The movies love weddings, and well they should. Weddings are celebrations. The celebrations include music, fancy clothes, toasts, dancing. Even better, weddings guarantee two leading roles. A script all but writes itself.
The movies love marriages, though not as much. For one thing, there’s less dressing up and champagne. Marriages are a lot more complicated than weddings and generally much longer. Though sometimes not longer by all that much: Nicolas Cage and Lisa Marie Presley’s marriage lasted 107 days.
The movies don’t love divorces much at all. Maybe it’s because divorce hits too close to home? In Beverly Hills, “alimony” is “residuals” spelled backward. Then there are the obvious structural reasons: unhappiness, disappointment, the upending of closure. A divorce movie with a happy ending isn’t really a divorce movie, is it? Often when there’s a divorce in a film, it’s just a pretext for a couple to get together again in the final act. Seen that way, “The Philadelphia Story” (1941) could just as well be called “The Hollywood Story.”
Sometimes, though, the movies take a deep marital breath and face divorce head on. The latest example, “Marriage Story," opens here Friday and starts streaming on Netflix Dec. 6.
Yet note how the title avoids the movie’s coming-asunder subject. It’s not alone in such nominal misdirection: Ingmar Bergman’s classic “Scenes From a Marriage” (1974) does not have a maritally happy ending. Of course it’s also a foreign film. Whether played as comedy (“Divorce Italian Style,” 1961) or tragedy (“A Separation,” 2011), divorce doesn’t seem to pose quite the problem that it does in American films.
“D-I-V-O-R-C-E” is the title of Tammy Wynette’s 1968 hit song. Her claim to movie fame is “Stand by Your Man” playing so memorably during the opening credits of “Five Easy Pieces” (1970). But you could argue that “D-I-V-O-R-C-E” has the stronger claim. That use of hyphens suggests just how wary of marital breakup country music was back then — and how much Hollywood still is.
In “Marriage Story,” Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson play a New York couple. He’s a stage director, she’s an actress. The film traces the dissolution of their marriage. Noah Baumbach wrote and directed this “love story about divorce,” as he’s called it. Laura Dern, Alan Alda, and Ray Liotta costar.
Baumbach has a track record with divorce — twice over. His breakthrough film, "The Squid and the Whale” (2005), drew heavily on his parents’ divorce. Jeff Daniels, playing the husband, even wore Baumbach’s father’s clothes. One man’s Method acting is another’s Method haberdashery. The track record extends to the other side of the camera. Baumbach (a director, though not stage) was previously married to Jennifer Jason Leigh (an actress). Find whatever parallels you will.
There’s something about New York and divorce movies. It’s like Monument Valley for westerns, only in reverse: The confinement of apartment living would seem to put too much stress on a relationship. Woody Allen’s “Husbands and Wives” (1992) — yes, that title — is one example. That the movie was released just as news came out of the very public, very ugly breakup between Allen and Mia Farrow gives it unique standing in the divorce-movie genre. The fact that Allen and Farrow, who’d been together for 15 years, weren’t actually married hardly matters.
Even more New York is Paul Mazursky’s “An Unmarried Woman” (1978). It’s best remembered as a feminist movie, which it is. But it’s also a divorce movie: Jill Clayburgh’s character doesn’t start out unmarried. With all due respect to Sam Peckinpah, the most memorably graphic scene in classic ’70s cinema might be Clayburgh throwing up on a SoHo sidewalk after her husband (Michael Murphy) tells her — over lunch, no less — that he’s leaving her.
Four years later, in “Shoot the Moon” (1982), Albert Finney has what must be the most spectacular divorce-movie scene. He destroys the tennis court that has just been finished by the contractor (Peter Weller) who is also the new boyfriend of Finney’s ex-wife (Diane Keaton). What makes this so odd — or maybe not, human nature being what it is — it’s Finney who initiated the divorce.
Both offscreen and on-, the most disturbing aspect of divorce movies is the matter of custody. Movie stars arguing and being unhappy is one thing. Seeing a child suffer emotionally is quite another. Baumbach doesn’t evade the issue: The couple in “Marriage Story” have a young son. So it’s quite remarkable that what’s easily the most famous and popular divorce movie is even more a c-u-s-t-o-d-y movie: “Kramer vs. Kramer” (1979). “There are three sides to this love story” was the movie’s tagline. Dustin Hoffman and Meryl Streep both won Oscars, and the film won best picture, best director, and best adapted screenplay (both of those for Robert Benton). Justin Henry, who plays the 5½-year-old being fought over, was nominated but did not win: parents, yes; kid, no. Draw your own conclusions.
The uncomfortableness of divorce means that when the movies do tackle the subject, it’s often played for laughs: “Divorce Italian Style” begat “Divorce American Style” (1967). As ’60s cinematic subversiveness goes, the sight of Dick Van Dyke and Debbie Reynolds untying the knot is more unnerving than Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper doing their motorcycle thing in “Easy Rider” (1969). Neither version of “The Heartbreak Kid” (1972, 2007) ends well for the first wife.
Three decades after “Kramer vs. Kramer,” Streep was part of another screen divorce, in “It’s Complicated” (2009). If your screen husband had been Alec Baldwin, you’d probably feel a need to look on the lighter side, too — especially with Steve Martin as his prospective successor.
Technically, “The War of the Roses” (1989) isn’t a divorce movie. It’s a till-death-do-us-part movie. But close enough: The emotional violence is, if anything, way beyond what you’d see in a standard divorce movie. Emotional violence really is the key. Maybe that’s why Hollywood, which is so comfortable with physical violence, shies from divorce movies.
Emotional violence is also why “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” (1966) is the all-time divorce movie, despite the fact that neither of the two couples the cast consists of actually is divorced. At least one of them should be. The emotional landscape shared by George (Richard Burton) and Martha (Elizabeth Taylor) makes the wrecked tennis court in “Shoot the Moon” look like Center Court at Wimbledon. This marriage is a tennis match where no one wins and the score is never love-all.
Mark Feeney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.