There’s no dream that Hollywood weaves better than great love stories — dramas and comedies that showcase sparkling chemistry, smoldering flirtation and happily-ever-after endings sealed with a perfect-kiss close-up. And with that romance have emerged iconic movie couples — names we love to say together (or even smush into one name). Here, in chronological order from the 1930s to the 2000s, are the 15 hottest pairs to light up the silver screen — and our romantic yearnings.
Myrna Loy & William Powell
Their best movie: The Thin Man (1934)
Why we love them: Loy and Powell were Tinseltown’s “It Couple” in the 1930s, ultimately making 13 films together. But none captured their fizzy comic chemistry more than the Thin Man series, in which they played a ritzy crime-solving couple, Nick and Nora Charles (alongside their dog, Asta). The first in the series is the best of the bunch by far as they toss back cocktails, throw dinner parties, hunt for a killer and nurse his-and-her hangovers while lobbing wisecracks at one another like hilarious grenades.
Ginger Rogers & Fred Astaire
Their best movie: Swing Time (1936)
Why we love them: Were two movie stars ever more in sync — on and off the dance floor — than Astaire and Rogers? The fleet-footed duo starred in 10 films together. Start with Swing Time, in which Fred tries to pick up Ginger’s dance instructor by pretending he can’t dance (now, that’s acting!). Of course, romantic complications ensue, as do some of the most absurdly graceful dance steps ever caught on film. They look and move like angels sent to earth to entertain us mere mortals.
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Vivien Leigh & Clark Gable
Their best movie: Gone With the Wind (1939)
Why we love them: “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.” Gable’s words delivered through the lips of Rhett Butler to Vivien Leigh’s spoiled Southern belle Scarlett O’Hara are the stuff that classic-movie dreams are made of. A Technicolor fantasia that remains (albeit problematically) one of Hollywood’s greatest and most ambitious epics, Gone With the Wind turns the Civil War into the backdrop for a timeless love-hate romance. It took producer David O. Selznick two and a half years to find his Scarlett, but by the time the search was over and the film became a blockbuster, it was hard to imagine anyone else on the receiving end of Gable’s famous kiss-off.
Rosalind Russell & Cary Grant
Their best movie: His Girl Friday (1940)
Why we love them: Sometimes romance has nothing to do with sex and lust, but instead the thrilling foreplay of words, words and more words delivered at a rat-a-tat clip. In Howard Hawks’ screwball comedy, Grant and Russell play exes who still manage to verbally joust like caffeinated lovers. The movies have never used language as an aphrodisiac more effectively, so much so that there’s never any question Grant’s suave newspaper editor will win back his scoop-happy reporter ex before she settles down with her new drip of a fiancé (poor Ralph Bellamy never knew what hit him).
Ingrid Bergman & Humphrey Bogart
Their best movie: Casablanca (1942)
Why we love them: Arguably, or not so arguably, the greatest movie romance of all time, Casablanca manages to turn tough-guy Humphrey Bogart into the biggest, most sympathetic fool for love during World War II. As Rick Blaine, the proprietor of North Africa’s hottest nightclub who risks his neck for no one, he reveals that beneath his icy veneer lies a heart as big as Vichy France. And there’s only one woman who can melt him: Ingrid Bergman’s Ilsa Lund, who walked out on him when the Nazis marched into Paris and started him on his path as a loner staring into the bottom of a bottle — until “of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine.”
Katharine Hepburn & Spencer Tracy
Their best movie: Woman of the Year (1942)
Why we love them: Off screen, the long-running romance between Tracy and Hepburn was one of the worst-kept secrets in Hollywood. But on screen, they were free to be together, liberated to swap barbed, comic insults and tender “I love yous.” The prickly pair made nine films together, but our favorite is their first — this 1942 gem about a sports reporter (him) who falls for a fiery, influential political columnist (her). Woman of the Year set the rom-com template for this mismatched pair of wonderful actors, with him as a regular-guy grump and her as a haughty snob. Opposites have never attracted better.
Lauren Bacall & Humphrey Bogart
Their best movie: The Big Sleep (1946)
Why we love them: From the moment they first met during 1944’s To Have and Have Not, Bogie and Bacall became inseparable. Despite their 25-year difference in ages, there was something about her patrician poise and smoky voice and his world-weary demeanor and sarcasm that set off white-hot sparks. To Have and Have Not is a swell appetizer, but their best entrée as a duo remains their hardboiled adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s classic (and confusing) mystery, where his private eye Phillip Marlowe falls head over heels for her singing, gambling, tough-talking dame who’s tangled up in something far bigger and deadlier than she knows.
Doris Day & Rock Hudson
Their best movie: Pillow Talk (1959)
Why we love them: As the ’40s segued into the Eisenhower era of the ’50s, Hollywood’s concept of onscreen romance evolved from black-and-white danger to color-saturated wholesomeness. And no one epitomized that new, safe-as-kittens era better than Rock Hudson and Doris Day, who made a trio of delightfully chaste (at least, on the surface) rom-coms together between 1959 and 1964. Pillow Talk is still the standout thanks to its daffy plot about a chaste Day sharing a party line with the Hudson’s playboy when their lines get crossed. As for the movie itself, it doesn’t cross any lines at all, nor does it want to. This is a silly, squeaky-clean Cupid’s arrow story that hits the bullseye.
Carrie Fisher & Harrison Ford
Their best movie: The Empire Strikes Back (1980)
Why we love them: The sexual tension was already beginning to smolder in the original Star Wars (although mostly from his side). But in the second chapter (hands down, the best in the series still), the push-pull desire between Harrison Ford’s roguish Han Solo and Carrie Fisher’s regal Princess Leia was finally sealed with a kiss. Fisher would later reveal that the two had a brief affair during filming, but by then who could have been surprised? Like Tracy and Hepburn, theirs is the ultimate opposites-attract love … albeit in a galaxy far, far away.
Meg Ryan & Billy Crystal
Their best movie: When Harry Met Sally… (1989)
Why we love them: It’s hard to imagine movie romance in the ’80s and ’90s without Meg Ryan. She was the Girl Next Door with a twist. She could be daffy and dizzy, but also spiky and smart. Her characters were searching for storybook love stories, but she also gave off the vibe that she didn’t necessarily need a man to feel complete … which made her all the more attractive. Her rom-coms with Tom Hanks (Sleepless in Seattle and You’ve Got Mail) are beloved, but they haven’t aged nearly as well as this still-sharp satire about the age-old battlefield between men and women and the question of whether it’s possible to just be friends. Billy Crystal was never funnier than he is here, but Ryan steals the show with her “I’ll have what she’s having” fake orgasm in a New York deli.
Kate Winslet & Leonardo DiCaprio
Their best movie: Titanic (1997)
Why we love them: Just reading the title Titanic, it’s hard not to picture Leonardo DiCaprio’s steerage-class Romeo Jack holding Kate Winslet’s privileged and restless Rose as she spreads her arms at ship’s prow. Is it corny? Sure. But it’s also iconic and pretty damn effective unless, of course, you’re made of stone. James Cameron’s epic captured the hearts and minds of swooning teenage romantics around the world, tapping into a generational mood that turned out to be a lot less jaded than Xers were credited for. Thanks to the undeniable chemistry between Winslet and DiCaprio, Titanic proved that a well-told love story — even a doomed one — can transport us.
Jennifer Lopez & George Clooney
Their best movie: Out of Sight (1998)
Why we love them: Steven Soderbergh’s jazzy crime caper is as twisty as a bagful of pretzels, but the thing that really makes it soar is the palpable erotic heat given off by George Clooney (at his post-E.R. heartthrob peak) and Jennifer Lopez (who transformed from actress to movie star during the film’s 123-minute running time). He’s a charismatic bank robber, she’s an ambitious U.S. marshal, and when the two of them are locked in the trunk of a car together, it felt like someone yelled “Fire!” in movie theaters across America.
Sanaa Lathan & Omar Epps
Their best movie: Love & Basketball (2000)
Why we love them: Gina Prince-Bythewood’s first film as a director remains one of the great filmmaking debuts of the 2000s. Omar Epps and a luminous Sanaa Lathan play two L.A. neighbors who both grow up dreaming of playing professional basketball. There’s plenty of romance, to be sure, but what makes Love & Basketball more than just the story of two easy-on-the-eyes people and their hoop dreams is how deftly it tackles issues of race and sexual politics. That, and the fact that Epps and Lathan are absolutely unforgettable together, on the court and especially off.
Maggie Cheung & Tony Leung
Their best movie: In the Mood for Love (2000)
Why we love them: Sometimes stories of agonizing unconsummated love can be just as swoon-inducing as those in which the bedsprings get a workout. Take The Remains of the Day or, better yet, this gorgeous import from director Wong Kar-Wai. Set in Hong Kong in 1962, the story centers on neighbors (Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung) who discover that their spouses are having an affair, and slowly begin on a path toward a love affair far more powerful than anything they imagined. Every frame of In the Mood for Love could be paused, framed and hung in a gallery. It’s that beautiful. But the film’s real power comes from its two magnificent stars and their sensual duet of repressed passion.
Watch it: In the Mood for Love, on HBO Max
Heath Ledger & Jake Gyllenhaal
Their best movie: Brokeback Mountain (2005)
Why we love them: Twenty years ago, it would have been hard to find a same-sex cinematic couple that measured up to the other pairings on this list. Now, thankfully, there’s a number to choose from. Still, Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain remains the most artful, affecting and humane. Jake Gyllenhaal’s Jack Twist and Heath Ledger’s Ennis Del Mar are two ranchers who meet and immediately form a deep connection that becomes a secret romance spanning years of fishing trips away from their straight lives back home. The characters wrestle with coming out of the closet, but ironically the film’s most poignant scene takes place inside of a closet as their two cowboy shirts are intertwined on hangers like tragic lovers who will never be allowed to be their true selves in the open.
Chris Nashawaty, former film critic for Entertainment Weekly, is the author of Caddyshack: The Making of a Hollywood Cinderella Story and a contributor to Esquire, Vanity Fair, The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal.