By Michelle Tauber
August 21, 2000 12:00 PM

When Macaulay Culkin and Rachel Miner were married in June 1998, they spread the news like, well, a couple of giddy teenagers. “This is the happiest day of our lives,” gushed the 17-year-old actors following their nuptials in a New Preston, Conn., church. “We couldn’t be happier.” By contrast, Helen Hunt and Hank Azaria, a couple for five years, were resolutely tight-lipped on the subject of their July 1999 wedding—a small Los Angeles affair so casual that Hunt went barefoot. “It was,” said Azaria, “a happy, private day.”

Happiness for both couples was short-lived. And while they heralded their unions in different ways, the recent announcements of their respective splits toed a similar line. Although Hunt and Azaria “have lived apart for several months,” the two “remain good friends,” says his spokesman. Likewise, a rep for Culkin says he and Miner “remain the best of friends.”

If everyone is still so friendly, why were both marriages so fleeting? Those who know Hunt, 37, and Azaria, 36, are baffled. “I didn’t see it coming,” says Angie Dickinson, who costars with Hunt in this fall’s dramedy Pay It Forward. “I kept raving about [Azaria] and she kept agreeing that he was wonderful.” Adds Peter Abrams, one of the film’s producers: “There was no sign.”

Maybe a few signs. The pair postponed a honeymoon in Hawaii so Azaria, who played the goofy dog walker Nat on Hunt’s now-defunct sitcom Mad About You, could film the 1999 TV movie Tuesdays with Morrie. Meanwhile, Hunt was busy working on a trio of movies. By the first week of June, Azaria had been spotted staying solo at the Bel-Air Hotel, and three weeks later he was a no-show at the L.A. premiere of The Patriot, which the two had been slated to attend together. Says one source close to the couple, who have not announced plans to divorce: “The marriage ain’t gonna work.”

The same verdict may be in store for Home Alone star Culkin, 19, and Miner, 20, whose 1998 engagement following a one-year courtship drew nearly as many snorts of derision as Culkin’s last film, the 1994 bomb Richie Rich. But despite their youth, the pair “were very mature, very loving,” says an associate of the couple, who shared an apartment on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. “They seemed peaceful together. I never saw them bicker once.” Concurs actress Sophie Hayden, who appeared with Miner in the 1998 Broadway staging of The Diary of Anne Frank: “They seemed so well matched. She’s a good caretaker, and I think he felt he could trust her more than a lot of people.”

One of those people is likely Culkin’s estranged father Kit, from whom the actor won legal emancipation at age 16. The elder Culkin, 55, who now lives in Phoenix with girlfriend Jeanette Krylowski, 55, “had no reaction at all” when he heard the news of his son’s separation, says Krylowski, who notes that Culkin père is “pretty numb” on the topic of Macaulay and his six other kids with Patricia Brentrup, 46, to whom he relinquished custody of the children during an ugly 1997 legal battle.

Meanwhile, Culkin—who gained control of his $17 million fortune when he turned 18—has been offered a role in the London production of Madame Melville, a racy play about a 16-year-old student seduced by a professor, while Miner is set to go in front of the cameras for the indie film Bully. Echoing descriptions of Azaria and Hunt, a friend paints Culkin and Miner as “very private people.” For now, both couples are likely to be guarding their privacy during a painful time.

Michelle Tauber

KC Baker, Natasha Stoynoff and Fannie Weinstein in New York City, Michelle Caruso, Julie Jordan and Tom Cunneff in Los Angeles and Jerry Kammer in Phoenix