It is either a magical storybook dream, breathlessly chronicled in supermarket magazines, or else, in those same pages a few years later, a train wreck of betrayal and heartbreak. Hollywood marriage, like so much else in modern celebrity culture, is both aspirational and cautionary.
Affleck was scolded for being ungallant, but he was guilty, at worst, of a humblebrag. His remarks seem to have been a hurried, earnest attempt to show that he and Garner (who have been married for eight years and have three children together) are just like everybody else.
The phrase "marriage is work" rolled easily off his tongue partly because it represents the conventional wisdom of the moment. The idea that lifetime love equals long-term labour pops up in rehearsal-dinner and anniversary-party toasts, and in parental advice and pastoral counseling sessions. It is one of those kernels of common sense that always seems to go without saying but that also somehow requires constant reiteration.
You hear it said so often that you may never stop to wonder what it means. It's not as if our attitudes about work are any simpler than our notions of marriage. Work can be thankless or productive, a sacrifice or a reason to get out of bed in the morning, the cornerstone of a worthwhile life or a crucible of exploitation. Which of those is marriage supposed to be?
To say that marriage is work is to insist, above all, that it is not static. Far from a condition of smiling serenity or unvarying habit, wedlock, in the modern imagination, is supposed to be dynamic, active and interesting. In old movies and TV shows, marriage, when it was not upheld as a romantic ideal, was usually portrayed either as a state of dull stability or endless drudgery. That it turned out to be work was presented as a "realistic" or mocking rebuke to the expectation of bliss.
But in film and television, work and wedded bliss are now synonymous: the harder marriage is, the more romantic it seems.
We know, and for the most part accept, that many people, including gay people, will marry more than once or not at all. The institution of marriage survives as a choice - as a range of choices - rather than a single norm. Some effort - of assembly, maintenance and completion - is required, and the effort is what justifies the choice.
And yet at the same time, marriage remains a romantic projection, a utopian realm in which all our contending unruly drives find simultaneous and permanent fulfillment in a world of transience. Sex, security, prosperity, the conquest of loneliness and a nifty reproductive end-run around mortality: All of this is promised in the advertising copy, if not precisely guaranteed in the fine print of the contract.
Wedded bliss is a nice idea, but it does not usually produce a satisfying narrative. In "I Do and I Don't," her new study of Hollywood's ambivalent relationship to marriage from the silent era to the present, the film historian Jeanine Basinger observes that "marriage has no story arc."
A marriage plot, which is to say a comedy, is a story with a wedding at the end. The exchange of vows provides a satisfying and efficient exit from an intricate story. After the chaos of misbehaviour, misunderstanding and missed connection, order is restored, the curtain falls, and love's essential labour is done. But if the story starts in the middle, sometime after the honeymoon, at the breakfast table or the parent-teacher conference, where then does it conclude? There are only two logical possibilities, both of them sad.
Michael Haneke's Amour, a prizewinner at Cannes and at the Oscars last year, is one of the few recent movies about the end of a long, happy marriage, in other words a chronicle of illness, death and bereavement happening to Georges and Ann, a lovely, loving pair of classical musicians.
Its devastating honesty scared some people away, and many of those who saw it emerged with the dazed, righteous glow of having gone through an ordeal in the service of art. The marriage in that film, like the film itself, was a masterwork, as formally precise and harmonious as the Schubert on the soundtrack.
Very few films attempt - much less achieve - that kind of tragic perfection. And most married couples, it might be added, do not live in spacious Parisian apartments whose every floorboard creaks with refinement and decorum.
Richard Linklater's new film Before Midnight probably comes closer to the messy delights and petty frustrations of modern monogamy. Though the central couple, Celine and Jesse, live in Paris and are vacationing in Greece with their young children, their cosmopolitanism registers less than their talky, twitchy, push-and-pull ordinariness. And though the film's title foreshadows an end, its plot is almost all middle.
Celine and Jesse, first encountered in their 20s in 1995s Before Sunrise and reunited nine years later in Before Sunset, are now in middle age. Their relationship (not technically a marriage) has survived its sweet, abandoned beginning and its surprising reprise, and it acquired an air of permanence.
And yet the end of the movie is an existential and emotional cliffhanger. As the day turns to night, Celine and Jesse's bantering and bickering blossoms into a full-blown fight, a crisis that makes them (and the viewer) wonder if they can recover, and maybe also whether they should.
Celine worries that her job at an environmental nonprofit in Paris is threatened by Jesse's desire to move to Chicago to be closer to his son from a previous marriage.
Behind this practical concern lie stark and frequently unspoken ...resentments and divisions. Celine is acutely aware that, even in sophisticated 21st-century partnerships like theirs, sexist habits and assumptions persist. The most vivid illustration of this comes not in any conversation she and Jesse have, but in an extended sequence during which she and the other women in the film prepare a meal in the kitchen while Jesse and the men sit out on the terrace, smoking and talking philosophy.
When the specter of infidelity arises later, in the midst of the fight that starts out about something else, it is connected to Jesse's professional life: Celine suspects him of cheating while on a book tour. Her specific anger about that episode is connected to other feelings of competitiveness and resentment that are no less intense for being hard to articulate.
The flirtation that began 18 years before on a train to Vienna and resumed in Paris - a prickly and contentious meeting of minds and hearts - has hardened into a power struggle. And the negotiation of power is what gives substance to modern marriage stories, whether comic or dramatic.
"We're just like Ricky and Lucy," Michael Douglas' Liberace says to Matt Damon's Scott Thorson in Behind the Candelabra, Steven Soderbergh's recent HBO film about their long love affair. Lee (as Liberace is known to his friends) is making fun of an argument the two lovers are having about sex, which Scott immediately understands to be about power. "How come I'm the Lucy?" he wants to know, and the answer is succinct and irrefutable. Liberace is the "bandleader," the breadwinner, the man of the house - the husband, and therefore "the Ricky."
In effect Lee is saying to Scott, his much younger lover (and officially his employee), that the two of them are just like a married couple. He is eye-rollingly appalled by the notion, but of course that is exactly what they are. Behind the Candelabra shows that while the legal recognition and social acceptance of gay marriage may be a new (and as yet incomplete) phenomenon, the thing itself, in all but name, has been around for a long time.
And the film makes an understated but nonetheless urgent political case that the invisibility of its central relationship - in particular Lee's refusal or inability to step out of what looks in retrospect like the most transparent closet in history - shaped its dysfunctional course and unhappy end. A ring and a license might not have curbed Lee's domineering tendencies, but at least once it all fell apart, Scott would have been entitled to public sympathy and a share of community property.
Their invocation of a famous sitcom couple, in a movie that cunningly blends earnest domestic drama with more than one variety of camp, is freighted with meanings that ripple across more than half a century of American cultural life. To the television audience of the 1950s Ricky and Lucy Ricardo, the celebrated bandleader and his scatterbrained hausfrau, personified an ideal, and also a caricature, of heterosexual domesticity.
Along with the Cleavers, the Nelsons and the Kramdens, the Ricardos developed a genre - the household sitcom - that has proved astonishingly durable and adaptable despite decades of social upheaval and demographic change.
Even Modern Family, which more than any other network series has embraced the pluralism of contemporary domesticity, is basically Ricky and Lucy in triplicate. In each of the three households in the Dunphy-Pritchett constellation, there is a sole breadwinner and a stay-at-home spouse. Occasional attempts to break out of this mold, or expressions of discomfort with the arrangement, provide fuel for some of the show's funniest jokes, like Cameron's mixed feelings about his status as the designated "mom."
Though there is friction and exasperation in these marriages, it would not quite be accurate to describe them as "work," and this is partly because the question of work - who does what, for what reason and with what reward - has been settled in advance. But elsewhere, the question of work is often the cause of dramatic complication. Two-career couples fuel the action on shows like The Good Wife and, of course, Friday Night Lights, a series that, for its most devoted fans, will never end because Eric and Tami Taylor will never part.
Tami and Eric were never complacent, never predictable, and for those reasons, real in a way that very few small-screen couples have been. Jim Halpert and Pam Beesly seemed that way before their marriage: their long, bumpy courtship was one of the things that gave the first seasons of the American version of The Office a sweetness that its British model pointedly lacked, and their wedding during Season 6 was the emotional and comic apex of the show.
And then everything fell apart. As they settled down into a happy domestic routine, with two cute children, adjoining desks and the cozy saltbox that was Jim's childhood home, The Office began to slip. It grew sillier and more hectic, its characters more stridently eccentric. And Jim and Pam, the super-relatable nice folks in a suite full of clowns, turned out to be kind of awful.
Their contentment radiated outward as smug entitlement, as they expected their co-workers to fawn over them they way they did over each other. Some of this was intentional, as the writers cleverly exploited the tendency of other people's private happiness to look to the rest of us like annoying complacency.
But in its final run of episodes, the show was saved by the possibility that their bliss would be destroyed by Jim's second job with a startup company in Philadelphia. The possibility that their happiness could be shattered by diverging desires - his restless desire to achieve something beyond the walls of Dunder Mifflin, her need for help and support at home - made them real and sympathetic again. And if the solution was a bit too neat (as it might have been for Eric and Tami after she got her big professional break in Philadelphia) it nonetheless felt right, and romantic.
In other words, it worked.
© 2013, The New York Times News Service