a fresh crop of stories surfaces in the media. Brad is back in touch with Jen. Jolie is livid because she doesn’t trust Jen. Brad is so unhappy with Jolie. Jen is going to break up with her fiancé Justin Theroux (because she never ever got over Brad, you see). And so on…
Why should this be so? I must confess that I am stumped. Yes, all three protagonists are A-list celebrities so some amount of media attention on their relationship (and lack thereof) is inevitable. But this sort of obsession about something that happened a decade ago? Does it make any sense? Of course not. Nonetheless, the breathless media coverage goes on.
But even if we can’t really work out why this should be so, there is no denying that there are some star pairings that live on in our imaginations, more vividly than ever, even though the couple in question has long since ceased to exist. And we continue to obsess over their relationship – why did it end; who was to blame; whose side are you on? – decades after it has been dead and buried.
If our generation had Brad and Jen (and Jolie), then the one before had those eternal star-crossed lovers, Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. Their coming together on the sets of Cleopatra was a bit like an irresistible force meeting an immovable object. Sparks flew, passions were ignited, and a very public affair began despite the fact that both were still married to other people. They divorced their then-spouses in a spectacular blaze of publicity, and generated even more headlines when they got married to one another. The fiery relationship saw them get divorced, get off with other people, and then with a certain inevitability, gravitate back towards one another. Another wedding followed, and then, another divorce.
After the final split, Taylor went on to re-marry twice even as Burton notched up two marriages of his own. He was married to Sally Hay when he died in 1984. But as far as the media were concerned, it was Liz, not Sally, who was the rightful Burton widow. All the coverage was about Burton and Taylor: the passionate letters he had written to her through their long and complicated relationship; glamorous pictures of them on set or dancing the night away at some club. And much the same thing happened when Taylor passed away in 2011. It was the tragic, tumultuous love story of Burton and Taylor that dominated the obituaries, with her six other husbands meriting merely a passing mention.
In India, there is really only one celebrity couple that I can think of who has attracted this sort of obsessive coverage: Amitabh Bachchan and Rekha. Even though their ‘relationship’ (always rumoured; never confirmed, despite the many coy hints Rekha threw around about ‘Him’ in her many interviews) allegedly ended in the 80s, the myths around it continue to circulate.
The two have never worked together in a movie after Silsila, which was released in 1981, but even more than 30 years later, the presence of them both at any film function is bound to create a frisson. If Rekha is giving away an award, the cameras will focus closely on Amitabh’s face to see how he reacts (with a poker face, if you must know). If Amitabh is on stage and Rekha in the audience, then it is her reaction that the camera will look for (adoring look, paired with mysterious smile). And so, the dance continues even though both are getting a bit long in the tooth now.
Now, of course, there is a new angle to explore in this ‘triangle’ for the ages: Rekha and Jaya in the Rajya Sabha. Both women are members of the same House of Parliament, so their paths are bound to cross at one time or another. And the media are lying in wait for just such a moment. When Rekha takes her oath, the camera pans to Jaya; when Jaya makes an intervention in a debate, the camera closes up on Rekha. And thus, it goes.
Why do these love stories that ended decades ago continue to engage our interest? What is it about these people that makes their ‘relationships’ the fodder of gossip columns, years after the event? Why are we so obsessed with these triangles for the ages? If you can work it out, do let me know.