Marital mayhem

Divorce dominates the season’s darkest comedy

Brian D. Johnson December 11 1989

Marital mayhem

Divorce dominates the season’s darkest comedy

Brian D. Johnson December 11 1989

Marital mayhem


Divorce dominates the season’s darkest comedy

Kathleen Turner has shared some tight spots onscreen with Michael Douglas. In their 1984 treasurehunt comedy, Romancing the Stone, the rain-soaked duo slid down a muddy cliff in a Mexican jungle. For its 1985 sequel, The Jewel of the Nile, they braved the heat of the Moroccan desert. And to film a scene in The War of the Roses—a wickedly funny comedy about divorce that is opening across North America this week—Turner and Douglas spent hours dangling from a chandelier 45 feet above the floor of a Hollywood sound stage. “I’ve hung off 700-foot cliffs and stuff like that,” said Turner in a Los Angeles interview. “But hanging from that chandelier, I got more frightened than I’d ever been.”

Turner was demurely dressed in a beige skirt and brocaded vest. But she is a big woman with a husky voice that sounds like it belongs in the blue haze of an all-night bar. “I’m always hanging from something with Michael,” she

said, drawing on a cigarette. “At least this time I wasn’t wet.” The actress paused to reconsider—her first scene in The War of the Roses shows her wearing a sheer blouse without a bra in a driving rainstorm. “No, I was wet,” she added. “I’m always wet with Michael, too.”

The War of the Roses is the third movie in which Turner has costarred with Douglas and the gnome-like Danny DeVito. But it is by no means a sequel to Romancingdxià Jewel. In fact, it has little in common with those frothy, serial-style adventures— aside from an emphasis on physical comedy. It is a movie about marital combat that is fought with plates, furniture, cars, children, pets and china figurines. A Christmas tree goes up in flames; a man takes a saw to his wife’s high

heels. Barbed with savage humor, The War of the Roses is a cautionary tale about divorce, a decidedly unromantic comedy.

Cunningly directed by DeVito, it also may be the blackest comedy ever launched as a major release by a Hollywood studio during the Christmas season. The ending is both unhappy and unredemptive. And, like Fatal Attraction, the 1987 thriller that starred Douglas as a tormented adulterer, The War of the Roses is full of inflammatory sexual politics. A fun-house ride through a chamber of domestic horrors, it is a risky movie for a first date—and one that will leave seasoned couples with plenty to argue about on the way home.

Based on a 1981 novel by American author Warren Adler, it chronicles the violent disintegration of a 17year marriage between Oliver and Barbara Rose. The story begins with their first encounter, bidding against each other at an antique auction. Oliver (Douglas) is a brilliant law student; Barbara - (Turner) is a star gymnast. I (Casting Turner as a gymnast is S about as credible as casting the 5 runt-like DeVito as a Harlem | Globetrotter, but it defines her character as a divorce warrior with resilience and spunk—her stunt double takes a head-overheels tumble down a spiral staircase.)

For a while, Oliver and Barbara are happy. He becomes a successful partner in a powerful

Washington law firm. And she picks out a beautiful mansion that becomes home to their two children, a dog and a cat. As Oliver is increasingly consumed by his work,

Barbara amuses herself decorating the house. Then, one day, she wakes up to discover that she is bored, resentful and eager for independence.

Out of the blue, she tells her baffled husband, “When I watch you eat, when I see you sleep, when I look at you lately—I just want to smash your face in.” And she does just that.

Divorce proceedings amount to a declaration of war. Barbara wants no alimony but she insists on keeping the house, every square inch of it. On the advice of his divorce lawyer, Gavin (DeVito), Oliver refuses to move out. While their deadpan housekeeper (Marianne Sägebrecht) watches with quiet consternation, the mansion becomes their battlefield. The film-makers indulge in the sort of excess that has become widespread in Hollywood, where no bigbudget comedy seems complete without the destruction of at least one expensive automobile. But, after all, The War of the Roses

is a story of excess, of materialism gone mad. And, in many respects, there is nothing typical about it.

DeVito directs with invigorating energy and imagination. In 1987, he made an impressive directing debut with Throw Momma from the Train, a stylish comedy about a muddled murder inspired by director Alfred Hitchcock’s

classic thriller Strangers on a Train. Again taking cues from Hitchcock, DeVito in The War of the Roses uses exotic camera angles to heighten the comedy with a giddy sense of melodrama.

The chemistry between Turner and Douglas cooks like a toxic gas. And the script is remarkably evenhanded towards its two protagonists. Both are irredeemably blinded by greed and the lust for revenge. If anything, Barbara seems marginally more sympathetic because she is the one who is seeking her freedom, while Oliver still clings to delusions of romance.

Throughout the movie, DeVito’s character serves as s a witty narrator telling the z story to a new client who “ has come to his office seeking a divorce. But, in an epilogue, DeVito mars the symmetry of the story—and blunts its razorsharp ending—with a speech directed

too pointedly at men. By trading his satiric voice for some serious platitudes, DeVito creates a false note of moralism in an otherwise ruthless fable.

In fact, the film-makers previewed various versions of the movie at test screenings. And

they decided on a reassuring epilogue after audience surveys showed distaste for a bleaker conclusion. But before filming, DeVito resisted studio pressures to soften the basic story or to make the characters more sympathetic. “I enjoy strong films,” said DeVito. “I guess what I’m trying to make here is a combination of Wuthering Heights and Full Metal Jacket.”

DeVito is the first to admit, at least in jest, that he may have a warped view of romance. “I went to a Catholic grammar school,” he said, “and the nuns beat me up so much that every time I see a woman, I see her in a habit and I want to push her downstairs or throw her off a train.” In truth, however, DeVito says that he has a happy and stable marriage. “But I’ve got friends who’ve gone through divorces that were nightmares. It’s a terrifying thing to split up.”

Both Turner and Douglas also say that they are happily married. But Douglas admitted that he could identify with his character’s workaholic tendencies. “In making movies, there’s no way to balance your private life with your professional life,” he said. “I’ve had marital problems—the feeling of not being appreciated. When you’re working 12, 14, 16 hours a day and your wife is basically just lost and doesn’t know what to do, I think a lot of guys find it hard to sympathize.”

Turner was more reluctant to draw analogies to her own private life. “Nobody’s actually going to act like these two people,” she said. “But the film makes you think about how a marriage erodes. It’s not any one action or word that makes the person turn around and say, ‘It’s over.’ It’s a culmination of thoughtlessness.” Turner maintained that she could never be as single-minded as her character in the movie, but, she added, “I found myself envying her ability to be like that.”

Acting out hostility day after day during the filming was an exhausting ordeal, according to Turner, who said that DeVito was a relentless taskmaster. “He’s a real little tyrant,” she recalled. “He’d say, ‘Just do it, babe.’ Babe?There were a few days when I thought I really wasn’t going to speak to him again, but he was always right.” Added Douglas, who has known DeVito since the mid-1960s: “I’ve never worked with a director who had such a clear vision, cinematically, of what he wanted.”

After combining their abrasive personalities in three movies, Douglas, DeVito and Turner have become three unlikely musketeers of romantic comedy. Both Turner and Douglas say that they expect to work together again in the future. “Michael and I have a real complementary sense of each other,” said Turner. “I feel very safe with him.” Said Douglas: “We talk about working together off and on for the rest of our lives. When you’re good together, you get very protective of it—like a marriage.” Any relationship that can survive The War of the Roses is a marriage made in Hollywood heaven.

BRIAN D. JOHNSON in Los Angeles