Kirsten Dunst and Jake Gyllenhaal's Breakup Is Forever Linked to My Parents' Divorce
When your favorite celebrity couple's demise is used as a segue for the shock of a lifetime.
When my mother picked me up from camp the summer I turned twelve, she brought me a special gift: a stack of magazines. I had just spent weeks on a farm for the children of overprivileged Bay Area pseudo-hippie holdovers, kids with names like Kieran and Ash who were styled with granola white people dreadlocks, so I was behind on my celebrity gossip. And my mother could always be relied upon to supply inappropriate reading materials; while at camp, I had written her requesting a book and an issue of CosmoGIRL! (RIP) in which a friend was making her modeling debut. She sent me Another City, Not My Own — Dominick Dunne’s roman á clef covering the O.J. Simpson trial — and the Cosmopolitan “Summer Sex Issue,” which caused a riot amongst my fellow female campers, one of whom would go on to use butter as lubricant while performing a rather advanced sex act by the campfire.
So as we drove south through the tawny hills of Northern California, right through where they filmed I Know What You Did Last Summer, I dove into tabloids only to discover that my favorite celebrity couple, Kirsten Dunst and Jake Gyllenhaal, had broken up. As a pale neurotic in Southern California, the actors meant a great deal to me; in my preteenagehood, I, like so many future tumblr users, believed that The Virgin Suicides and Donnie Darko were the height of cinematic art. And my mother and I frequently watched cult beauty pageant black comedy Drop Dead Gorgeous together, which remains my favorite of Kiki’s many excellent films. So I was very upset about the breakup, and conveyed the bad news to my mom. She took in the information with a nod, and pulled the car over to the shoulder of the 101. “Speaking of breaking up,” she said. “Your father and I are getting a divorce.” I cried all over my US Weekly and a gorgeous heavy fashion magazine that would go on to lay off my adult self twice in one year.
In retrospect, this was a fun way to experience this mild childhood trauma, one shared by millions and millions of kids in the United States. Familial dissolution is easier to take when there’s a pop culture element. It is an anecdote I repeated often at dinners, when I used to get to go to them.
Dunst and Gyllenhaal first started dating in September 2002, when they were introduced by his sister Maggie Gyllenhaal (September 2002 was huge for the elder Gyllenhaal — her seminal BDSM film Secretary, based on the Mary Gaitskill short story, was released that same month). They moved in together in Los Angeles, and shared a German Shepherd, Atticus, who passed away 13 years later in 2015. Their relationship was widely publicized, which led to some classic, much-memed paparazzi photos: Dunst, hunched like a gremlin, eating salad with her hands, as Gyllenhaal looks on, disgusted and impressed. Dunst was (possibly erroneously) quoted in News of the World claiming that they had loads of public sex. They seemed like adults to me at the time, but they were so young when they dated, just 22 and 23 at the time of their breakup in the summer of 2004. To quote the Virgin Suicides soundtrack, it was playground love.
And so I’ve forever linked these two performers, whom I do not know, to the end of my parents’ marriage. Divorce is never easy, but theirs was objectively unpleasant, the kind of thing that led me to watch Marriage Story and dissolve in hysterics at the protagonists’ alleged pain. But on the positive side of things, it all makes me feel a bit closer to Kiki, still one of my favorite stars. When the salad meme pops up on Twitter, I'd like to think I laugh just a little bit harder than others. Much like her French stalker Jean Christophe Prudhon, I feel an irrational connection to the actress, one that has inspired me to unwisely try on multiple pieces of Rodarte clothing. More people should watch On Becoming God in Central Florida.
I've seen Jake Gyllenhaal many times in New York. About a year ago, when restaurants still existed, I took myself out to an overpriced Mexican place on Lafayette to celebrate a new job, and I was seated next to him and an elegant older woman I presumed was his mother, screenwriter and director Naomi Foner Gyllenhaal. I kept staring at them, and they moved tables, and I laughed and wondered if I should apologize or tell him about our odd connection. After all, we are both children of divorce. I stayed quiet to avoid creeping him out or getting arrested, but maybe, if and when the plague ends and I see Jake doing handstands in Park Slope, I'll tell him that his breakup added some much-needed levity to the breakup of my family.
“Kirsten and I know what’s real and what isn’t,” he told People in 2004. “We know what happens when you are both actors.” I don’t, on either count. Neither did Donnie Darko. But I really wish I had saved that tabloid.
Breakups That Broke Us is a weekly column about the failed celebrity relationships that convinced us love is dead.