A larger-than-life love … Lopez and Affleck in 2003’s Gigli. Photograph: Allstar/Columbia/Sportsphoto
They were a tabloid dream, the super-cool fly girl and the eyeliner-wearing Caped Crusader. Now, 17 years on, Ben and Jen are together again. But what do the ultimate 00s couple mean to the TikTok age?
The Guardian-Benjamin Svetkey
Brangelina. Kimye. Tomkat. Gyllenspoon. Each pairing is yet another note in the long, sad dirge of failed Hollywood romances. Blending famous monikers has been a showbiz tradition for decades, even if most of these fusions fizzle out quicker than you can say “Vaughniston” (you remember: Vince Vaughn dated Jennifer Aniston for about a minute after her breakup with Brad Pitt). But back in the early 2000s, there was one couple whose tumultuous affair and melded nickname towered above the rest, all but consuming the tabloid press for three whole years, until their abrupt, dramatic breakup just days before their planned wedding. And now, 17 years later, in a plot twist worthy of a Nancy Meyers romcom, those same not-so-young-any-more lovers have shocked the world and delighted the media by getting back together.
That’s right: like the cicadas, Bennifer has risen anew. The details of the Ben Affleck-Jennifer Lopez reunion are still a bit sketchy. There was a New York Post item in April reporting that the two had been observed entering the restaurant at the Pendry hotel in West Hollywood with “arms wrapped around each other”. A few days later, Affleck was spotted making an early-morning departure from Lopez’s LA home (“with a smirk” on his face, the Page Six article noted). A month after that, multiple outlets broke the news that the couple had spent a weekend at a resort in Montana. Then celebrity mag Us Weekly made it semi-official with a quote from an anonymous source: “Jen and Ben are both very happy with each [other] and excited to see where the relationship goes.”
It’s hard to overstate just how big a deal Affleck and Lopez’s relationship was the first time around. Virtually every aspect of their original whirlwind courtship – how they met in 2001 on the set of Gigli, the mobster comedy that ended up being one of the decade’s most notorious bombs; how Lopez broke up her marriage to her second husband, dancer Cris Judd, over the affair; how Affleck dropped $2.5m at Harry Winston for a six-carat pink diamond engagement ring – was afforded the sort of wall-to-wall news coverage usually reserved for hurricanes or ground invasions.
The world is craving pop culture comfort food – and this is a great big grilled cheese sandwich
“We didn’t try to have a public relationship,” Lopez said about the romance in a 2016 People interview. “We just happened to be together at the birth of the tabloids.” But that wasn’t entirely true. They were hardly hiding from the cameras when Affleck did that cameo in Lopez’s 2002 music video Jenny from the Block, sunbathing with her on a yacht and planting a gigantic, tabloid-teasing smooch on her bikinied derriere. And her timing was also a bit off: it wasn’t the birth of the tabloids – it was their crowning peak.
Back in those days, with celebrity culture at its zenith, magazine covers were the glossy currency of the realm. People and Us Weekly still had massive circulations and raked in hundreds of millions of dollars in advertising. Indeed, it was nearly impossible to become famous in America without appearing in their pages. And in this world, at that moment in time, Affleck and Lopez were the tabloid prom’s king and queen. They virtually guaranteed killer newsstand sales.
Today, the gossip industry isn’t what it used to be. There are fewer paparazzi dangling out of palm trees snapping million-dollar photos of canoodling stars; not as many power-crazed Hollywood publicists turning every interview request into the Oslo peace accords. Indeed, the very concept of fame – of larger-than-life personalities living larger-than-life lives and having larger-than-life love affairs – has been all but obliterated by social media, which ironically started right around the time Affleck and Lopez broke up (with Facebook launching in 2004). Internet “influencers” have ushered in a shaggier, more democratic and much more accessible form of celebrity. In 2021, the stars have become their own paparazzi. It’s called Instagram.
Which is why the hoopla over Bennifer 2.0 is a little mystifying. How come, in this day and age, so many folks are so fascinated by such an old-school romance, the re-pairing of a 48-year-old former Batman and a 51-year-old one-time Fly Girl? And not just fascinated, but cheering them on in ways they didn’t always do during the couple’s first go-around. Remember all the crap Affleck took just because he started wearing eyeliner in public around the time he and Lopez began dating? It nearly destroyed his career.
Part of the answer may just be normal cyclical nostalgia. Every 20 years or so, a new decade gets chosen for celebration, and right now it’s the 2000s’ turn: the Friends reunion; Mean Girls being made into a Broadway show; the rehabilitation of Britney Spears as a music industry martyr; and teen queen Billie Eilish even sampling The Office in one of her songs. Everywhere you turn, there are echoes of the 00s – and it’s hard to think of anything that conjures them up more palpably than tabloid headlines about Bennifer.
Scratch a little deeper, though, and it’s possible there’s something more meaningful going on here than just wistful pining. After the last five years of political insanity and general cultural nastiness – not to mention the last 15 months of social distancing and masking up – the world is clearly hankering for some normality. It’s craving pop culture comfort food. And by reuniting after all this time, Affleck and Lopez are serving up a great big grilled cheese sandwich of reassurance and familiarity. Who wouldn’t want to take a bite out of that?
Of course, this being Hollywood, one can’t completely overlook the fact that getting back together has also been a savvy career move for both stars. Affleck’s had some professional triumphs in the years since the breakup (like winning best picture Oscar for 2012’s Argo) as well as some flops (his turn as the Caped Crusader was widely panned). But his post-Bennifer public image took a bunch of hits thanks to a decidedly rocky private life. He hooked up with his Daredevil costar Jennifer Garner in 2004, got married, had three kids with her, got separated and then got caught messing around with the nanny, developed a drinking problem and was divorced from Garner in 2018.
Lopez, meanwhile, has spent the last 17 years bouncing between mediocre romcoms (occasionally landing better material, such as Hustlers), doing a stint as a judge on American Idol, launching beauty and clothing lines, and slogging through a wobbly series of doomed relationships. Shortly after her affair with Affleck blew up, she married singer Marc Anthony (noting later that she “knew very quickly that [the marriage] wasn’t the right thing”), had two kids with him, divorced after 10 years, embarked on a fling with a backup dancer, then another with Drake, until she met Alex Rodriguez, the retired baseball star she nearly married before their breakup earlier this year.
On their own, Affleck and Lopez are each scaled-down versions of the stars they used to be, which is true of pretty much every boldfaced name of the 2000s. In the TikTok world of today, where iPhone screens matter more than the ones in movie theatres, that’s just the way it is. But by reuniting as a couple, they’ve become bigger than the sum of their parts. Together, they’re getting a taste of the old-fashioned, high-grade fame they once gorged on. That’s something that hasn’t been lost on some of their showbiz compatriots, including a few ex-lovers. Lopez’s former flame Diddy – she dated the rapper in the late 1990s – recently posted a throwback photo of the two of them holding hands. Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goop website, meanwhile, posted a shot of her with Affleck back when they dated in the 1990s. Everybody, it seems, wants a pinch of Bennifer’s media pixie dust.
But there is one other explanation for why Affleck and Lopez’s second-time-around love affair is creating so many gushing headlines, and it may be the most compelling of all. Even in a place as cynical and jaded as Hollywood, there’s something undeniably sweet about their reunion. What are the chances that two A-list ex-lovers of the 2000s, who spent the better part of the last two decades struggling with their own separate demons, divorces and career reversals, would end up emerging in 2021 as single and available at exactly the same moment? And that they’d fall in love with each other all over again? It’s just the sort of over-the-top high-concept romantic hokum Hollywood has always found irresistible.