THE WAR OF THE ROSES (1989)
Michael Leeson; based on the novel by Warren Adler
Why It's Here
It is with a great sense of relief that I tell you that, unlike the last film on this countdown, The War of the Roses is not a picture that holds any personal resonance for me. Being a bachelor with only one relationship under my belt that's lasted longer than a year, I have no first-hand experience of either marriage or divorce, and the divorces I have witnessed at a remove, while certainly no walk in the park for anyone involved, were nowhere near as disastrous in their consequences as what befalls the title characters of this film. So The War of the Roses did not contribute much to the man I am. But the screenwriter I am owes a tremendous debt to the lessons imparted by Michael Leeson's brutal, no-holds-barred rendering of the spectacular flame-out of a singularly modern marriage. This is a film that taught me much about how to present an allegorical narrative on film, about how with the right cockeyed comic sensibility, one can draw laughter from events and ideas that, when one steps back and looks at them with a clear eye, are not really all that funny. Most of all, Leeson's film was an object lesson in finding the proper ending for your story, and an illustration of the truism that a happy ending and a satisfying ending are not always the same thing.
Like all great cautionary tales, The War of the Roses is narrated by an after-the-fact survivor of the carnage. Our storyteller in this case is Gavin D'Amoto (Danny DeVito, who also directed the picture), an attorney who, addressing a client on the verge of plunging into the choppy divorce-litigation waters, tells him the story of the Roses as a gauge of whether this man is truly ready for what lies ahead of him. An old friend of Gavin's, Harvard-bound law student Oliver Rose (Michael Douglas), meets his wife-to-be Barbara (Kathleen Turner) at an auction, when she outbids him on a sculpture of a Chinese homunculus. After a bout of noisy sex on the night they meet, Oliver and Barbara wed, she overseeing the household and raising their two children while Oliver climbs the ladder at his prestigious
Doesn't sound funny at all, does it? Divorce and the heartbreak and betrayal that lead up to it seldom are. But the brilliance of Leeson's script (adapted from Warren Adler's just-as-cutting but not-as-funny novel of the same name) is to take the genuine pain of a modern divorce, tweak it ever so slightly into the zone of surreal black comedy, and come out with a story that is more or less plausible and yet caustically funny at the same time. Many separating couples do horribly petty things to one another as revenge for the years lost to the failed marriage, and the Roses take that to the next level, with Oliver sawing the heels off of Barbara's stockpile of shoes and Barbara nailing the door of Oliver's basement sauna shut…with Oliver inside. Lots of couples are forced into awkward partitioning of assets, but few are as meticulous as the Roses, who actually whip out blueprints to portion off their house into colored quadrants (with a schoolboy grin, Oliver exults to Gavin, "I got more square footage!"). The embarrassing confrontations that often ensue in front of family and friends during a divorce are splendidly enacted here as Oliver arrives at a dinner party hosted by Barbara in a top hat and t-shirt, hocks a loogie into the soup, and pisses on the fish while it's still in the stove (when Barbara says she'd never embarrass Oliver like this, he shoots back, "You're not equipped to, honey"). The confrontations eventually turn physical, with both Roses taking their tumbles down their magnificent staircase and Oliver getting a tire iron upside the head, but Douglas and Turner are careful to play these vicious encounters as farce…though the bruises and cuts they leave sure look real enough.
This knockabout black-comic slapstick is ably supported by Leeson's forked-tongue dialogue exchanges, which display an admirable consistency of message as its characters spin out a relentlessly cynical take on love, the gender wars, and of course marriage. At first all seems hunky dory for the Roses; when Barbara presents a struggling young Oliver with the gift of an antique Morgan automobile, she asks him if he's happy. "No, I'm way past happy," he replies. "I'm married!" This is one of the very few times in the film that marriage is discussed with any unironic idealism. (It's also telling that Leeson declines to show us the Roses' wedding, the moment of one's life when love and togetherness are customarily showcased in their most unabashedly romanticized form.) From then on, things degenerate, and Leeson's words chart the downward spiral. When Oliver's in the hospital with his hernia attack, he finds himself on a gurney next to a large man (Prince Hughes) who explains his bleeding wound: "My wife stabbed me in the stomach. With a nail file this time. She's training to be a manicurist. They make good money, you know?" When the divorce is underway in earnest, Leeson has Oliver and Barbara throw words like "honey bun" and "sweetie" at each other like poisoned daggers, and their barbs frequently hit each other's most vulnerable spots. When Oliver tells Barbara she'd better get a good divorce lawyer, she replies, "Best your money can buy!" Oliver likewise attacks Barbara's sense of womanhood by positing that before she met him, she wasn't even multi-orgasmic. As the story's Greek chorus and as a divorce attorney accustomed to seeing formerly-in-love couples at their absolute worst, Gavin is unsurprisingly the source of many of Leeson's most brutal observations. When Oliver, after a nasty confrontation with Barbara, asks her, "What the hell is wrong with you?", cut to Gavin: "If you're with a woman for any length of time, sooner or later you'll ask her that question." As the divorce continues to degenerate into a living nightmare, Gavin tells Oliver to "never underestimate [Barbara] as an adversary", and reminds him that his father, who is frequently invoked by Gavin as a font of worldly wisdom (most of it cynical), always said "a man will never outdo a woman when it comes to love or revenge." (It must be noted here that, unsurprisingly for a film written and directed by men, The War of the Roses seems to have a largely male sensibility; though Barbara is a strong character with her own point of view, she's up against two equally powerful male perspectives, Gavin's and Oliver's, with no one to really back her up except Susan [Marianne Sagebrecht], the Roses' sweet but weak-willed housekeeper.) And though himself recently married, in naked defiance of everything he's learned about such unions, Gavin's view of divorce is still bleak; he says "a civilized divorce is a contradiction in terms", and that there is no winner in such a confrontation, "there's only degrees of losing."
Even the words of pure, unadulterated affection we share with our loved ones can be used against us, as Oliver learns when his hernia attack hits. In the hospital, believing he's on his deathbed, he writes an unflinchingly honest letter to his wife, in which he tells her, "All I am and all I have I owe to you." Barbara eventually turns this letter over to her divorce attorney (G.D. Spradlin), who uses this statement as the primary grounds for Barbara's claim to the house. It's this moment that cements Oliver's resolve to keep the house against all odds; he tells Barbara, "By showing your attorney this letter, you have sunk lower than the lowest layer of prehistoric frog shit at the bottom of a
Another important lesson I learned from Leeson is that your screenplay is going to work much better if it's driven by two opposed but equally justifiable forces. The War of the Roses is a true war of equals, and Leeson is careful to give each of them a distinct voice and a clear approach to their conflict. Barbara is the principal instigator of the split-up, and to be honest, her reasons at first seem pretty flimsy. To our knowledge, Oliver has never cheated on her, he doesn't drink to excess or abuse drugs, he's a reasonably attentive father to his children, he's paid for a beautiful house and allowed her to turn it into a fabulous home. But there are a lot of big problems with him, too, and just as many little ones. He's a man who will frequently put his career ambitions ahead of familial harmony, interrupting Barbara's poor storytelling at the dinner table and shunting his overweight kids off to bed before they threaten to embarrass him in front of his firm's senior partners. He is extremely condescending with regard to Barbara's professional ambitions. When she tells him about how she sold a pound of pate to a friend for $35 and how she plans to buy an expensive 4X4 truck, he sneers, "Well, you only have to sell 700 more pounds of pate." (He gets his comeuppance for this crack later, when Barbara drives that big truck right over his beloved Morgan…once again, with him in it.) He blows off reading a "little contract" she received from a catering client, and once he's finally got it in hand, he uses it to smash an annoying fly. And there's his noisy rattling of silverware. And his phony laugh. And his snoring. It all builds up until she can't take it anymore, and she finally tells him, "When I watch you eat, when I see you asleep, when I look at you lately, I just want to smash your face in." This being the film it is, he encourages her to do just this…and she does….and he replies through bloody lips, "Next time, I hit back." Many people (most of them men, I would guess) would look at Barbara's rationale for leaving Oliver and think it's much ado about nothing. But that's looking without really seeing, and when you break it down, Leeson is quite sympathetic to Barbara's case.
But that doesn't mean Oliver can't have his say as well, and Leeson makes it very clear that he's the one who has the most to lose emotionally by the end of the marriage. Leeson frequently lets us know, through his actions and words, that for all the vitriol he eventually musters up and cold-eyed calculation he displays in his battles with Barbara, Oliver is still a man very much in love, and he's fighting as much to win back his beloved as to keep his house. (Gavin expresses Oliver and Barbara's opposed positions on the divorce in a tidy statement of "two dilemmas that rattle the human skull…how do you hold on to someone who won't stay, and how do you get rid of someone who won't go?") It's no accident that Oliver's first action when he believes he is dying is to write a letter to his wife, and it's telling that his greatest moment of hurt in the picture comes when she uses this letter as a weapon in their divorce proceedings. When Barbara calls a meeting in their dining room to discuss their next moves, Oliver sees this as a potential reconciliation, and shows up with a bottle of wine in hand. He flat-out admits that he still wants her and still loves her, even when he's swinging a tire iron at her head, even when they find themselves hanging together from their precariously swaying foyer chandelier. And there are imperceptible but vivid moments indicating that Barbara may even have her doubts, too. Having tracked Barbara to the attic, Oliver begins an assault that seems at first uncomfortably like it's going to turn into rape, until Barbara seemingly succumbs to his advances. This blows up in Oliver's face, though, when Barbara goes down on him…and bites "the bald avenger", hard. Later, though, when they're trapped on the chandelier, and Oliver admits that he still loves Barbara, he follows with, "And deep down, you know that you still love me, too." And if you look away from the screen, you'll miss it, but there's just the smallest bit of a nod from Barbara. In The War of the Roses, everyone has their say and their reasons, and those reasons are never black and white.
All this makes The War of the Roses sound like it's a film about love and marriage. But this film was made in the 1980s, and like most things from the Greed Decade, it's really about money, a story about people who define themselves by their possessions and are eventually destroyed by them. Gavin tells us that his father always said that four things show the world who a man is: "His house, his car, his wife, and his shoes," the wife notably being lumped in as just another possession. As Oliver and Barbara's story tells us, not much has changed since Gavin's father's day. Oliver and Barbara don't meet by running into each other on a street corner; they battle for possession of a figurine at an auction, and the first words they exchange are about the trinket's cash value. This sets the stage for Oliver and Barbara's entire relationship, a relationship that plays out in a world in which people are brought to great heights and reduced to rubble by their stuff. Early in the marriage, Barbara expresses her affection to her family primarily with gifts; she brings home sweets for the kids and buys Oliver an expensive antique car for Christmas. The source of the earliest rift in Barbara and Oliver's relationship is a set of Baccarat crystal goblets that they picked up cheap from a man who had been buying them as an anniversary present for his wife…who he found out was divorcing him before the glasses were ready for purchase. The Roses' home is the possession that most clearly defines their marriage to the world and to themselves, and so it's no surprise that it is their mutual unwillingness to relinquish that house that sets the stage for the bloodbath that ensues. Their principal weapons in this war are, of course, their treasured goods, from kitchen appliances to antique figurines to Barbara's beloved shoes. Finally, after he has boarded up the windows and doors so neither of them can escape their prison-home, Oliver brings to Barbara the Chinese figurine that first brought them together. "You say it's mine," he tells her, "and you can have everything in this house." She replies, "All right. It's mine." Neither will budge, and when Barbara finds herself desperately dangling upside down from the chandelier, Oliver delivers a final verbal twist of the knife: "I'd be happy to help you. In exchange for the house." The 1980s drew to a close amid the fallout of scandals swirling around the convergence of business and politics, the big-money Washington world the Roses call home; it was the era of Michael Milken, Iran-Contra, the Silverado scandal, the Keating Five, all capped off with a record-setting stock-market drop and four subsequent years of economic recession. It was also a time when I was first learning how to really watch a film, and The War of the Roses was a picture that taught me that a film could be about a lot more than just its story. Leeson's film is essentially a black-comic eulogy for the 1980s, a story about smug, overprivileged people who are literally willing to kill each other rather than give up their stuff.
And I am not using the word "literally" as an exaggeration here. Barbara and Oliver Rose indeed pay for their hubris and greed with their lives. Their war lands them both on their precariously balanced chandelier and, before Gavin and Susan can bust down the door with a ladder, the chandelier plummets to the floor, killing them both. Naturally, before they expire, the still-hopeful Oliver puts his hand on Barbara's shoulder. Naturally, the unrepentant Barbara shoves it away. Ha ha ha. I remember watching The War of the Roses with my mother, who was appalled that a movie calling itself a comedy could have such a "sad" ending. But I learned from watching The War of the Roses that a film's ending does not necessarily have to result in sunshine and flowers for all the players, as long as that ending results in the fitting outcome to the events that have gone before. Can you imagine, after all that Barbara and Oliver have inflicted on each other and themselves, a finale where they reconcile and resolve to build a new and better life together? It would be like Rick and Ilsa staying together at the end of
The ending is not total doom and gloom, however. Gavin seems happy in his newfound marriage, and the Roses' bleak tale encourages his client to go home and give his estranged wife another chance. But I've read some speculation on the Internet Movie Database's message board that the Roses were not even real, that Gavin just made up their story to dissuade his client from the dark divorce path ahead (a theory supported by Gavin's presence as an essentially unreliable narrator who tells us of many events he had no first-hand knowledge of and some he couldn't have known, such as the Roses' final words to each other). Even if this is the case, it is in itself a further vindication of Leeson's storytelling, as even his characters understand the occasional value of a story with a tragic ending. We can look at the Roses and say, there but for the grace of God go we. I for one know that, if and when I ever do get married, I'll do my best to avoid the mistakes Barbara and Oliver Rose made. The War of the Roses is not a film that has shaped the man I am. But I hope it will have a positive effect on the man, the husband, I may someday become.
AWARD NOMINATIONS (BOLDFACE INDICATES A WIN): BAFTA Award, Best Adapted Screenplay