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Brad Pitt, Marion Cotillard and the Long History of the Rumor Mill at the Box Office

6 minute read

On Sept. 20, Brad Pitt made headlines for two reasons. Early in the day, a trailer dropped for Allied, the romantic World War II thriller in which he stars opposite Marion Cotillard. But earlier still, news hit that his wife, Angelina Jolie, had filed for divorce after two years of marriage and a decade of partnership. Among the rumors bandied about by mysterious sources was that Pitt and Cotillard had cozied up on set (which was quickly and vehemently denied), leading skeptics to wonder about the timing: unfortunate coincidence or masterful movie marketing?

Even before news of the divorce broke, many had observed the apparent similarities between Allied, which hits theaters Nov. 23, and Mr. and Mrs. Smith, the 2005 romantic thriller on the set of which Jolie and Pitt famously fell in love. Both movies are about spouses who also happen to be spies and consequently can’t trust one another, leading to the breathless cat-and-mouse games that serve up the films’ dramatic tension.

The stakes are lower in Allied, not in terms of the action (being married to an alleged Nazi spy is a perilous predicament for a Canadian intelligence officer), but in the lower volume of the rumor mill, where offscreen drama stands to up the ante onscreen. The Pitt-Cotillard rumors were but a footnote in a breakup story with far more damning accusations. The scandalous (though they claimed chaste) dawning of Brangelina, while Pitt was still married to Jennifer Aniston, forged the most infamous love triangle since Eddie Fisher left Debbie Reynolds for Elizabeth Taylor—and a built-in marketing campaign for the kind of irrepressible passion viewers could expect to see in Mr. and Mrs. Smith. That movie would go on to make $183 million domestically and nearly $300 million worldwide.

The power of an offscreen romance, real or rumored, to influence box-office success has a long history that spans the rise of tabloids, the paparazzi and, more recently, social media’s heightening of celebrity gossip to an omnipresent facet of online life. Whether real-life chemistry translates to movie chemistry and whether it gets butts in plush seats are two separate questions whose answers sometimes correlate and sometimes don’t.

Seven decades after real-life couples like Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall and Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy made movies like To Have and Have Not and Woman of the Year, it’s far easier to recall their electric attraction than it is to conjure box-office figures. Both of their partnerships began on movie sets, with a secrecy necessitated by infidelity, and both went on to make several movies together (Bogart/Bacall made four, Hepburn/Tracy made nine). Some fared better than others—even a spark based in real love can’t always compensate for a uninspired script or a confused plot.

Other on- and offscreen couples are inscribed in the book of cinema more for their box-office triumphs than for the critical acclaim of the films they made together. In the cold, early months of 2008, Kristen Stewart and Robert Pattinson began filming the first of five Twilight movies that would make them the highest-grossing couple in movie history, with $1.36 billion to the franchise’s name despite a combined Rotten Tomatoes score that barely clears 100. (They occupy the top three spots on a list of box office grosses by movies starring real-life couples. Mr. and Mrs. Smith takes the fourth spot).

That winter in Oregon, they also began to fall in love. And though their chemistry is apparent in the movies, Stewart and Pattinson’s off-screen life together was also rabidly scrutinized—when news broke that Stewart had cheated on Pattinson with Snow White and the Huntsman director Rupert Sanders, fans took the news personally. Unlike with other franchises, which sometimes see a drop in interest with each release, Twilight saw increasing returns for the first three, and even the final installment, released post-scandal, made $100 million more than the first.

But the legacy of classic Hollywood pairings and the cash cow that was Stewart and Pattinson’s vampire romance comprise relatively rare instances of success when compared to the endless flops which made—and were made by—couples. Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman in Days of Thunder. Alec Baldwin and Kim Basinger in The Marrying Man. Demi Moore and Bruce Willis in Mortal Thoughts. Madonna and Sean Penn in Shanghai Surprise. Meg Ryan and Dennis Quaid in Flesh and Bone. Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez in Gigli. And while the twice-married, twice-divorced Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor had some fruitful outings together, they made enough bombs to average out with a middling score.

Even Jolie and Pitt, who saw such great returns from their first collaboration, couldn’t revive the magic when they returned to the screen together in the Jolie-directed 2015 drama By the Sea. The movie told the bleak tale of a dissolving marriage, and might have claimed a similar onscreen/offscreen parallel to the one that drew audiences to Mr. and Mrs. Smith: could we perhaps be bearing witness to the end of something, just as we had witnessed its beginning? But the movie ended up drawing just over half a million dollars at the box office. Attribute its failure to a lack of guns or an eminently depressing trailer, but it all added up to what felt like a loss of cultural cachet.

Allied, which comes from director Robert Zemeckis, known for straight-ahead crowd-pleasers like Back to the Future and Forrest Gump, is the kind of old-fashioned Hollywood spectacle that might have topped box-office charts in the ‘90s. But over the Thanksgiving holiday, up against a new Disney princess and a recently unveiled menagerie of fantastic beasts, it’s tracking at $20 million for the long weekend, on a budget of $80 million. A failure to draw bigger crowds may stem from a combination of its dated formula and Pitt’s wounded public image post-divorce. And perhaps the rumor mill isn’t what it used to be. A decade removed from The Smiths’ unbridled passion, there’s more than enough relationship drama to go around on the Kardashians’ Instagram feeds. Movies are going to have to sell themselves—juicy rumor or not.

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Write to Eliza Berman at eliza.berman@time.com