A much loved comedy trio returns with a left field fight for the ages
How’s this for a Christmas carol?
“In The War of the Roses my true love gave to me:
12 traps a flying
Lots of orchids dying
Piles of statues breaking
All the walls a shaking
Lots of flying chairs
Tumbling down the stairs
Five broken teeth!
Four fractured bones
Three cracked ribs
Two wrecked cars
and a puppy in a pâté!”
Charming, no? Can’t you just feel the festive glow? Hilariously, this alternative carol scored some of the trailers and TV spots for Danny DeVito’s pitch-black comedy The War of the Roses, released in the US in December 1989 and just about one of the most scabrous major-studio movies ever released, a perfect kiss-off to the decade of excess and upwardly mobile ambition and one hell of an anti-romantic comedy. That this film was released at Christmas of all times gives you a sense of how wickedly and hilariously cruel the marketing was and an accurate reflection of the movie itself. If that wasn’t enough, one of its taglines, and to be fair one of the best taglines of all time, was ‘Once in a lifetime comes a motion picture that makes you feel like falling in love all over again. This is not that movie.’
Of course, in all romantic comedies, the course of true love never runs smoothly, but it usually works out all right in the end. Not here. Right from the start we’re in no doubt as to the doomed nature of this particular boy-meets-girl tale. As our narrator so eloquently puts it; ‘the poor bastards never stood a chance’. Skewering the conventions of the genre to breaking point, the film charts the euphoric beginning, increasingly hellish middle and utterly apocalyptic end of the relationship between Oliver (Michael Douglas) and Barbara Rose (Kathleen Turner), as told by the former’s former divorce lawyer Gavin D’Amato (Danny DeVito) to a silent client (Dan Castellaneta, aka the voice of Homer Simpson) who’s thinking about divorcing his wife. Admittedly, Oliver and Barbara’s relationship starts out pretty blissfully, although the portentous signs are already there — after all, their ‘meet-cute’ is in the form of an actual argument; in this case a bidding war (they’re at an auction, during a thunderstorm), and their reasons for bidding are totally at odds. She wants the auctioned item for the its aesthetic beauty, he for the fact that it’s worth a lot more than what it was selling for. Immediately after, their first proper conversation takes place as they walk through a cemetery (walking past two freshly dug graves, a wicked foreshadowing for later events). Still, the rush of early love is too intense for anyone to pick up on the clues, and almost immediately they’re having frenzied sex, after which we get one of the film’s many brilliant lines: so says Barbara to Oliver, in post-coital bliss: “If we end up together, then this is the most romantic evening of my life. And if we don’t, then I’m the world’s biggest slut.” The good times are appropriately swept through in a rush of a first act that covers eighteen years. They have kids, they make money, Oliver gets the car he’s always dreamed of… It’s just like a fairy tale. As Oliver blissfully puts it “I’m way past happy…I’m married!’ The culmination of their dream life together is the acquisition of a grand house that Barbara spends six years turning into the perfect home. However, there’s the undeniable problem of what to do in a house when you’ve finally made it exactly how you want it.
Gradually, things start to crumble between the two — there had always been things that had frustrated one about the other — Oliver’s disdain for Barbara’s cat, her for his dog, his toadying, fake laugh in front of his boss, her inability to deliver an anecdote at dinner parties — but nothing too serious. After all, no relationship was ever perfect, we all have things about our loved ones that drive us crazy. For example, Barbara wants Oliver to take her plans to start a pâté business seriously and asks him to read her contract, but he keeps putting it off and winds up using the contract to kill a fly on a fridge door. So she turns on all the appliances in the house in revenge so that he can’t have a phone conversation with his boss. It soon becomes clear that Barbara’s been dehumanised by the lack of attention from Oliver and soon her formerly optimistic, warm persona has hardened into something colder.
Barbara Rose : Have you ever made angry love?
Gavin : Is there any other way?
The breaking point is when Oliver suffers what he thinks is a heart attack and Barbara doesn’t visit him in the hospital, and she later admits that the thought of him being dead made her happy. It’s a watershed moment for the characters and for us — just hearing the words spoken aloud is shocking to Oliver and shockingly hilarious to us, and what was previously tight-lipped passive-aggressiveness between them soon gives way to outright aggressive-aggressiveness. It’s from hereon in that we realise that this film is going to go far and won’t hold back. When the dreaded notion of divorce and ownership of the house rears its head, things get really nasty. So who’s in the right out of these two? Well, Barbara is clearly more sympathetic to begin with. Oliver’s a jerk and he puts his work before anything else, but as time progresses Barbara’s brutality does put Oliver through the wringer, and so our sympathies lurch back and forth between the two. When Barbara uses Oliver’s farewell note to Barbara (written when he thought he was dying) as leverage in her case for the house is indeed a pretty damn low note for her, and Oliver, for all his flaws, does seem to still truly love Barbara. So who deserves the house? Barbara made it what it is and is its undeniable artistic and heartfelt influence over six years, Oliver paid for it through all his hard work. In the end their pettiness and absolute refusal to bow down is their undoing.
A brutal back-and-forth between the characters (Roald Dahl’s Twits ain’t got anything on these two) ups the stakes higher and higher — crushed cars, a dead cat, the worst sauna relaxation session ever, ruined shoes, pissed-on fish and smashed antiques — until they are at literal war with each other, with Barbara’s (fake) confession that the delicious pâté is made from Oliver’s beloved pet dog proving to be the final straw for him. Despite Oliver never giving up believing that they can be back together, this is just too much — he goes ape shit and so begins an climactic opera of bone-breaking violence, albeit very exaggerated and comic bone-breaking violence. It’s all very funny though, and even when things threaten to get ugly as Oliver starts to force himself onto Barbara, she immediately gets the upper hand when she plays along long enough to give ‘The Bald Avenger’ a bite it’ll never forget, after which she sweeps him along the floor and pushes him out through the attic door and directly onto a table. Ouch! Even when the two of them find themselves trapped on the very precariously hung chandelier, you think — maybe — they’ll be alright. It’ll all end happily. It won’t.
Gavin : Oliver, my father used to say that a man can never outdo a woman when it comes to love and revenge.
What still makes the film incredible is the boldness of that ending. This is a film that has delighted in subverting expectations, right from the very start, with the 20th Century Fox fanfare ending on an unexpected, alternative note that leads directly into David Newman’s operatic score. Even the elegant, Saul Bass-designed opening credits, made to look like we’re moving amongst silk bedroom sheets, end up revealing that we’ve actually just spent the last couple of minutes navigating Gavin’s soon-to-be-soiled handkerchief. Still, such delightful rug-pulling is a mere warm-up for that ending. To kill off both characters was a staggering move, but it was absolutely the right move. It elevates The War of the Roses from a very good film into a great one. Everything was leading up to this point — anything else wouldn’t have rung true. They were bound to end up killing each other. Even their very last moment together, as Oliver reaches out and holds Barbara’s hand, only for her to toss it away, is hilariously brutal. It’s rare to see a major-studio film go this far, but it did, and who knows, maybe it was probably this literally killer move that helped it do so well commercially, the bit that got everyone talking, alongside the always hot-topics of relationships, the battle of the sexes and cats vs dogs. Not that it’s all viciousness. Despite suggesting as much in much of the film’s marketing, the dog never does get put in the pâté. You could argue that the wraparound scenes and Gavin’s own redemption (he wants to stop his client from making a similar mistake to the Roses) soften the blow a little, but I think we needed that sweetness. We needed the snow to start falling just before the end credits. This pill needed some sugar, after all, and the fact that this is an immaculate production also helps. Everyone involved gives it their absolute best — writing, directing, acting, photography, music — it’s a class act all around, but DeVito must be given extra-special praise here.
DeVito has said that he had the most fun and the most freedom with this film, and it shows. His sharp eye results in an impressive visual style — one shot where the camera moves up and away from Barbara approaching her house and scales the roof to spy on Oliver through a window as he works is a lovely homage to Citizen Kane, another shot seamlessly moves through a closed window into a family conversation. There are mid-angles, low-angles, deep focus, crash-zooms, Steadicam long takes, inventive scene transitions and even a POV shot from a hurled plate. It’s a lush production, hinting at an old-fashioned, Hollywood style. Some scenes were filmed on studio back lots, there’s use of good old processed/back projection photography, there’s the retro-1920’s title font, the grandiose score by David Newman and of course the classic star power of its leading trio. There’s some brilliant sound editing too — in the pâté scene, the shot of Barbara drinking her glass of wine is scored with the sound of Oliver biting into his cracker, making a crunching sound that makes it look like Barbara’s bitten into the glass. I always wince. There are also scenes here that you could almost imagine playing out in a Hitchcock film – the cat-and-mouse (well, dog-and-cat) back-and-forth between pets and the starting-up of the car just before the feline gets it, the scene where Oliver is trapped in a sauna by Barbara, and of course, the final chandelier set-piece, although DeVito has revealed that it was Hitchcock’s most famous fan Brian de Palma who was the main influence for the latter (the prom scene in Carrie to be specific). Sensibly, DeVito knows when too much is too much — the original cut was over three hours long, and as good as some of the excised scenes remain (as can be seen on various DVD/Blu-ray releases, including the ‘orchid death’ scene referred to in the opening Christmas carol used in trailers), the right editorial choices were made.
Gavin : There is no winning! Only degrees of losing!
Of course, the big draw of this movie, and I don’t think the film would have succeeded financially nearly as well as it did without it, was the second reunion between Douglas, Turner and DeVito. Their first film together — Robert Zemeckis’ adventure comedy Romancing the Stone — turned out to be a surprise hit back in 1984 and was seriously praised by critics who found its loose, fresh tone a preferable tonic to the intense, bloodthirsty antics of Spielberg’s Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. What particularly won everybody over was the irresistible chemistry between Douglas and Turner — the former handsome, brash, funny and charming, the latter sympathetic, relatable, beautiful and also charming. Douglas, during his 80’s/90’s peak, was a tremendous movie star, a true A-list, old-school icon. I love that he took risks too – he’d often play characters who were pretty damned flawed. After a hat-trick of serious roles (Wall Street, Fatal Attraction, Black Rain), his return to a lighter, more comedic approach was a delight. As for Kathleen Turner, it seems like her sensational run of ’80s movies has been taken for granted for too long. You’ll rarely find a more outstanding debut than her smouldering, white-hot turn in Body Heat, and then for her to immediately subvert the role to comic effect in The Man with Two Brains? Genius. She was a brave star too. Not many would have taken on the lead role in Ken Russell’s provocative, adult black comedy/domestic drama/psycho thriller Crimes of Passion, and then do so with such gleeful abandon. Other lead roles in Peggy Sue Got Married and The Accidental Tourist showcased her range beautifully. Oh, and she was the voice of Jessica Rabbit too.
Naturally, in Romancing the Stone, both the characters of Jack Colton (Douglas) and Joan Wilder (Turner) hate each other to begin with, but by the end credits they’re on a boat to paradise. DeVito’s supporting role, as the villainous but comic henchman Ralph, was mostly sidelined from the two major stars, but all three lit up the screen beautifully. By the time of 1985‘s The Jewel of the Nile, it was obvious that the chemistry between Douglas, Turner and DeVito was strong enough to regard them as a trio that was the Eighties equivalent of Hope, Lamour and Crosby — movie magic. They were even popular enough to all star in the promo video for the the soundtrack’s ‘When the Going Gets Tough, The Tough Get Going’ with Billy Ocean, but by 1989, instead of an expected second sequel for Jack, Joan and Ralph, we got a different kind of comeback, one that delightfully mutated the romance of before into something hideous.
It’s absolutely essential that it’s these actors in these roles — here we have a truly textbook example of perfect casting. We need to have known and loved them from their previous collaborations in order to feel the burn of their destruction. They’re not the same characters — we all know that — but we know the stars, and it’s a perverse delight to watch their happiness fall apart. Well, maybe it wouldn’t be if the film was anything less than hysterically funny and beautifully performed. Michael Douglas is one of those actors who smoulders and simmers wonderfully – there’s almost always a scene in his films where he explodes from sheer rage or frustration, and this film’s no exception. There are fewer actors who lose their shit as entertainingly as Douglas. Likewise, Turner is magnificent at turning the screws (or the reverse, if we’re talking about chandeliers), and dispensing brilliant revenge or emotional and physical violence. Turner may be the one who ends up with bruises at one point, but Douglas takes one hell of a beating here. Put it this way, don’t taunt your wife to punch you in the face if said wife is portrayed by Turner. DeVito, despite an early moment where he gets a foot-job from his date at the dinner table, mostly plays it dead straight, acting as the eventual moral heart of the movie. Together they energise the superb script by Michael Leeson (adapted from the novel by Warren Adler) and prove that lightning can strike three times. Almost appropriately, all three stars never made another film together. Not that the shooting of this film mirrored the on-screen action — by all accounts, The War of the Roses was an absolute ball to make, and that enthusiasm is all up there on screen, and it’s difficult not to get to get caught in the film’s magnificently twisted sweep.
Once in a lifetime comes a motion picture that makes you feel like falling in love with cinema all over again. This IS that movie.