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For our most romantic national holiday, Valentine's Day is so often reduced to easy gestures, whether they be roses, candlelight dinners, candy hearts or even the donning of black in mourning. Lost amidst the Hallmark cards is the sense that it's the quirkiness and individuality of couples that make them special.
These are some of our favorite couples, both from fiction and reality, whose stories say something unique about love's inherent possibilities and impossibilities.
Lucy & Desi
Romeo said, ``But soft! what light through yonder window breaks! It is the east, and Juliet is the sun.'' Ricky Ricardo just opened the door and, in his silky, Cuban-accented voice, called out, ``Luuuuuucyyyyy, I'm home!'' It's the latter, despite all of Shakespeare's efforts, that may constitute the most romantic words in the English language.
Here was a couple whose on-screen and off-screen lives were as entwined as their passion was with humor (and whose open-heartedness was evidenced in one of the medium's first intercultural unions). On screen, they were Lucy and Ricky in the hit '50s television series ``I Love Lucy'' and later ``The Lucy-Desi Comedy Hour.''
Off-screen, they were the married entertainers Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, and they still epitomize an ideal marriage of equals whose comic look at life worked better than marriage counseling ever could. (OK, so the ending wasn't so great, but let's talk about the years that were truly golden.)
On screen, Ricky Ricardo loved his goofy bride no matter what she did (``Luuuuucyyyy, you have some 'xplainin' to do''). Whether Lucy was drunk on Vitameatavegamin, caught with cheeks stuffed with chocolates, lighting her nose on fire, or bingeing on pickles and ice cream, Ricky never had eyes for anyone but her. And Lucy loved her man with the same ferocity. She wailed his name when she was in over her head (as in, say, a vat of wine), and lost her mind with jealousy when she thought Ricky had his eyes on a dancer.
Ricky and Lucy are true Valentines: For richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, in pickles and in chocolate, in reruns and in perpetuity.
Samantha & Darrin
They are spinning in a revolving door when love strikes them. She, all blond flip and princess seams, is stunning; he, with his three-button suit and Brylcreem hair, is not. But since when did love aim accurately?
She has a secret. When he hears it, he needs a drink. Several.
She's a witch.
He asks her to hide her powers and behave like an ordinary suburban housewife. She agrees.
Fortunately for us, she has one wicked twitchy nose.
Samantha Stephens and ``Bewitched'' popped onto the TV scene in 1964 and left in 1972, and in between everything in the world changed.
The beautiful Samantha, played by Elizabeth Montgomery, is, from the first, a sly sitcom symbol of social unrest. Sure, this girl-named-Sam is dorky Darrin's loving wife, doing her best to conjure up that coq au vin without actually resorting to conjuring. But to do so, she has to hide her real self and her powerful witchiness. Even her parents deplore her choice. What young mid-'60s woman, staring across a Danish modern dining table at her own Darrin, didn't think herself a hidden Samantha?
But here is the unsolved mystery about Sam and Darrin. We can easily imagine why Darrin loves Sam, but why in the name of Wicca would Sam love Darrin? Screechy, bug-eyed, befuddled, gray-flannel Darrin. Even when he comes back, one September, as some other actor who's Dry-Look Darrin, what's going on here? When Endora resolutely refers to him as Darwin or Durwood, we're on her side.
But here's the deal: Darrin's unsuitableness is his very reason for existing. He may bring in the paycheck, but so what? Sam can, if she likes, make the moon and stars rain down and twitch up a perfect martini, too. Darrin's powerless without quite knowing it, powerful only to the degree that she lets him be. He's threatened and proud all at once.
Yet even he must dimly realize the truth: He's there because Sam wants him there, and for no other reason. He's not a meal ticket or surrogate daddy or Ralph Kramden brute or even, heaven knows, equal partner.
He's just the guy Sam wants out of all the universe. And you know what? She gets to choose.
- Kyrie O'Connor
Mike & Mary Anne
The story of ``Mike Mulligan and the Steam Shovel'' is 50 years old and still vibrant because it's about the best parts of each of us: the ability of faith and loyalty to overcome any obstacle and all skeptics. This is a love story, neat and square.
Mike Mulligan, you will remember, is faced with a choice. He can trade in his lifelong companion, the steam shovel Mary Anne, for a younger model. We've heard this one before. The 40ish fella trading in his faithful companion, who has been an equal part of his success, for a new partner - a taller, younger, more sophisticated companion. Happens all the time.
And you thought this was a kid's book?
But Mike loves Mary Anne. He can't do that to her.
Rather than submit to the faithless path, with its temporary riches and fleeting satisfactions, he decides to stick with the relationship. There are some low moments. The two of them are seen crying outside an elitist club (it's fenced in) where once they were welcome. Now they are shunned.
But they stick together.
When Mike finally hits upon his brainstorm and they move to the country, they are met by the doubting Henry B. Swap, who laughs in a way that isn't so nice, at their faith in each other.
They prove him wrong, of course, doing what nobody thought could be done. They stay together right through the end of the book.
When they retire, Mike takes a part-time job as a janitor, and Mary Anne works as a furnace, just to stay active. Mike spends a lot of time sitting in his rocking chair and reading the newspaper (probably aloud) with Mary Anne nearby. All the neighborhood kids, stunned by the idea of a couple growing old together, visit constantly. And they bring pies. The end.
Nick & Nora
Shame on you if you don't think of Nick and Nora Charles when downing your fourth martini. Shame on you, especially, if you stopped at three.
Nick and Nora wouldn't have.
Dashiell Hammett's ``The Thin Man'' introduced us to the sleuthing spouses in 1932. William Powell and Myrna Loy (at left) made them live forever, beginning with their first ``Thin Man'' movie in 1934. Who could ever forget Powell, with his pencil mustache and sharkskin-smooth ways? Or American beauty Loy, with her perfect nose (shaped by God himself), arch observations and womanly practicality?
Together, Nick and Nora personified smart, sexy teamwork. There would have been no Steed and Emma Peel, no Dave and Maddie, no Scarecrow and Mrs. King without Nick and Nora. Lovers, charming duelists, witty teammates, Nick and Nora exemplified perfect, intoxicating chemistry. Rather like the winning ratio of vermouth to gin in the world's driest martini.
And speaking of martinis, we of the gin-chugging population owe a great debt to Nick and Nora - the sultans of silver-bullet sipping style, the varsity cheerleaders of serious drinking. Long before '90s hipsters rediscovered cocktail culture, Nick and Nora were the pairs free-skating champs, gliding the icy surface of a sub-zero martini. Nick in pinstripes, Nora in mink.
Too tipsy to admire in today's PC times? Pish! What's not to love about a couple whose first thought is to mix an arctic batch of gin punch? A couple who looked drop-dead stunning? A couple with no kids (at least at first) to encumber their juniper-scented exploits? A couple with a really cute dog?
Our favorite Nick and Nora moment? When Nora joins an already half-crocked Nick at the bar in the elegant Normandie Hotel. Quick-thinking, she orders six martinis to catch up. Later, while suffering from a hangover, she pulls aside the ice pack on her brow to ask, ``What hit me?'' Nick replies: ``The last martini.''
- Greg Morago
Paolo & Francesca
For Dante, it would have been a story ripped from yesterday's headlines, had there been headlines in early 14th-century Italy. It is a story with everything: a beautiful girl, a malevolent husband, a handsome lover, passion, betrayal, blood and rage.
The beauteous real-life Francesca da Rimini is the daughter of Guido da Polenta of Ravenna (in whose court, oddly, Dante will die in 1321). Around 1275, she is married off to the hunchbacked and domineering lord Gianciotto Malatesta.
But one day while reading the romantic story of Lancelot with Gianciotto's younger brother Paolo, at just the point at which Lancelot and Guinevere are about to kiss, Francesca commits the fatal error - or act of bravery - of allowing her eyes to meet Paolo's. The book falls to the floor, and Paolo and Francesca fall into passionate embrace. ``In that day we did no further reading,'' Francesca coyly, or demurely, says in Dante's ``Inferno.'' Alas, when Gianciotto discovers the pair in the act of love, he stabs them to death.
Here Dante leaves the true story and visits the lovers after death. In Canto V, he places Paolo and Francesca in the second circle of Hell. Naked and buffeted by a perpetual, punishing storm, the lovers cling to each other through eternity.
Poor Paolo and Francesca have inspired artists from J.A.D. Ingres to William Blake to Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and they are the lovers in Rodin's famously sensual sculpture ``The Kiss.'' The story's best-known rendering is probably Tchaikovsky's symphonic poem, a swirling, passionate work of the sort that, because anyone can understand and love it, is often underrated.
But here are the questions scholars quarrel over: Are the lovers in Hell happy or unhappy? Do they comfort each other or torture each other? In other words, are they in love, or are they just in Hell?
Our hearts want to believe that love conquers even Hell's wrath, but our experience says something else.
For once, we hope we are wrong.
- Kyrie O'Connor
Astrud And João Gilberto
Astrud Gilberto lived a wild teenage life on Copacabana Beach in Rio de Janeiro, running with the musicians and artists who set the clubs ablaze with the seductive beats and tropical elegance of Brazilian bossa nova. Through those friends, Astrud met João Gilberto, the father of bossa nova, and after a whirlwind romance, they married with her teens barely a breathless memory.
Now as much as she loved the music, Astrud rarely sang outside their home until she accompanied her husband to New York in 1963 for the now-legendary session where Gilberto and saxophonist Stan Getz recorded the songs of Antonio Carlos Jobim. In the studio, João impulsively asked Astrud to sing, in English, the second verse of the stylish song they wanted to open the ``Getz-Gilberto'' collaboration.
João breezed through the first verse in his native Portuguese, but the song, ``The Girl from Ipanema,'' belonged to the chic, doe-eyed chanteuse with the dreamiest, most innocent voice. That lucky accident made her an instant icon in her early 20s.
The marriage, however, barely lasted as long as the song's rise on the chart. Astrud missed Brazil and felt her naiveté was often taken advantage of. Meanwhile, Gilberto was overcome with ``saudade,'' a Portuguese word for melancholic nostalgia that's at the heart of the bossa nova sound. He spent days in his bedclothes practicing his chords and ultimately ended up hospitalized for depression.
``Sadness has no end,'' as one Jobim song goes. ``Happiness does.'' Or, as Astrud put it in the title of her wonderful late-'60s record with Walter Wanderley: ``A Certain Smile, A Certain Sadness.'' She had lost her heart but found her voice.
- David Daley
Johnny Cash & June Carter
The first night Johnny Cash met June Carter, he told her that someday they'd be married. And they were both married to other people that night in 1956, seated amongst the ropes and cables backstage at Nashville's famed Ryman Auditorium.
Cash knew they were born to be together, but it wasn't until 1961 when Carter joined Cash's hard-partying traveling troupe as a back-up singer and comedienne. Her marriage had collapsed. His was well on its way. And Cash himself was turning into a drug-addicted mess as he struggled with writer's block and keeping his always-nearby personal demons at bay. The tours included Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis, with much of the excitement happening off-stage.
One night, they decided to initiate Carterwith a destructive spree, invading her room with a leaf-blowing machine and sucking up everything from her clothes to the sheet she was sleeping on. They liked breaking bottles, too, until Carter turned the tables one night in Iowa, hurling bottles at Cash and his pals with what he later called ``the meanest look a woman ever gave me,'' until she promised to stop, and then he promised to shape up.
Carter had watched while Hank Williams destroyed himself, and she wouldn't let that happen to Cash. After Cash was jailed for crossing the Mexican border with a suitcase full of amphetamines, June and her parents moved in with Cash to keep a closer eye. She threw away his pills and accepted his rage.
``June saved my life,'' Cash once said. In 1967, he proposed to her on stage. She wouldn't do it until he sought counseling. After rehab, she married him six months later, on March 1, 1968. She'd have to be his angel again and again, as the demons brayed. As they so often sang together in ``Jackson,'' they were indeed married in a fever. But her love restored Cash's luster.
- David Daley
Pogo & Ma'am'selle Hepzibah
Their love was played for laughs, or so one would assume. A possum and a skunk ... it sounds more like a problem in somebody's backyard than a timeless romance.
Pogo first laid eyes on Ma'am'selle Hepzibah in 1950, when the comely comic-strip skunk was being courted by both Albert the alligator and Porkypine.
Music is the food of love in the Okeefenokee, so Albert played the banjo and sang. Porky sawed a violin, while Ma'am'selle requested ``Fly-Tough Zee Bumblee Beans.''
It was our first whiff of her enticing Boom Boom Geoffrion franglese. She later threatened to run off ``into the wiley blue yonkers'' and, in a fit of pique, told a beau, ``Never dark on the door again.'' Her preferred exclamation, we learned, was "Eheu!" which is Latin and ordinarily confined to Horatian odes.
All of this appears to have worked its magic on Pogo. He drifted through that first encounter in his usual state of Copperfieldian detachment, but then he was back, time and again, invariably in a straw boater and serenading with lute, mandolin or banjo.
The pair were, like most lovers, both heedless and wary. Each of them seems to have toyed with thoughts of wedlock, but never at the same time.
Many pursued Ma'am'selle. She was the only ingénue in the swamp, and like Deneuve, she aged into a deeper beauty. In 1950, she was skunk vérité, with upturned snout and unflattering stripe. As the years passed, Walt Kelly gave her more rolling curves and an alluring blush, like a Toulouse-Lautrec chorine.
Pogo was the only suitor who suited her. Their moment of purest bliss came, I believe, during a boat ride in a gentle rain in 1969. Kelly died in 1973, and we lost sight of the couple.
One way to imagine them is that, when their lives were no longer predestined by Kelly's hand and his ink, they knew their own minds and hearts. They got a place somewhere. The swamp had too many memories, so maybe they found something in TriBeCa, or she took him back to Lyons.
I can see that, but then I can't. So many years of playing out the formal kabuki of longing and missed connections, getting close and then resetting the dial to zero again. That's how it is in the comics. If they're still around, Pogo and Ma'am'selle go forth each day, like Richard Wilbur's lovers, fresh and sweet to be undone.
- Colin McEnroe
Felix & Oscar
Any Valentine going from Oscar Madison to Felix Unger would be ticking.
From Felix to Oscar? We won't go there.
The match of divorced men made in Manhattan will live forever within the pages of Neil Simon's script. But for those of a certain age, the sloppy, short-tempered sportswriter and the finicky, fastidious photographer will forever be personified by Jack Klugman and Tony Randall, stars of the ABC sitcom ``The Odd Couple'' (1970-75), which had some of the best writing to be found between ``The Dick Van Dyke Show'' and ``Seinfeld.'' A one-joke show that lasted 114 episodes, the last ``Odd Couple'' was as funny as the first.
Oscar had the best lines and physical trump cards, like putting out his cigar in Felix's wine, tap-dancing on the rug with spikes or spraying a home-cooked meal with furniture polish. They were classic buddies though, and perfect roommates - hating each others' habits, not guts. Let an outsider step out of line, and Oscar's acid tongue would lash out in defense of the man who polished his shoe trees and vacuumed the shower curtains.
For some reason the show has never found a wide audience. Its run on Nick at Nite was brief, and it was last seen languishing mid-afternoon on Comedy Central. Why? Word on the street is that women hate ``The Odd Couple,'' probably for the same reason they hate the Three Stooges.
They just don't get the jokes.
- Dom Amore
Harold & Maude
Opposites attract and maybe love does conquer all, as it does in Hal Ashby's 1972 cult fave black comedy ``Harold and Maude.'' How else can you explain the unlikely love that blooms between a death-obsessed 20-year-old (Bud Cort's Harold) and a swinging 79-year-old (Ruth Gordon's zesty Maude). Oh, it isn't quite Dante and Beatrice or Antony and Cleo, but it's a real original and aptly illustrates just how broad the boundaries of love can be and how important human connection is as a reason for being.
Who could better appreciate Harold's fake suicide attempts than Maude? Who needed Maude's relentless optimism more than Harold? They bonded at funerals (attended more or less for the entertainment value). She was the yin to his yang, the sweet to his sour, the light to his dark. He was her hardest case, the man-in-black to her joyful colors, the terminal down to her determined up.
- Deborah Hornblow
Blaine & Andie
In ``Pretty in Pink,'' Molly Ringwald literally lived on the other side of the tracks, with a sad-sack father (Harry Dean Stanton) she had to practically take by the hand and lead to job interviews. Her best friend, the endearingly goofy Duckie (Jon Cryer), had a life-sustaining crush on her. Duckie serenaded her at work with lip-synched versions of Otis Redding songs, would leave her only after asking ``May I admire you again later?'' and dreamed of taking her away for the weekend. ``Do you fish?'' he asked.
As Andie Walsh, however, Ringwald dreamed of Blaine (Andrew McCarthy), who has the charming smile and flashy house on the right side of town. Blaine wants to get Andie's attention so much that he goes to the record store where she works and asks her opinion on a Steve Lawrence record.``It's hot. White hot,'' Andie advises before charming her completely by hacking into her computer and sending her pictures of them together, in the days long before e-mail.
Their friends, of course, won't accept the coupling. Molly bites her lip and plays her phone messages, hoping he'll call, but it's just Duckie. Duckie sits miserably listening to Smiths songs. Meanwhile, Blaine withers under pressure from family and friends and cancels their prom date. Armed with nothing but her pride, and the dress she made herself from vintage prom-ware, the broken-hearted sweetheart shows up for the prom alone - only to find a decked-out Duckie waiting.
Had the movie ended there, their entrance alone would have been the ultimate triumph for friendship and substance over the fickleness and style of the rich kids. But when Blaine approaches them - dateless - and tells Molly that ``I believed in you. I just didn't believe in me,'' Duckie is moved to make the ultimate sacrifice. He sends his dream girl off into the arms of the one he knows she loves, for a mind-scrambling, drop-your-purse, parking-lot kiss, as OMD's theme song ``If You Leave'' swells.
A sentimental teen flick, to be sure, but also a classic Cinderella romance. And Cinderella only had to struggle against evil step-monsters, not the entire high school caste system.
- David Daley
Zero & Blind Terry
In the early days of Bruce Springsteen, before he became rock 'n' roll's future, he wrote ``Zero And Blind Terry,'' a minor epic about two lovestruck teens and the man that would keep them apart. Not exactly an original story, but it was never told like this before.
Romeo and Juliet were rich kids. Zero and Terry were for the rest of us, for everyone who ever felt like a zero trapped in some public high school nightmare.
As an adult, Springsteen would streamline his music and his thoughts on love, once summing up the genesis of a romance with: ``One day I looked straight at her, and she looked straight back.''
There is no such economy in ``Zero And Blind Terry,'' but its youthful expanse is thrilling.
Then the two of them run ``like reindeers through the street/Like tomorrow the earth was gonna catch on fire.'' Don't know what this means, exactly, but trying to figure it out would miss the point.
The only guy who doesn't see the beauty in all this is Terry's father. (Doesn't that figure.) He is not a man who believes in equivocation, and so he hires some troopers ``to kill Zero and bring Terry back.''
Zero's friends, perhaps sensing that love, true love, is at stake, stage a massive resistance that lasts all through the night as the couple is lifted away by Clarence Clemons' saxophone. Of course, folks with names like Zero and Blind Terry never get away that clean. There is always a hard truth to be told.
``Well now some folks say Zero and Terry got away/Others said they were caught and brought back,'' Springsteen concludes, but then he uses ghostly images to tip the scales. One year later, in a more famous record, he would demand to know ``if love is real.'' If he had listened to his own stuff, he would have already known.
- Matt Eagan