The brutal 1989 hit took a much-loved onscreen pairing, Michael Douglas and Kathleen Turner, and tore them to pieces
Its easy to forget just how consistently, bracingly nasty The War of the Roses is, thanks in great part to the extravagant, and festive, studio packaging it arrived in, unwrapped in cinemas 30 years ago this month. It was fast-paced, glossy, Christmassy and, deceptively, it starred one of the most beloved onscreen couples of the 80s: Michael Douglas and Kathleen Turner. Audiences were accustomed to seeing them bicker in the hit adventures Romancing the Stone and The Jewel of the Nile but their sparring was only ever of the screwball variety, a string of lighthearted quips signposting a Billy Ocean-soundtracked happy ending on the horizon.
At the end of the decade, they reunited to show us that happily ever afters are as fantastical as treasure maps and that early romance will more likely give way to seething resentment and sadistic violence. The film was a cruel R-rated footnote to their era of PG-13 flirting and it both shocked and compelled me as a child whose family was in the thick of a divorce at the same time. I didnt see it upon release I was five at the time but as it tore its way to the small screen, it became an early object of obsession. Each rewatch was met with a certain amount of parental displeasure, an understandable concern that I would blur the lines between what happened on screen and what was happening in real life
The War of the Roses unfolds as a cautionary tale, shared by the lawyer Gavin DAmato (Danny DeVito, the reliable third wheel in Douglas and Turners previous two capers and also playing director here) with a client seeking a divorce. Urging him to consider his options, he tells the story of the Roses, a couple whose marital bliss ended in disaster. They met great. They agreed on that, he says, while were taken back to a charming meet-cute as Barbara (Turner) and Oliver (Douglas) compete at an auction in Nantucket. The film leaps forward from the auction to the bedroom to their first apartment to their first house, the couple gliding from one rite of passage to the next, ticking every box that society has taught them to tick. Barbara becomes the perfect housewife, Oliver goes from associate to senior partner at his law firm and they have two cute kids, one boy and one girl.
Everything was working for the Roses, Gavin says. Let me restate that. The Roses were working for everything.
Because in Michael J Leesons exuberantly cynical script, based on the book by Warren Adler, hard work only gets you so far. The Roses were doing everything they thought they needed to do to be happy but it wasnt enough. Those cute kids grow up to be overweight and insolent. That grandiose house ends up feeling empty and alienating. Their relationship goes from fun and frisky to stale and stuffy. The cracks that start to show are initially relatable the annoying way your partner laughs, the rambling way they tell a story, the endless fucking snoring and the escalation is believably restrained. For a while. But the potholes they encounter culminate in more of a sinkhole, those niggling issues no longer fixable with just a brave face.
Barbara asks for a divorce. Oliver says no. Barbara wants the house. So does Oliver. Both stand their ground, refusing to abandon their much-loved home, and the competitive edge that brought them together on that rainy Nantucket day soon becomes the same thing that starts tearing them apart. Its the cruel irony of so many breakups and the film revels in this. As their beautiful house becomes a war zone, the ornament they playfully fought over years ago is brought back to be used as a cruel reminder of what they once had. Its the last straw that forces them into their final physical duel, which leads to their deaths.