‘The War of the Roses’ or — Love is a Battlefield?
Conflict is healthy and the smartest Hollywood comedies always knew this. It’s an inevitable part of any relationship that cannot be avoided and, if handled correctly, can even be fun. It’s why I believe Howard Hawks’ ‘20th Century’ (1934) should be required viewing for anyone attending couple’s therapy — “See! THIS is how you do it, folks.” Yet when does conflict become unhealthy, toxic, terminal? It’s happens when contempt creeps in, when love turns to revulsion and the fighting turns ugly. That’s why the most hurtful thing you can do to your partner isn’t to tell them exactly what you think of them or call them every name under the sun or even drive their car into the pool. It’s to pull away from their touch in disgust.
The Roses absolutely despise each other so we know this will not, and cannot, end well.
‘The War of the Roses’ (1989) is a cautionary tale about divorce, spite, the detritus of possessions and how these dangers can manifest within a marriage even without the spectre of apparent blame. It’s about how human beings can tear each other apart at the cost of their own happiness and to our voyeuristic delight but as long as we learn something at the end it’s perfectly fine to watch these two poor sods fight, right?
The Roses themselves might struggle to play well but Turner and Douglas know the rules like the back of their hands with both actors bringing the perfect balance of charm and loathing to their characters precisely when required. Our sympathies are never one sided so our hearts break for Douglas when Turner drops a devastating truth bomb on him in bed after he’s had a “heart attack” and looking for some reassurance, but we’ve already felt her pain (and laughed at it hard) during a fantastic monologue she delivers to her prospective housekeeper about how empty her life it. These two know exactly what to do with the material in their hands and they’re a blast to behold. This is an excellent film.
Even better, however, is Danny DeVito’s direction with ‘The War of the Roses’ being one of the most stylish and visually inventive films of the late 1980’s almost as though some of the greats from Forties Hollywood such as Welles, Dmytryk or Siodmak had popped back up again to remind us all how visually exciting cinema could be and how much we’d been missing out on all these years.
DeVito heightens the battle between husband and wife by placing objects and faces in the extreme foreground and with the opponent way in the background. This creates a strong sense of drama and oppression as well as illustrating where the power lies in these exchanges (a massive touch stone for this movie must have been ‘Citizen Kane’s dining scenes). Stretching and exaggerating the distance between opponents also creates the bristling tension of an elastic-band at breaking point effect meaning that when a release does occur any collisions will be even more violent, catastrophic and satisfying.
DeVito’s nimble direction combined with an incredibly smart and well written script also means the film is generously littered with mouth-watering delights and pleasures. Notice when DeVito’s lawyer D’Amato tells the unknown suited man (Dan Castellaneta) in his office the piece of advice his father gave him, namely that you can tell everything you need to know about a man by “his house, his car, his wife and his shoes.” It’s only then, and after the unknown man discreetly tucks his feet under his chair, that we realise he’s been wearing black training shoes with his suit all this time. This, in turn, tells us everything we need to know about the guy: we know he isn’t a fellow lawyer let alone D’Amato’s superior; we know he doesn’t have class or makes much money (hence why D’Amato is giving this advice for free) and we know his life might be falling apart. It tells us all this with a single, silent movement and it tells us accompanied by a big laugh. It’s perfect comedy cinema.
Although my favourite small detail with huge ramifications is near the end when DeVito is looking out his office window as he sends this poor schlub back to his wife to make the marriage work even if it means “night sweats” and just before DeVito calls his own wife to tell her he’s on his way home. But look outside D’Amato’s window with him and what do you hear and see? Formations of helicopters flying the skies over the nation this lawyer is pushing this poor guy back out into. The world of American married life isn’t a horse and carriage or a bed of roses.
It’s Vietnam. It’s a fucking war zone.