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The Bennifer reunion is the ultimate gift for our nostalgia-obsessed culture

Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez arrive at the premiere of Affleck's film “Daredevil” in Los Angeles in 2003. (Chris Pizzello/AP)

Sitting onstage during a Q&A in New York in 2016, Ben Affleck started mocking the media — specifically, the enormous amount of attention lavished on him and Jennifer Lopez when they dated in the early 2000s and co-starred in the box-office bomb “Gigli.” Affleck theorized that the press’s obsession with their relationship unfairly magnified the movie’s failure.

“I literally remember there was a reporter, like, doing stand-up with his camera in front of a theater that Friday morning: ‘Here I am outside ‘Gigli,’ and as you can see, no one is here in line,’ ” Affleck said, doing his best imitation of a newscaster voice as the audience cracked up. “I was like, ‘What is this, hurricane coverage?’ ”

Looking back, the cultural phenomenon that was “Bennifer” really did feel like an all-consuming, inescapable storm. The couple could barely go anywhere without being photographed. The lead-up to their ultimately canceled 2003 wedding was described by one news outlet as “a week of media frenzy worthy of D-Day.” As actress Mindy Kaling — who parodied Affleck in her breakout stage production — reminisced in her first book, “Bennifer was so big it was as though two people had never been in love before, and they had discovered it.”

And now, Bennifer is back.

Experts explain why the masses care about the personal lives of Hollywood elite. (Video: Allie Caren/The Washington Post, Photo: Daron Taylor/The Washington Post)

In late April, the tabloids started buzzing that the pair was spending time together after J-Lo’s somewhat dramatic split from her fiance, retired baseball star Alex Rodriguez. Page Six reported that Affleck, who recently broke up with “Knives Out” star Ana de Armas, was spotted at Lopez’s Los Angeles home. Then social media really erupted this past week when People, Us Weekly, TMZ and others broke the news that the two spent the weekend together near a resort in Montana. The Daily Mail published photos of them boarding a private plane.

No one has outright said they’re dating again, but no one has said they’re not dating again. One of many unnamed sources told People that Lopez “is open to having a relationship” and added that “she wants to spend as much time with Ben as possible to see where this could go.” Neither Affleck’s nor Lopez’s representatives returned a request for comment.

This news is both shocking and makes perfect sense. On one hand, what are the odds that in the nearly two decades since the Bennifer circus — during which both A-listers got married, divorced and had other serious and publicly documented relationships — they now happen to be single at the same time?

On the other, the reboot of Bennifer is clearly the most logical next step for our early 2000s nostalgia-obsessed world. Countless early-aughts TV shows have been revived or are blowing up on streaming services. “The Office” and “Scrubs” and “The O.C.” casts struck gold with re-watch podcasts. Movies such as “Mean Girls” have been turned into musicals. Documentaries are already digging into that era’s problematic celebrity culture.

So of course Bennifer would return. Nostalgia is currency, and their collective stock has never been higher.

“In hindsight, it was an odd phenomenon,” said George Rush, the New York Daily News gossip columnist who wrote the longtime Rush & Molloy column with his wife, Joanna Molloy. “Celebrities hook up all the time and particularly on movies in which they co-star. But they don’t seem to tantalize the public quite like these two did.”

Rush, who remembers tips streaming in via phone and email about Bennifer sightings and scoops, said a celebrity couple’s “status and stardom” often need to be equivalent to really capture the public’s fascination. “They have to be physically magnificent, and also have a place in Hollywood that’s worthy of each other,” he said.

That essentially described Affleck and Lopez around 2001. Affleck had transformed from Oscar-winning screenwriting wunderkind for “Good Will Hunting” to dashing leading man in “Armageddon” and “Pearl Harbor,” while Lopez was the beauty at the top of her game as a pop star and actress in films from “Selena” to “The Wedding Planner.” (When the latter was released, Lopez made history as the first star in the country to have the No. 1 film and album at the same time.) Both had made headlines for buzzy relationships before: Affleck had dated Gwyneth Paltrow, and Lopez had become a tabloid favorite thanks to her romance with Diddy.

Affleck and Lopez met on the set of the mobster comedy “Gigli” in late 2001, several months after Lopez had married her second husband, choreographer Cris Judd. By June of the following year, there were simultaneous rumors that J-Lo’s marriage was over and that she had moved on with her “Gigli” co-star. Those reports were confirmed as Lopez officially filed for divorce in July. At that point, she and Affleck had been already spotted around Manhattan, shopping together at a deli and making out during dinner at Nobu.

A couple weeks later, Us Weekly and People excitedly splashed Bennifer stories on their respective covers, with People reporting that Lopez started introducing Affleck as her boyfriend days before the divorce was made public. (Lopez’s lawyer told the Associated Press that she and Judd separated in early June and the split was “extremely amicable.”)

From there it was, well, madness. This was back when paparazzi photos could fetch big paydays from the tabloids, and Affleck and Lopez were top-sellers. Nearly every quote they uttered about each other made news. In November, J-Lo’s music video for “Jenny From the Block” took direct aim at the obsession with them: The video starts with her and Affleck being spied on via security camera and includes the famous scene of her and Affleck’s PDA on a yacht.

While they have both spoken out about the toll of the intense tabloid coverage, they couldn’t exactly hide from the cameras.

“The media covered news about them, but they also did go to a lot of high-profile events — they walked a lot of red carpets together,” said chief executive Bonnie Fuller, who was the editor of Us Weekly and worked at American Media Inc. during the Bennifer era. “Jennifer was, and remains … one of the most beautiful women in the world, and there was a lot of interest in her from a style perspective … so they were at public events and in the public eye.”

The hype ramped up further when they confirmed their engagement at the end of 2002. Affleck popped the question with a $2.5 million pink diamond ring, and Lopez announced the news during a prime-time interview with Diane Sawyer. The pop star said she initially thought Affleck would be a Hollywood playboy “skirt chaser,” but saw a new side of him once they bonded and realized they had similar backgrounds. “He is brilliantly smart, loving, charming, affectionate. And I just admire him in every way. I respect him,” she said.

The following summer, to promote “Gigli,” they sat for a rare joint interview on “Dateline” and were interviewed by “Access Hollywood” co-host Pat O’Brien. The segment introduction wondered if Bennifer might be the next classic Hollywood couple, such as Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn or Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor.

“Do you realize how fascinated America is by you?” O’Brien asked.

“It’s so weird to even hear you say that,” Lopez said.

Affleck concurred. “What’s the fascination?” he said. “It seems strange to me.”

The fixation continued, though things soon went downhill. “Gigli” flopped, and rumors started swirling about trouble in paradise. They canceled their September 2003 wedding at the last minute and blamed “excessive media attention.” The couple hung on for a few more months, but by January, their publicists confirmed the breakup.

As they moved on to marry and have children with other stars (Lopez tied the knot with Marc Anthony in 2004 and split in 2011; Affleck wed Jennifer Garner in 2005 and filed for divorce in 2015), the ghost of “Bennifer” remained. Affleck and Lopez have talked about how difficult that time-period was for them, but they stayed friendly. Affleck heaped praise on his ex for her May InStyle cover story, saying, “She remains, to this day, the hardest-working person I’ve come across in this business.”

As they reunite now, it makes sense that observers remain mildly curious to extremely invested. “People feel a very personal relationship to celebrities that they like and admire,” Fuller said, comparing them to a popular couple you knew back in high school or college. “If they split up and you hear they’re back together … of course you would want to know.”

Plus, it doesn’t hurt that they became even more famous. Affleck, 48, picked up another Oscar along the way and started directing; Lopez, 51, is a hugely successful producer and entrepreneur. And all these years later, they’re still gossip magnets.

“People are going to be talking about this as much, if not more so, than ‘Bennifer One,' because it seems to complete the story,” Rush said. “The speculation is irresistible.”

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