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Saturday, March 8, 2008

Splitsville (originally published 9/02)

Last week we were looking at vintage wedding movies. I mentioned then that weddings have become almost synonymous with happy endings in our dramatic tradition. At the same time, we know that real life weddings too often fall short of the "happily ever after" expectations we place on them. So pervasive is this reality that even the airy and whimsical fantasy world of the romantic comedy has had to acknowledge and incorporate the hard realities of divorce.

The most recent example is "Serving Sara," which chronicles the misadventures of a hapless process server caught in the middle of a nasty divorce. But the current generation is by no means the first to know the pain of divorce, despite the efforts of certain politicians to portray the good old days as an unbroken tapestry of storybook marriages. For the sake of closure, then, let's take a look at some classic divorce movies.

"The Awful Truth" (1937). Just as "Father of the Bride" holds an exalted place in the annals of wedding pictures, "The Awful Truth" reigns supreme as the movies' greatest divorce comedy. Cary Grant and Irene Dunne star as Jerry and Lucy Warriner, a couple whose marriage has hit the skids. Their divorce, however, ultimately proves even less successful than their marriage. Both of them pursue other romantic interests, but neither can resist trying to sabotage the other's courtship. Dunne and Grant are scorchingly brilliant, taking clever dialogue and elevating it to the comedy stratosphere with Swiss-watch timing.

"The Gay Divorcee" (1934). When Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers made their film version of a play called "The Gay Divorce," the studio wasn't prepared to countenance the idea that a divorce could be an occasion for happiness on any level. They were, however, just barely willing to admit that a divorced woman might possibly find happiness, and so the title was adjusted accordingly. Rogers plays a woman who wants a divorce, and is willing to go to elaborate lengths to secure one. She travels to a resort where she has arranged to be seen with a paid co-respondent, a sort of home wrecker for hire. Astaire's character is attracted to her, but she mistakes him for her hired escort and reacts to his overtures with scorn. Reproduced below is the film's promotional trailer, courtesy of Turner Classic Movies.

"Divorce - Italian Style" (1962). Somewhere in between his brilliant performances for Fellini in "La Dolce Vita" (1960) and "8 1/2" (1963), Marcello Mastroianni made this edgy little comedy. He portrays a frustrated man whose exasperating wife has driven him to distraction. Unfortunately, divorce isn't an option under Sicilian law. If, however, a husband catches his wife with another man, he can kill her and be absolved in those same Sicilian courts on the grounds that he was defending his honor. Pursuing the only viable option available to him, then, Mastroianni's character tries to arrange a compromising situation between his wife and an old flame of hers. With this memorable performance, Mastroianni demonstrated that his comic talents were fully equal to the dramatic skills he displayed under Fellini's direction.

"In Name Only" (1939). For a more serious treatment of divorce, you can't do much better than this elegant melodrama of love and betrayal. Cary Grant plays the husband, but the similarity with "The Awful Truth" ends there. His wife, played by Kay Francis, married him only for his family's money and social standing. When Grant's character falls in love for real, with a widow played by Carole Lombard, his wife strings him along with promises of a divorce that she doesn't really intend to agree to.

"An Unmarried Woman" (1978). This Paul Mazursky film provides a more contemporary dramatic treatment of divorce. Jill Clayburgh is excellent in the title role as a woman whose husband announces without warning or preamble that he is leaving her for a younger woman. Having built her whole identity around her role as this man's wife, she must now return to square one and reconstruct her sense of herself from scratch.

There is an interesting irony here. The trend toward incorporating feminist consciousness-raising into divorce movies traces back to "An Unmarried Woman." It was, however, necessarily the work of a male filmmaker, because there were, at the time, no female filmmakers with enough industry clout to get such a film made. Now that there are, the pendulum has swung back to portraying the male perspective on divorce, as in the testosterone-drenched "Serving Sara." That's show biz, I guess.

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