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From 'The Big Sick' to 'Loving': The Most Memorable Films Inspired By Real Couples

Sometimes fact is more romantic than fiction.
by Allison Bowsher — 
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'The Big Sick' and 'Loving'

Amazon Studios / Focus Features

Movies take inspiration from real life every day. Some of the most successful movies of all time, both at the box office and during award season, are based on real-life events and people. Think Amadeus, Gandhi, and James Cameron's 1997 film Titanic, which was a winner with ticket sales and gold statues. So, it should come as no surprise that plenty of memorable love stories told on screen are inspired by real people. 

Capturing a couple's romantic past isn't always easy. Actors need to find their own chemistry with each other and writers have to fit years of shared experiences into a digestible two-hour film. Biopics about famous people have a lot of ground to cover and important relationships, including romantic ones, can be difficult to present convincingly within the constraints of a film. 

Still, many movies have been able to highlight the inspiring and moving connections between couples, from ordinary stories to those who broke boundaries and changed the world. Politicians, scientists, activists, and common folk who simply want to live a safe and happy life with the person they love all make for heartening on-screen love affairs. While these stories are often told by others, comedian Kumail Nanjiani and his wife, writer Emily V. Gordon, wrote their own love story with The Big Sick

The film premiered in 2017 at Sundance and earned the couple an Academy Award nomination for Best Original Screenplay. In celebration of The Big Sick's five-year anniversary on July 14, we're celebrating Nanjiani and Gordon's love story as well as others that have played out on screen. Check out some of the most memorable films based on real-life couples as listed by their Metascore.


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Kumail Nanjiani and Zoe Kazan in 'The Big Sick'

Amazon Studios

The Big Sick

Metascore: 86
Best for: Dramedy fans who want films with heart and substance
Where to watch:

, Google Play, iTunes,
Runtime: 120 minutes

Sticking closely to true events, including Gordon being placed in a medically-induced coma soon after the couple met, The Big Sick stars Nanjiani as a character based on himself and Zoe Kazan as Emily Gardener, a version of Gordon. The film follows the pair on their first few dates and throughout Emily's health scare, while also highlighting Nanjiani's struggles to become a comedian and clashes with his traditional Pakistani parents. The now-married couple's humor and connection play out on screen in an emotional film that boasts an impressive cast, including Ray Romano and Holly Hunter as Emily's parents and Anupam Kher as Kumail's father.

"I fell hard for both Ms. Kazan and Mr. Nanjiani and The Big Sick, which tells a great story with waves of deep feeling and questions of identity and makes the whole thing feel like a breeze." — Manohla Dargis, The New York Times


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Sean Penn (center) in 'Milk'

Focus Features/Universal Pictures

Milk

Metascore: 83
Best for: Drama fans who are interested in important period pieces and LGBTQIA+ stories
Where to watch:

, Google Play, iTunes,
Runtime:  128 minutes

The courageous and inspiring life and career of Harvey Milk, the first openly gay man to hold a seat in public office in the United States, is depicted out on screen in director Gus Van Sant's 2008 biopic, which won a Best Actor Oscar for Sean Penn as Milk and Best Original Screenplay for writer Dustin Lance Black. Milk's work fighting for gay rights is highlighted in the film, which also includes a retelling of the activist's relationships with boyfriend Scott Smith (James Franco) and later Jack Lira (Diego Luna).

"Gus Van Sant and screenwriter Dustin Lance Black pull off something very close to magic. They make a film that's both historically precise and as graceful, unpredictable, and moving as a good fiction film — that is to say, a work of art." — Dana Stevens, Slate


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Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga in 'Loving'

Focus Features

Loving

Metascore: 79
Best for: Viewers who want to know the real story of two ordinary people who bravely fought for their rights and the rights of others
Where to watch:

, Google Play, iTunes, Netflix,
Runtime: 123 minutes

The inspiring true story of Mildred and Richard Loving is brought to the big screen in director Jeff Nichols' 2016 film, which earned Ruth Negga a Golden Globe nomination for her role as Mildred and Joel Edgerton an Oscar and Golden Globe nomination for his turn as Richard. After being arrested in their home state of Virginia for marrying, the interracial couple worked with the ACLU, specifically lawyer Bernard S. Cohen (Nick Kroll), who took their case all the way to the Supreme Court and won in a decision that changed the US constitution. Michael Shannon plays photographer Grey Villet, who photographed the unassuming and courageous couple for their famous Life Magazine spread.

"I can't remember a single scene of fierce denunciation, fervid declaration of righteousness, act of violence or shouting match in Loving. Yet it lands with as much impact as any movie you'll see this year." — Lawrence Toppman, The Charlotte Observer


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Tika Sumpter and Parker Sawyers in 'Southside With You'

Miramax/Roadside Attractions

Southside With You

Metascore: 74
Best for: Fans of the Obamas and anyone who likes some inspiration from their romance films
Where to watch:

, Google Play, iTunes, ,
Runtime: 84 minutes

Fitting the incredible lives of Michelle and Barack Obama into a single film is a tall ask, which is why Southside With You, which focuses solely on the POTUS and FLOTUS' first date, is a much more achievable project. The reimagining of the famous couple's first night together outside the Chicago law office where they met sets the groundwork for the pair's incredible careers, as well as their inspiring and enduring pledge to each other. Tika Sumpter and Parker Sawyers star as Michelle and Barack, respectively, portraying the pair's charisma and commitment to social justice, with the film working as both a romance and a fictional time capsule for the future political power couple.

"Southside with You is a sweet, intelligent, well-crafted, wonderfully romantic, no-frills re-imagination of the first date between Barack Obama and Michelle Robinson." — Richard Roeper, Chicago Sun-Times


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Russell Crowe in 'A Beautiful Mind'

Dreamworks Pictures/Universal Pictures

A Beautiful Mind

Metascore: 72
Best for: Those who love inspiring dramedies that are loosely tied to real events
Where to watch:

, Google Play, iTunes,
Runtime: 135 minutes

Director Ron Howard glossed over and, in cases, completely omitted many of the less feel-good truths of mathematician John Nash's life in his 2001 film A Beautiful Mind, which earned four Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Supporting Actress for Jennifer Connelly. The film, which stars Russell Crowe as the Nobel Laureate in Economics and Connelly as his devoted wife Alicia, does touch on some of Nash's greatest accomplishments in his field and several loving periods of the couple's marriage, though. The happy ending isn't completely accurate, but the pair's relationship, specifically Alicia's support of her husband, who suffered from schizophrenia, still makes for some great Hollywood moments. 

"Inspiring and largely unsentimental, this is as much a love story as a tale of courage." — Edward Guthmann, San Fransico Chronicle


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Reese Witherspoon and Joaquin Phoenix in 'Walk The Line'

Universal Pictures

Walk The Line

Metascore: 72
Best for: Music fans who want to see two of the greats fall in love on screen
Where to watch:

, Google Play, iTunes,
Runtime: 136 minutes

The early life and career of Johnny Cash gets the film treatment in the 2005 Academy Award-winning Walk The Line, which earned Reese Witherspoon a Best Actress Oscar for her performance as country superstar and Cash's second wife, June Carter Cash. Co-starring Joaquin Phoenix as the Man in Black, the film touches on Cash's traumatic childhood, including the death of his older brother, his strained first marriage, and his struggles with drugs and alcohol. June and Johnny's love story is one of the film's bright spots, from their high-energy duets on stage to their emotionally fraught private battle to get Johnny sober.  

"Walk the Line superbly combines music and two of the year's most riveting performances to tell one of the screen's great love stories." — Lou Lumenick, New York Post


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Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones in 'The Theory of Everything'

Focus Features

The Theory of Everything

Metascore: 71
Best for: Fans of films that bring together stories of science, love, and historical events
Where to watch:

, Google Play, iTunes,
Runtime: 123 minutes

Eddie Redmayne not only won an Academy Award for his performance as Stephen Hawking, but he also received approval for his portrayal by the famed theoretical physicist himself. The inspiring story of Hawking is recreated by Redmayne and Felicity Jones, who plays Hawking's first wife, Jane Hawking. Like most biopics, there are artistic liberties taken with the film, including how the pair's love story was told. Rose-colored glasses were worn for many scenes, but the real-life and on-screen couples' commitment to Hawking's work and their family should offer more than enough material to inspire viewers.

"A lovingly balanced biopic that fends off award-gobbling clichés." — Kevin Harley, Total Film


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Javier Bardem and Julia Roberts in 'Eat, Pray, Love'

Sony

Eat, Pray, Love

Metascore: 50
Best for: Anyone who enjoys traveling and eating vicariously through movies
Where to watch:

, Google Play, iTunes,
Runtime: 133 minutes

The film version of Elizabeth Gilbert's memoir of the same title provides stunning scenery, enticing food, and a strong cast that includes Julia Roberts as Gilbert and Javier Bardem as Felipe, a character based on Gilbert's second husband, José Nunes. The fictional characters and their love story, including their meeting in Bali during the "love" portion of Gilbert's year-long literal and figurative journey, was inspired by Gilbert and Nunes' courtship. It's easy to watch two Oscar-winning actors fall in love in a beautiful setting. We just wish some of the meals Roberts-as-Gilberts enjoys in the film came with each stream of the film.

"Eat Pray Love works quite serviceably as a light comedy and a pleasing travelogue." — Stephanie Zacharek, Movieline


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Rachel McAdams and Channing Tatum in 'The Vow'

Columbia Pictures

The Vow

Metascore: 43
Best for: Romance lovers who like films with a few twists and turns
Where to watch:

, Google Play, , iTunes, ,
Runtime: 104 minutes

Fans of author Nicholas Sparks and his many adaptations know going into his films that something tragic is about to happen. In the case of The Vow, based on real-life couple 

, it's a car crash that causes amnesia. Several liberties are taken with the Carpenters' story in the film, which stars Channing Tatum as a music producer and devoted husband and Rachel McAdams as his free-spirited artist wife who sees a stranger instead of her husband after the pair are involved in an accident. Still, the basic plot points of Krickitt's amnesia and second time falling in love with Kim make for an entertaining romance.

"These two stars bring believable chemistry and emotion to a film that might otherwise wilt under the weight of so much melodrama." — Sara Stewart, New York Post


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Jessica Rothe and Harry Shum Jr. in 'All My Life'

Universal Pictures

All My Life

Metascore: 39
Best for: Fans of everyday people as the inspiration for great love stories
Where to watch:

, Google Play, iTunes,
Runtime: 91 minutes

Admittedly, All My Life was not a success either at the box office or with critics. Still, we argue that the film deserves a spot on our list for its charming and heartfelt portrayal of Solomon Chau and Jennifer Carter, a real-life couple who were married after Solomon received a terminal cancer diagnosis in his early 20s. While most films on our list include couples who presided over countries, won Nobel Peace Prizes, and are part of music history, Solomon and Jennifer, who are played on-screen by Harry Shum Jr. and Jessica Rothe, represent a much more relatable couple who use the strength of their relationship to weather devastating news.

"The warmth and touching tenderness of All My Life melts even the coldest of hearts in its quest to deliver happy and sad tears." — Courtney Howard, Variety