When Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston were pictured holding hands (or rather, grabbing wrists) at the 2020 SAG Awards on Monday, half the world erupted in unfettered glee, while the other half rolled their eyes. The eye-rollers dismiss our excitement as a sad indictment of today's vacuous, celebrity-obsessed culture, mobilised only by prurient interest in the lives of well-dressed strangers. But they're wrong.
The Jen, Brad and Ange triangle is a decades-spanning epic that taps into more dramatic conventions and romantic tropes than Game Of Thrones. It's a modern-day parable about love and loss – a power struggle played out in the pages of US Weekly, Heat and Grazia. I should know; ten years ago I was a junior reporter at the latter, and fresh from a postgrad in Romantic Literature at Glasgow University, I thoroughly unpicked our fascination with this rolling melodrama.
Because it was a rare week in the Grazia office when the Brangelina/Poor Jen narrative sunk out of our 'Ten Hot' news stories. We all knew that having Jenifer Aniston on the cover sold magazines. And having Angelina on the cover sold magazines. Having Brad on the cover, well, sorry, Brad, but that didn't really matter. So, for the eye-rollers in our midst, here's why people still care about the repercussions of a celebrity marriage that happened two decades ago…
When Pitt and Aniston married in a lavish Malibu ceremony in summer 2000, he had just been re-crowned hot Hollywood property after his turn as Hot Tyler Durden in cult film Fight Club; she was the hottest female cast member in the hottest sitcom of the decade, Friends.
And what made their relationship so of the moment was the equal partnership of two successful A-listers, apparently unsullied by egos or imbalances. When Pitt took a brief cameo in Friends, hich by then was paying Aniston $1 million per episode, working women around the globe swooned; this was the Hollywood equivalent of a boyfriend swinging by our office with a smile and some homemade frittata.
Pitt and Aniston were the Noughties' first truly successful modern power couple, so a lot of dreams died when details emerged of his relationship with his co-star in the naff 2005 romantic comedy Mr. & Mrs. Smith. But our interest only ramped up.
Angelina Jolie was the archetypal femme fatale, one of the most unconventional women in Hollywood, who already had two quick-burn marriages behind her, one, to fellow 1990s bright young thing Jonny Lee Miller and another to Billy Bob Thornton, 20 years her senior, which ended in 2003. She'd worn a vial of Billy Bob's blood around her neck, she'd adopted a young Cambodian kid on her own, she had cool tattoos and took roles in angsty, artsy movies like Girl: Interrupted.
I thought she was magnificent, a glorious new Ellen Olenska-type character striding onstage to shake up the slightly saccharine Brad-and-Jen narrative. To some, Angelina Jolie was the ultimate villainess, an alluring vamp and stone-cold homewrecker. To others, she represented the triumph of the misfits, living proof that even a prince might prefer a wild-eyed gypsy to his perfect princess.
Jo Piazza, veteran US showbiz columnist, love podcaster and author of Celebrity Inc.: How Famous People Make Money, says, "Brad Pitt and Angelina had strong brands already in 2004, but by hooking up in 2005, they combined the two most intriguing narratives in Hollywood. Brad was married to America's sweetheart and abandoned a seemingly perfect marriage for the bad girl. Angelina was a bad girl who was redeemed."
In true Madonna-Whore dichotomy fashion, Angelina Jolie and Jennifer Aniston appeared like polar opposites. In reality, they probably rather had a lot in common (same aspirations, same occupation, same taste in men) but on paper, on the glossy pages of gossip magazines, this looked like Blur vs Oasis all over again, like Darth Vader vs Luke Skywalker, like Borg vs McEnroe. Readers loudly pronounced themselves 'Team Jen' or 'Team Ange', and whose side you took reflected your own position in the a homewrecker/goody-goody, iconoclast/paragon of virtue paradigm.
Any news story – Brad and Ange adopting another child, Jennifer Aniston going on to marry Justin Theroux – was a catalyst for us all to talk about what made us
The power of an epic is that the narrative takes place in the wider context of our own evolving lives, with world events providing an even more dramatic backdrop. Some of us have now remained invested in these three familiar characters throughout financial crashes, global warfare, political upheaval and environmental catastrophe. Frankly, we need the stability this gloriously glossy yet eminently relatable storyline offers us.
And so this latest development isn't just the revival of a tired old gossip item. It's the latest twist in an ongoing epic love saga, and an opportunity to reassess our collective morality, revisit our past selves, and call to mind a – let's face it, happier – time when our gravest concerns were whether Justin and Jen were happier than Brad and Ange.
Seven reasons why we still care about Brad 'n Jen
The dramatic conventions and romantic tropes that explain a 20-year obsession with Jen and Brad and Brad and Ange and Brad and Jen again
Everyone loves a perfect couple
Brad and Jen's entire relationship was so ridiculously flawless that these high-status specimens gave us a generation something to aspire to.
Everyone loves realising perfection is a myth
Having invested in the fantasy, we then saw it go up in flames on the set of a mediocre rom-com about married assassins. Life can be cruel.
Everyone loves a sexy female villain
There was Lady MacBeth, Rita Hayworth's Gilda, Sharon Stone as Catherine Tramell in Basic Instinct, Linda Fiorentino as Bridget Gregory in The Last Seduction... and Angelina Jolie in Brad Pitt's perfect marriage. We love to hate (or just love) a femme fatale.
Everyone loves feeling outraged on behalf of a "wronged female"
By all accounts, the outrage expressed by the general public on Jen's behalf far surpassed any outrage that Aniston felt herself. But that didn't stop us.
Everyone loves it when a "wronged female" does just fine
Having been named patron saint of wronged women, Aniston was roundly applauded for getting on with her fabulously successful career, dating other A-list actors and generally being fine about it all.
Everyone wants to believe in true love
When so many Hollywood relationships appear showy and downright cold, the lasting chemistry and affection between Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston speaks of second chances and redemption.
Everyone loves an epic
A lot has changed since 2005, but in these times of political extremism and social discord, perhaps the one thing we can all agree on, is that we'd like a happy ending for Brad and Jen.