Call me cynical, but movie romances have never really affected me much. Soaring soundtracks and meet-cutes usually garner an eye-roll instead of a sigh. There are, however, a few on-screen couples that can melt this heart. These are the romances that are more than the sum of their parts. They exceed expectations in every way, and leave you feeling hopeful and wistful at the same time. Be it through realism, chemistry, or just a little something unique, these on-screen couples stand above the rest.
10. Harold & Maude (Harold and Maude)
Go and love some more.
Harold and Maude is not a film for everyone. Beyond the obvious age gap between the two characters, the humor is pitch black. For those who truly embrace the film for what it is however, there is a lot to love. The main characters couldn’t be more different (I shudder to think of what Hollywood would do to this movie today, more than likely recasting Maude as a thirty-something “cougar” and Harold as an angst-ridden college student), yet through their relationship each gains wonderful insight about what it means to love and to give to another person. Watching this film, the audience, much like Harold, cannot help but be infatuated with Maude’s joie de vivre.
9. “Steve” & “Slim” (To Have and Have Not)
It’s even better when you help.
There’s a reason Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall stand as Hollywood’s great couple. Their first film together, this Howard Hawks noir would have probably been quickly forgotten if not for the amazing chemistry between the leads. I’m certain that few people could remember the plot details for this one, but everyone can quote a few distinctive lines. One of the great on-screen couples through sheer force of chemistry alone.
8. Ennis & Jack (Brokeback Mountain)
Well… I guess I’ll see you around, huh?
One of the few relatively recent couples on this list, but the film is just as moving nonetheless. Sure, it may have been over-hyped when it was first released, but even now this decade-spanning love story takes its toll on me. Maybe I’m just a sucker for this type of “separated lovers” story, but who can watch this movie and not tear up a little in the last minute?
7. Joe Bradly & Princess Ann (Roman Holiday)
I don’t know how to say goodbye. I can’t think of any words.
In my mind, Roman Holiday stands as one of the great romances. This would definitely not be the case if not for the amazing performances of the leads. Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck realistically portray the evolution of their relationship from that of journalist and his quarry, to two like souls both enjoying a sense of pure escapism. It’s hard to believe that the events take place in just one day. This on-screen couple takes what could have been pure fluff and turns it into pure heartbreaking romanticism.
6. Lee & Mr. Grey (Secretary)
Who’s to say that love needs to be soft and gentle?
This entry may be surprising to those who haven’t seen the film (and some who have). It’s reputation does precede it, to be sure. But once you strip away all the extras and the external trappings, what you’re left with is a truly beautiful love story. Ultimately this film is about two flawed characters finding what they need in one another, and isn’t that the point of any romance? It helps of course that the leads have amazing chemistry, as well as a deep understanding of the characters’ motivations. Lee and Mr. Grey are one of the greatest on-screen couples because they present an unconventional love story in a moving and incredibly relatable way.
5. Susan Vance & Dr. David Huxley (Bringing Up Baby)
Now it isn’t that I don’t like you, Susan, because, after all, in moments of quiet, I’m strangely drawn toward you, but – well, there haven’t been any quiet moments.
It may have Tracy and Hepburn who got all the press, but as far as I’m concerned no other on-screen couple had the infectious, effervescent chemistry of Grant and Hepburn. Baby, aside from being a thoroughly enjoyable example of a screwball comedy, showed off this chemistry better than any other. Both actors played wonderfully against type and the result is a ridiculously fun and surprisingly romantic outing. Decidedly unique and one of the greatest on-screen couples.
4. Rick & Ilsa (Casablanca)
I’ll hum it for you. Da-dy-da-dy-da-dum, da-dy-da-dee-da-dum…
There is a reason that this pairing is a classic, the on-screen romance that all the rest are compared to. The story is common enough in film: beautiful woman melts the heart of a hardened cynic, but it is so much more than that. It’s also more than the combination of a (brilliant and quotable) screenplay and a moving story. If I have to explain what makes this one so great, then you’ve clearly never seen it.
3. Joel & Clementine (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind)
I wish you had stayed.
What makes the romance of this on-screen couple so remarkable is its (often painful) realism. While most romances focus on the highs of a relationship and the initial infatuation, this film shows (in a terrifically twisted, convoluted way) the entire thing. No film has more realistically captured the way the end of a relationship feels than this one. The fact that it’s shown from end to beginning is even more effective at capturing that bittersweet feeling. That this one never fails to get me all choked up is why Joel and Clementine get a spot on this list.
2. Walter Neff & Phyllis Dietrichson (Double Indemnity)
I wonder if I know what you mean.
I wonder if you wonder.
For sheer screen-melting chemistry, there is no better on-screen couple that the two leads in Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity. The dialogue flies fast and dangerously flirtatious, and the things left unspoken even more fatal. Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray could give lessons in on-screen chemistry in this film. You just can’t help but be drawn to these two when they share a scene. As far as pure chemistry goes, there is no better.
1. C.C. Baxter & Fran Kubelik (The Apartment)
Shut up and deal.
The two characters who make up the greatest on-screen couple never kiss once. There are no declarations of undying love set to swelling music. In fact, one of them spends the majority of the film pining after someone else. But, I think, that’s what makes these two so special. There is a realism at play here, in addition to the sentimentality. This film takes the viewer on a truly bleak journey before finally restoring a sense of faith in humanity. It is quite a ride, but necessary for the characters to grow. As Fran explains late in the movie, “some people take, some people get took.” Baxter and Fran are decidedly in the latter category, and the triumph of the film is the realization that they don’t have to be in either. No movie couple has ever been able to make me feel as deeply as these two, time and time again. For these reasons and so many more that defy expression, C.C. Baxter and Fran Kubelik are the greatest on-screen couple in American film.