What does Hollywood love even more than comebacks and second chances?
If you guessed “combining two names to become one,” then have we got the saga for you.
On April 30, as another 13-day week was crawling to a close, the story that no one had on their 2021 bingo card sent shockwaves coursing through the Internet: Jennifer Lopez and Ben Affleck were hanging out, at her house, in Los Angeles.
Within an hour it was if current events ceased to matter as folks were blissfully whisked away to a simpler time (pre-Twitter, ironically), back when “Bennifer” were on the cover of every magazine, ushering in the era of the celeb-couple portmanteau. Or at least back to pre-pandemic 2020, when Jennifer Aniston and Brad Pitt‘s reunion at the SAG Awards also made many people wonder if perhaps the world was slowly but surely righting itself.
No such luck there. More like, Earth was about to spin off its axis and it’s hard to believe that mask-free, up-close-and-personal event even happened just last year.
But this moment felt similar, nonetheless—delicious, carefree and so refreshingly unimportant but at the same time a pop culture emergency.
Because while at the end of the day a sighting of Affleck getting dropped off at Lopez’s mansion shouldn’t be confused for anything other than it was—two single friends spending a little time together—hot damn if the Twitterverse didn’t have thoughts. (And even those who unconvincingly asserted their Bennifer indifference were there for the speculation.)
Why, however, did an 18-month-long romance that started almost 19 years ago cause so many palpitations? It’s not only pandemic anxiety talking (see: reax to Brad and Jen). What is it about certain celebrities together—even though in this case each has been through so much since—that just leaves an indelible impression in people’s hearts and minds, a memory preserved in amber just waiting to be dug up whenever the opportunity arises?
“I think different time, different thing, who knows what could’ve happened, but there was a genuine love there,” Lopez told People in May 2016. (As Lloyd in Dumb and Dumber would say: “So you’re telling me there’s a chance?!”)
“We didn’t try to have a public relationship,” she continued. “We just happened to be together at the birth of the tabloids, and it was like, ‘Oh my God.’ It was just a lot of pressure.”
Affleck recently had a similar take, saying on the Jan. 14 episode of The Hollywood Reporter‘s Awards Chatter podcast, “Me dating Jennifer Lopez happened to be that tabloid story at the time when that business grew exponentially. When they realized there’s actually a 10 times bigger audience for our product than we are selling to.”
And with Bennifer, the press had struck gold, spinning as much as they could—almost as if they didn’t trust it to be the real thing. Here’s what happened:
While the film is usually mentioned more in conjunction with the end of their relationship, Lopez and Affleck actually met making Gigli, the box office and critical bomb that would become synonymous with high-profile failure upon its release in 2003. (Affleck, Lopez, Al Pacino, Christopher Walken? Seemed like a good idea at the time.)
Halle Berry was first attached to play the lead, but her shooting schedule for X-Men 2 created a conflict, clearing the way for Lopez to sign on to the romantic crime caper in late 2001. A twist of fate right up there with Nicole Kidman dropping out of Mr. and Mrs. Smith, to be replaced by Angelina Jolie.
In March of 2002, Affleck took out a full-page ad in the industry trades dedicated to Lopez, with the message: “You have shown kindness, dedication, diligence, humility, graciousness of spirit, beauty in courage, great empathy, astonishing talent, real poise and true grace…It has been nothing but an honor and a pleasure to work with you. I only wish I were lucky enough to be in all your movies.” Signed, ”With love, respect and gratitude, Ben Affleck.”
But he insisted that they remained solely friends while Lopez was married, the Out of Sight star having just tied the knot with dancer Cris Judd in September 2001. To have crossed that line, Affleck later told Vanity Fair, would’ve gone against his “fundamental code.” But, he explained, “It changed when she told me she was getting separated. At that point, it became a possibility; doors were opened.”
Lopez finalized her divorce from Judd in June 2002.
“I have such a respect for the institution of marriage that I don’t believe people should spend their lives together if they’re not going to be totally happy,” she later told Vibe, explaining her very short second union. “Do we spend time now trying to make it work and wasting precious moments of our lives, or do we remedy the situation and move on?”
Which she did, publicly starting around July 2002, with Affleck, who was a couple years removed from an off-and-on romance with Shakespeare in Love co-star Gwyneth Paltrow and fresh from action hero turns in Pearl Harbor and The Sum of All Fears.
He and Lopez were both very famous, and seemingly equipped to be able to handle being very famous together. He explained to Vanity Fair that he took out that chivalrous ad both to communicate his appreciation and to dispel any noxious rumors that she was some sort of a diva on set. A rumor that he admitted made him initially hesitant to work with her.
“I wanted to go on record within the industry to counteract that, to say what a pleasure it was to work with her,” he said. “She works harder than anybody I’ve ever seen. I thought I was busy with movies and television and writing; I felt pretty maxed out until I met her. She was doing all that and recording albums on weekends!”
(Sweetly, 18 years later, Affleck told InStyle, “She remains, to this day, the hardest-working person I’ve come across in this business. She has great talent, but she has also worked very hard for her success, and I’m so happy for her that she seems, at long last, to be getting the credit she deserves.”)
Together they even made pointed hay out of the relentless amount of attention their relationship attracted, her “Jenny From the Block” video opening with the two of them under surveillance even during intimate moments at home. There are also scenes of them at a café, on a hotel balcony and driving, Affleck broodily pumping gas, the paparazzi unwilling to leave them alone for even a minute. And, last but not least, the actor gives J.Lo’s sensational backside a reassuring pat as they canoodle on a yacht.
But in that moment, it felt as though the pieces were finally falling into place for both of them.
“I think [the media scrutiny can hurt] if it’s not a real thing,” Lopez had told MTV News days before the video premiered Nov. 5, 2002. “I’ve been in relationships where they were kind of unstable, and so the media messed with it a lot. When it’s not important to the relationship in any way—because what’s important is just the two of you—then it can’t mess with it. Nothing can. So in that sense, no, it doesn’t have an effect if it’s something that’s really real for both of you. In my experience, anyway.”
So she and Affleck proceeded to do their best to act like a regular couple, even if that was largely impossible.
“We try [to keep things private], we try. Some times it’s easier than others; it just depends if we can slip in and then slip out,” Lopez said. We go out to dinner, we go out with friends, we try to live as normal an existence as we can and still enjoy all of the other parts of being in the public eye as well.”
“We try to make the best of it,” she continued. “I’m not saying there’s not times that we wish [we] could just be going to the movies and come out and there’s not a crowd there waiting. You just want to spend your Sunday afternoon not working, but at the same time we both love what we do. If that’s something that’s part of it, then that’s fine. We feel the love and we’re very happy about it.”
BTW, Lopez was also sporting a ring, but would only say that she and Affleck had talked about marriage.
As it turned out, after just a few months of dating, they were engaged. Affleck had proposed to Lopez during a trip back to his old stomping grounds of Boston to visit his family. In fact, he offered her that instantly iconic 6.1-carat pink diamond ring from Harry Winston (estimated worth: between $1.2 million and $2.5 million) at his mom Chris Anne‘s house.
Affleck did seem a little nervous on the way over, Lopez recalled to ABC News’ Diane Sawyer that November, but she didn’t think too much about it.
When he opened the door, there was just “a quilt of rose petals, all over the entire house,” Lopez said. “So many candles, and vases, bouquets. And my song ‘Glad’ was playing…I walk in and I was just like overwhelmed. I wasn’t expecting it, and I was just like ‘Oh my God.'”
Affleck told her his mother helped plan the whole thing. Then he proceeded to read her a letter detailing all the reasons he wanted her to be his wife, concluding with “Will you marry me?”
“I just started sobbing. Crying. I was like ‘Oh! My God!'” Lopez continued. “I had cried a lot over sadness over the years. And for the first time in my life, I cried incredible purging tears of happiness. It was the most cleansing feeling and the most wonderful feeling I had ever had.”
She was also too bowled over by the ring, her favorite color being pink, to answer at first, Lopez recalled with a laugh. “I was like, ‘Oh! Yeah! Yeah! Yes! Yes!'”
She said that, while she’d been married twice before, she couldn’t wait to finally be in a marriage.
“This is not to take anything away from Cris or Ojani [Noa, husband no. 1], who are wonderful people and who I loved very much—but I think it more had to do with me,” she explained, “being in such a crazy life and needing a sense of security.”
She knew somehow that being with Affleck was different because, Lopez said, “I was just more scared…It was too powerful…Whereas before, it was almost I had control of things, so I wasn’t afraid to kind of be in there, in the fire.” But “this time it was just smothering me and— so hot, you know, that it was just like—it made me afraid.”
It also made her inspired.
She told Sawyer that the songs for 2002’s This Is Me…Then, her third studio album, just “flowed” once she fell for Affleck. “It will always represent to me the time in my life where I finally started to figure things out and get it right, you know what I mean? Really started who I was and what I needed,” she said. “And that real sense of self I think you don’t get until you’re older.”
The album was subsequently dedicated to Affleck: “You are my life…my sole inspiration for every lyric, every emotion, every bit of feeling on this record.” And at the last minute, Lopez had the title of track five, formerly called “Perfect,” changed to “Dear Ben.”
Also in that same whirlwind month, the Daredevil star was named People‘s “Sexiest Man Alive.” Lopez told the publication, “The difference between me and People magazine is that he’ll still be the sexiest man alive in my eyes when he’s 100 years old.”
They were undoubtedly full speed ahead, screw the skeptics.
“Why did I fall in love with this person? What does that say about me? Maybe I am conflicted, but I also have a contrary streak,” Affleck, already long in possession of a prickly relationship with his A-list celebrity status, told Vanity Fair in early 2003, acknowledging that coupling with J.Lo had been the opposite of a low-profile move.
“I said, Just because I’m in this situation, I’m not going to behave any way differently than I ever did,” he explained. “Jennifer is a really wonderful, fabulous woman, smart and interesting. Spending time with her makes me a better person and a happier person. She impressed me every day. It feels better to me to be with her than without her. That’s why I made this decision, even if some other things have to be sacrificed.”
And sure, “there were a million reasons not to” get engaged right away, he admitted. “Neither of us is so obtuse that we didn’t understand the degree of skepticism, the amount of sniggering in how the joke would be received. Saturday Night Live epitomized it: Tina Fey said, ‘Jennifer Lopez announced her engagement—it’s the first marriage for Affleck, the third for Lopez, and the last for neither.’ But that’s not something I want to allow to dictate how I make choices. This is something I would do if Jen was a teacher and I was working construction in Boston. Jen and I want to get married for the reason everyone else does: we fell in love. I’m in love; I want to have a family, and she’s the only person I’ve ever met who made me entertain the thought of doing that.
“You know within 10 minutes of meeting Jen that she’ll be a good mother. Though the heavens fall, she’ll be a good mother. My father said the same thing about my mother, who was a world-class-Olympian mother.”
Though Lopez had told Sawyer that no one should read too much into the fact that she and Affleck were spotted looking at a church in Boston, they did plan to get married that September.
In the meantime, they went to each other’s premieres, to watch Affleck’s beloved Red Sox play, to the Oscars. They filmed Kevin Smith‘s Jersey Girl and Affleck bought Lopez a $350,000 Rolls Royce Phantom for her birthday in July.
But then Gigli was released Aug. 1, 2003, and got panned as if people were personally offended by it. Which, perhaps given the romantic faith they’d put into the entity that was Bennifer, they were.
“At first it was an infatuation, what an interesting couple,” Affleck reflected to Awards Chatter host Scott Feinberg in January. “And then there was a ton of resentment—ton of resentment against me, a ton of resentment against Jennifer.”
“People were so f–king mean about her,” he added. “Sexist, racist, ugly vicious s–t was written about her in ways that if you wrote it now, you would literally be fired for saying those things.”
And though it’s difficult to look at Lopez now and think that anything ever punctured her pristine veneer… those days got to her.
“I think the worst, probably lowest point was the whole Gigli era. It was pretty tough,” she admitted on HuffPost Live in 2015. “It was a very badly reviewed film. I was in a high-profile relationship at the time that fell apart in a really bad way, and so the kind of mix of those two things and the tabloid press had just come into existence at the time, so I was like a poster child for that moment. I was in the tabloids every other week about how my life was falling apart. It was a tough time.”
For Affleck too, as he recalled on Any Given Wednesday With Bill Simmons in 2016, “If you went by what people said…I wasn’t cool and I wasn’t talented, and I was like the lowest rung of cool and talented that you could possibly be in the public consciousness at that time. I had broken up with Jennifer Lopez and I had like three or four movies in a row that had bombed.”
First, they announced that they were postponing their September nuptials. Ultimately Lopez called the whole relationship off the following January, days after Affleck told reporters at the Sundance Film Festival, “Everything’s going along fine. We’re good.”
She boasted in her song “One Love” that she “kept the ring,” but she returned the dazzling pink bauble that launched countless imitators.
And theirs wasn’t the only wedding that was canceled: Smith also cut out a 12-second scene from Jersey Girl in which Affleck and Lopez’s characters got married.
“Okay. There’s Jennifer Lopez standing next to Ben Affleck, and she’s wearing a wedding gown and he’s wearing a tux,” the director explained to MIT’s The Tech in March 2004 upon the film’s unfortunately timed release. “Who watching the movie is not going to step out of the movie and say, ‘Hey, that’s f–ked up. They didn’t get married’? And suddenly, [the audience] is gone. We’ve lost them for a few seconds, and you don’t want to lose them for any amount of time when you’re telling a story. You want them in that black box focused and in another place in time.”
Alas, it was neither the right time nor the right place for fans to embrace Jersey Girl, despite Affleck and Smith’s proven track record.
“If I have a regret, it was doing the music video. But that happened years ago. I’ve moved on,” Affleck, about to make his directorial debut with Gone Baby Gone, told the Daily Record in 2008. But he insisted (and has time and again since) that he did not—nor should anyone else—think Lopez had anything to do with the hit his acting career took in the mid-’00s.
“It not only makes me look like a petulant fool,” he said then, “but it surely qualifies as ungentlemanly. For the record, did she hurt my career? No.”
Professionally or personally, Lopez didn’t waste too many moments after this split, either, making Monster-in-Law and marrying longtime friend turned much more Marc Anthony on June 5, 2004. They separated in 2011 (and divorced in 2014) but remain close co-parents of 13-year-old twins Max and Emme.
Lopez beat Affleck to the altar by barely a year. He married Jennifer Garner on June 29, 2005, and they’ve been devoted co-parents of daughters Violet, 15, and Seraphina, 12, and son Samuel, 9, since separating in 2015 (finally divorcing in 2018).
And though both have included their time together as being part of an overall rough point of their respective lives, they don’t blame each other for that.
Looking back on the 18 months she spent as one-half of Bennifer, Lopez told HuffPost Live that she had “no regrets. I would do it all over again, I think. I really would. Even the relationship part. I just feel like everything is part of your story and your journey and is meant to be and helps you grow if you’re willing to look at it, and I’m willing to look.”
And if she’s willing to look…
Really, who isn’t willing to look.
Last week’s hangout wasn’t quite as momentous as it appeared, though, in any case, since Affleck hasn’t tried to hide the fact that they have remained friends for all these years. And lest we forget, they too had a cozy awards show reunion, trading whispers at the Oscars in 2015.
“We don’t have the kind of relationship where she relies on me for advice,” he told The Hollywood Reporter in 2012, “but we do have the kind of relationship where there’ll be an e-mail saying, ‘Oh, your movie looks great.’ I remember when she got American Idol. I said, ‘This was really smart. Good luck.'”
And he’s been rooting for her this whole time. He told Awards Chatter host Feinberg, “Now it’s like she is lionized and respected for the work she has done, where she came from and what she accomplished. As well as she f–king should be.”
Lopez paid tribute to their time in the sun in 2018, posting a snippet from “Jenny on the Block” before she performed at the MTV Video Music Awards and received the Michael Jackson Video Vanguard Award. Without naming names, she wrote, “It was probably my most personal album ever…and honestly my favorite album I’ve done so far…I just loved the sound of it and the sentiments…At that time I truly realized that being an artist meant you have to be vulnerable and bare your heart and soul…it takes courage to do that…to really show who you are at any given moment in time…and this was me then… completely.”
So no wonder the world reacted how it did when it learned Lopez and Affleck, both simultaneously single for the first time in ages, casually getting together ahead of what turned out to be their respective appearances at Global Citizen’s VAX LIVE: The Concert to Reunite the World benefit show over the weekend. The very prospect of a romantic comeback—”different time, different thing”?!—amid all this global turmoil was just too much to reasonably process in that moment.
Plus the old name still fit like a glove.