When the split between Kate Winslet and her husband, Sam Mendes, was confirmed earlier this week, many commentators attributed the break-up to their experiences working together on Revolutionary Road. The 2008 film, for which Winslet won a Golden Globe, offers a very dark account of a marriage in 1950s America coming apart at the seams. The seemingly devoted husband (Leonardo DiCaprio) and wife (Winslet) realise that they're not quite as compatible as they had thought. A deadening sense of disappointment and anticlimax clouds their lives together as they contemplate the life they once dreamed of having.
In the film's aftermath, the Mendes/Winslet marriage itself reportedly began to fray. This, though, is far from the first instance of a couple working together and then drifting apart. Movies make and break couples. In the hothouse atmosphere of a film set, tensions are exposed and emotions unleashed that can't always be suppressed once the cameras stop rolling.
When Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman split up after 10 years together in early 2001, it was claimed by their publicists that their respective work commitments had prevented them spending time together. However, it wasn't so long before their split that Cruise and Kidman had been working alongside one another over many months in intense circumstances for Stanley Kubrick's final film, Eyes Wide Shut, released in 2001. This adaptation of Arthur Schnitzler's Dream Story was itself a claustrophobic psycho-drama about a marriage coming under intense strain.
There was a ferocious intensity in the performances that Ingrid Bergman gave in films like Stromboli and Voyage to Italy for Roberto Rossellini. She had scandalised Hollywood by starting an affair with Rossellini while married to another man. She subsequently married Rossellini, but they divorced in 1957. Combining their private and professional lives was clearly more than their marriage could withstand.
"Drama and film are incontrovertibly two professions that are immensely erotically charged," the Swedish director Ingmar Bergman said in an interview late in his life. He talked of the "incredibly pleasurable tensions" that the quest for perfection shared by him and his actors could cause. The tensions may have been pleasurable, but they were potentially destructive, too. As is well chronicled, Bergman had several affairs with his collaborators. He also made many films, most notably Scenes From a Marriage, which took the attrition between husbands and wives as their starting points.
Sometimes, movies have helped keep couples together. During her marriage to Jean-Luc Godard in the 1960s, actress Anna Karina used to feel far more stable when they were working on a movie. It was in the lulls between films that cracks began to appear.
Godard would tell her he was off to buy a packet of cigarettes – and then would vanish for weeks on end. The filmmaker went abroad on mini-pilgrimages to meet famous writers and directors without telling Karina where he was going. "I'd sit and wait in front of the phone. At that time, there were no answering machines," the actress recalled. By contrast, when they were on set together, she at least knew exactly where he was.
Gena Rowlands gave some searing performances in her husband John Cassavetes' films, invariably playing women on the edge. Whatever emotional turbulence characterised films like Opening Night and Gloria, it didn't seem to spill into domestic life.
In the heyday of the studio era, Hollywood specialised in stories that brought together the man and the woman by the end of the final reel. And what happened on-screen was often reflected behind the cameras. Liz Taylor and Richard Burton began an affair during the making of Cleopatra that would eventually lead to their marrying, not once but twice. When they hurled insults at each other in Who's Afraid Of Virginia Woolf?, they brought a venom to their roles that only a couple who know each other intimately could hope to match.
Movie stars or filmmakers getting divorced is hardly a shock. It comes with the territory. Lana Turner, for example, ran through seven husbands. ("There is something ridiculous about a woman who takes seven husbands, as if she had rummaged through the drawers of masculinity and come up with seven dwarfs," John Updike wrote of her.)
Nonetheless, the Mendes/Winslet split seems to have taken the British by surprise. The reaction to their separation has been almost as anguished as it was to the other big rupture of the week – that of David Beckham's Achilles tendon. Alongside the prurient curiosity about what triggered their separation, there has been dismay. The Reading-born Mendes and Winslet may both be Oscar winners, but they weren't a flamboyant pair living their private lives in the public eye. He liked cricket. She was ready to send herself up on Ricky Gervais's Extras. They seemed grounded, self-deprecating and very British. Not a typical Hollywood couple at all.