From PEOPLE Magazine Click to enlarge
For Reese Witherspoon and Ryan Phillippe the Oct. 16 premiere of Flags of Our Fathers at New York City's Tribeca Grand Hotel should have been a time of celebration. It was a big night for Phillippe, who stars in the World War II drama: His parents and grandmother had traveled from Delaware for the event, and Witherspoon was graciously posing for photographs at his side. But it soon became apparent that all was not well with the couple. As they walked down the red carpet, "Reese looked anxious," says an observer. "As soon as they got inside, she bolted to the back for a glass of wine." That apparently wasn't quite enough to take the edge off. By the time the movie stars and their guests had decamped to an afterparty at the nearby SoHo Grand Hotel, "there was definitely tension between the two of them," says a guest. Another partygoer noticed that Phillippe "looked dour and serious" as he mingled with well-wishers and his family inside a penthouse suite, while Witherspoon kept her distance on a roof terrace. At one point several witnesses overheard the two arguing. "The two of them were in the hall," says one source. "She was ready to go, and he was still enjoying himself. He wanted to stay longer."

It was an exchange that would later be hashed over in tabloids and blogs. While some published reports describe the spat as heated, a source close to the couple says they simply "had a little argument." Still, within days the rift between them proved anything but small. On Oct. 30 a rep for Witherspoon and Phillippe released a statement: "We are saddened that Reese and Ryan have decided to formally separate."

Although both Witherspoon, 30, and Phillippe, 32, had talked openly of going to marital counseling to keep their union on track, the news came as a blow to those closest to them. "Our hearts are broken and our family is in mourning," says Phillippe's mother, Susan, 56, who lives in Hockessin, Del., where in July he and Witherspoon had taken daughter Ava, 7, and son Deacon, 3, for a leisurely getaway with their aunts and uncles, cousins and grandparents. "We are heartbroken and worried—about the children and everything. This is devastating. We just hope things can work out."

For now family and friends are trying to puzzle out what finally broke up a couple who had stood strong against so many odds—from their youth (she was 23 when they married and she became a mother) to Witherspoon's soaring fame (the Oscar-winning star of Walk the Line and Legally Blonde is among Hollywood's highest paid actors, with a salary in the $25 million league). Phillippe always brushed off speculation that he resented his wife's success. "She is great at what she does," he told the Los Angeles Times last month. "I'm proud of her." And by all accounts, it showed. "The way they would look at each other—the little loving glances—it was obvious they were in love," says Heidi Pascoe, Reese's stunt double in Walk the Line and Just Like Heaven.

But there have also long been rumors of trouble on the homefront. After the couple announced their split, Phillippe's friendship with Abbie Cornish, 24, an Australian actress whom he met in Austin, Texas, while filming an upcoming drama about Iraq War vets, became the subject of intense speculation. Phillippe's camp did not respond to reports that he and Cornish had shared a private dinner at Austin's Kenichi restaurant while filming. And during a recent interview with WHO magazine, PEOPLE's Australian sister publication, the actress became testy when asked if she knew Phillippe and Witherspoon had split. "I'm not aware of that," Cornish said. "I don't want to go into that because it's probably a very personal thing." Staffers at Kenichi confirm that Phillippe did dine with a woman he described as "my costar," but that nothing out of the ordinary happened. "They sat at the table alone together," says one. "We put up a partition to give them privacy." When Phillippe came into the restaurant, says another, "he was extremely respectful, super classy."

No one has ever doubted Phillippe's charm. Witherspoon first fell for her husband nearly a decade ago, when he came to her 21st-birthday party and she famously said, "I think you're my present." After a five-week courtship, they began dating and never looked back. They had, as Phillippe has said, an "intense emotional connection" despite divergent backgrounds: Witherspoon is a determinedly upbeat Nashville debutante who believes in church on Sundays, favors monogrammed napkins, abhors bare midriffs and whose parents, Dr. John Witherspoon, 64, a surgeon, and Betty, 58, a nursing professor, nicknamed her "Little Miss Type A" for her drive. Phillippe is proud of his working-class background—his father, Richard, 59, clocked in at a DuPont chemical plant; his mother ran a daycare center out of their family home—and is prone, as he has said, to moodiness. But both saw their differences as an asset. As he told the Edmonton Sun in 1999, "Reese is a happy, lighthearted person. I tend to be considerably darker. She keeps me from getting dark and depressed, and that's so essential in a business that's based on uncertainty and insecurity."

Their mutual devotion to each other and to family seemed solid enough to handle life's challenges. They took pride in their hands-on parenting, agreed that only one of them would work at a time and took marriage as seriously as movie roles, seeking couple's counseling with exactly the same pragmatism that led Witherspoon to take intensive music lessons to prepare for Walk the Line. "In what capacity is working on yourself or your marriage a bad thing?" the actress told Oprah Winfrey last year. "What marriage isn't a journey? ... Nobody's perfect.... We all have our own set of problems."

Until now, Phillippe's mother seemed confident that those problems could be overcome. "Marriage is an ongoing task," she told PEOPLE in August. "It's always going to be a lot of work. But they seem to me to be happy people—kind and supportive toward one another." Witherspoon's colleague Pascoe agrees. "They seemed like the perfect Hollywood couple," she says. "This is so sad."

  • Contributors:
  • K.C. Baker/New York City,
  • Lesley Messer/New York City,
  • Jeffrey Slonim/New York City,
  • Howard Breuer/Los Angeles,
  • Amy Longsdorf/Los Angeles,
  • Rita Farrell/Wilmington,
  • Alicia Dennis/Austin,
  • Zack Medicoff/Toronto,
  • Erin Miller/Sydney.