What if Romeo and Juliet had lived? Their love could have lasted for all time. Or, he could have dumped her six months later for some hussy called Violetta.
That's not the way Shakespeare wrote it — and with reason. Once a famous couple becomes a fixture, the public can't bear to witness their relationship fall apart.
"These people, we see them as heroes, not only of our own culture, but also of our own personal lives," says "flirtologist" Jill Spiegel, a relationship and pop culture expert and author of Flirting for Success.
"We identify two people as a duo," says Gilda Carle, author of Don't Bet on the Prince! How to Have the Man You Want by Betting On Yourself. "When that duo comes apart, we feel as though our own lives are splitting up."
That's why, when a couple like Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman split, the public feels personally let down.
"Everyone is really sad," says Spiegel. "They seemed so solid, so unified."
You Broke My Heart and Bruised My Psyche
When another Hollywood power couple, Bruce Willis and Demi Moore, headed for divorce court, there was less surprise, says Spiegel. "Demi and Bruce both seemed to live such large lives. But Tom and Nicole always seemed really private."
Cruise and Kidman had been married for 10 years and starred together in films such as Days of Thunder, Far and Away and Eyes Wide Shut.
"If couples have been together for years, it almost bruises the American psyche" when they break up, says Anthony Mora, president and CEO of Anthony Mora Communications, a media relations firm in Los Angeles.
"There is a false sense that you know these people," he adds. "If you believe you know them, you believe you know what's best for them."
And it's hard to fathom that movie idols may have trouble keeping their relationships intact, just like any other mortal.
"We pedestalize these people, put them on pedestals, to the point they are not real people," says Carle. So if one half of the former perfect couple leaves and finds someone else, "we go back and question our own lives, how solid are they?"
When couples who seem to share a great love break up, says Mora, "they are wounding the fantasy in us."
"People are left with a sense of 'we were betrayed by this,'" he adds, even though "in the real sense, this has nothing to do with them."
He Loved Her, Yeah Yeah Yeah
When Paul McCartney, the "cute Beatle," married photographer Linda Eastman back in 1969, girls stood in the streets and wept. But as their marriage endured, they developed into an iconic couple. "That was a true ongoing love story," says Spiegel. "Every love song he wrote was for her."
When Linda died of breast cancer in 1998, fans grieved with Paul. So although many fans were happy for him, it came as a shock to some when he recently announced plans to marry former model Heather Mills.
"Some were saying, 'I can't believe he's found someone so fast!' Some people wanted him to grieve longer," says Spiegel. "It kind of hurts them" that he has moved on with his life, she says.
The public will probably get used to Paul and Heather, just as it got used to Paul and Linda. But it seems highly unlikely that Yoko Ono, who has tried to keep John Lennon's legacy alive for two decades, could move on to become one half of another famous couple.
"I think if someone does stay single for a while, it does become more problematic," says Mora. "If there is a death of a famous spouse, the longer it [widowhood] goes, the more it solidifies."
What Are You Doing With Him?
Jacqueline Kennedy had been a widow for five years when she decided to remarry. But the public was horrified to learn the former first lady who had borne the tragedy of her husband's assassination with such dignity was going to say "I do" to someone other than John F. Kennedy.
The public especially balked at her intended — Greek multimillionaire Aristotle Onassis. Not only was Onassis 23 years her senior, but the vulgar shipping mogul seemed to be the very antithesis of the elegant Jackie.
"Part of it was a choice of where she went," says Mora. There was a general sense of "that's not who we would pick for her," he says, and that generated a sense of aggrievement.
"It was Jackie and Jack," says Carle. "Jackie and Aristotle just doesn't work."
We Love Lucy — With Desi
Certain pairings become so well-known that the public can't stop identifying them as a couple. Fred Astaire danced with many women, but in the public's mind, he will forever be partnered with Ginger Rogers (and they weren't even romantically involved offscreen). Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz ended both their marriage and their professional partnership, but for the public they would always be "Lucy and Desi."
Certainly, points out Carle, none of Ball's later TV shows would equal the success of I Love Lucy, which co-starred Arnaz. "People wanted him to continue with her," says Carle.
"We still live by dint of Noah's Ark," says Carle. "Everything's two by two."
Even with a star like Elizabeth Taylor, who has a strong persona of her own and has sauntered down the aisle more times than most people can remember, the public likes to see her caught up in one great romance.
"Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, they were seemingly a train wreck in motion. They had such a strong hold on the American psyche," says Mora. "It's still 'Liz and Dick.' I don't think you say 'Elizabeth Taylor and Eddie Fisher.'"
It becomes something of a problem when an icon can't find a great love worthy of her. Every tabloid reader around the globe knew that Princess Diana's marriage was anything but a fairy tale. But even though Charles wasn't her prince charming, the public didn't seem to think anyone else fit the bill.
Julia Roberts has had a string of well-publicized romances and even better publicized breakups (remember her leaving Kiefer Sutherland, practically at the altar?). So it wasn't too much of a shock when she and longtime beau Benjamin Bratt split. Still, her fans are hoping their favorite Pretty Woman will somehow find true love after all.
"I think they're waiting for her to find 'the right one,'" says Mora.
Looking for Someone to Blame
Another actress often seen as America's sweetheart, Meg Ryan, suffered a blow to her image when she left husband Dennis Quaid and soon took up with Australian hottie Russell Crowe.
"With Ryan and Quaid, people were surprised because the two had gone through a lot together," says Robert Nachshin, senior partner at Nachshin & Weston, a family law practice in Los Angeles. "He had drug problems when she first met him, she stood by him during that. They have a little boy they appear to be devoted to."
In order to come to grips with the realization that a celebrity marriage isn't perfect, people need to find someone or something to blame, Mora says. "In Meg Ryan and Dennis Quaid's case, they need to find a villain. Russell Crowe was the villain."
Ryan has said the breakup happened before Crowe came along, and had nothing to do with him. But Mora says that people like to stick with the blame game, even when it doesn't really apply.
"People would prefer that it was one incident, one brief shining moment, and that Camelot did exist," he says.
The public's need for life to imitate a romance novel finds some fulfillment in the romances of heartbreakers who have been reformed by the love of a good woman. Mora points to Warren Beatty and Annette Bening.
"Talk about a past!" he says of Beatty. "He was the bad boy who was finally corralled."
And there seems to be a sense of satisfaction that Beatty, after a long career of womanizing, should have settled down to become a husband and father.
"Warren Beatty and Annette Bening, that's a piece of hope," says Spiegel. "People said, 'This guy is never going to get married.'"
We Don't Want a Midlife Crisis
On the other hand, there's a sense of panic when a well-established, older couple hits the skids. When Harrison Ford and his wife, screenwriter Melissa Mathison, temporarily separated late last year, some wondered if there was a side of the actor they hadn't known about.
"Harrison Ford and his wife have never been in Hollywood proper," says Spiegel. "She's very intelligent. She's a screenwriter. There was a sense that they can make it in this business but they don't have to be about this business.
"Sometimes we expect older action types to go for a younger girl," she adds. So when Ford and Mathison took a break, the question arose: "Is there a younger woman? Did he change?"
Some friends attributed the couple's separation to actor's having had a "midlife crisis." A few months later, he and Mathison patched things up, and the public's faith was restored, says Spiegel.
"I think everybody breathed a sigh of relief when they got back together."