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The War of the Roses (1989) - Overview, Synopsis, Critique

barbara oliver divorce gavin

Principal social themes: divorce, spouse abuse

Twentieth Century Fox. R rating. Featuring: Michael Douglas, Kathleen Turner, Danny DeVito, Marianne Sägebrecht, Sean Austin, Heather Fairfield, Peter Donat, J. D. Spradlin, Dan Castellaneta, Gloria Cromwell, Danitra Vance, Harland Arnold, Shirley Mitchell. Written by Michael Leeson based on the novel by Warren Adler. Cinematography by Stephen H. Burum. Edited by Lynzee Klingman. Music by David Newman. Produced by James L. Brooks and Arnon Michan. Directed by Danny DeVito. Color. 116 minutes.


The War of the Roses is a seething black comedy that can be viewed as either a satiric allegory about divorce and materialism or a darker psychological study of the elusive nature of love and the basic incompatibility of the sexes. This film may require several viewings to unearth subtle details, and do not be surprised if your viewpoint shifts with additional viewings.


The film opens as divorce lawyer Gavin D’Amato (Danny DeVito) explains to his new client how some divorce cases can spiral completely out of control. As an example, he tells him the story of another member of his law firm, Oliver Rose (Michael Douglas) and his wife Barbara (Kathleen Turner). They met years earlier at an auction in Nantucket Island, rivals in a bid for a seventeenth-century Japanese carving of a Shinto goddess. Barbara won the auction, and Oliver struck up a conversation with her. She was a gymnast and he a law student. They get married after a whirlwind affair, have twins, and settle down together. After several years, Oliver’s career begins to take off. Barbara locates an elegant house that they bought and soon filled up with their collection of china and figurines. Eventually, Oliver begins to take Barbara for granted, and she feels neglected in the marriage. Barbara finally starts her own business as a caterer. By the time their children leave for college, their marriage is an empty shell.

A crisis comes when Oliver is rushed to the hospital from a business lunch. He believed he was dying from a heart attack, and he scrawled off a passionate letter saying farewell to his wife. It turns out he was only suffering from a hernia, but Oliver was hurt that Barbara did not come to the hospital when she was told he was ill. When he gets home, they have a confrontation. Barbara explains that when she thought that Oliver might be dying, she began to feel unexpectedly happy. Oliver is stunned, and a fight develops when Barbara continues with the confession that the only emotion she has for her husband is a desire to punch his face. She does so, and asks for a divorce. Gavin represents Oliver in the case. As a settlement, Barbara demands that she be ceded the house and all its contents lock, stock, and barrel. Outraged, Oliver vows that he will never yield to her. Gavin proposes to Oliver that he remain in the house until the divorce is settled, using an obscure point of law as precedent. Oliver and Barbara work out a complicated scheme of dividing the house into her zone, his zone, and shared zone. While their children are home from college, the system barely works, but when they leave in the fall, the arrangement falls apart. When their housekeeper needs some medicine one night, Oliver accidentally runs over Barbara’s cat with his car. He does not tell Barbara, and when she finds out, she locks Oliver in the steam room, almost killing him. Oliver gets his revenge by ruining Barbara’s reception with her clients, ruining her prepared meal and causing a scene. Barbara retaliates by destroying Oliver’s sports car. Barbara invites Oliver to a peace conference, at which she serves him paté. Oliver proposes a reconciliation, while Barbara begs her husband to simply leave the house. When he refuses, she tells him the paté was made from his dog. (It was not.) A battle royal develops in which most of their priceless collection of china is smashed. Oliver offers to cede everything to Barbara if she will give him the Japanese carving she won at the auction where they met. Barbara refuses. Performing an acrobatic move, Barbara unexpectedly winds up on their chandelier. Oliver tries to rescue her, but ends up stranded with her. Gavin arrives and tries to save them by getting a ladder. He is too late, however. The chandelier crashes to the floor, killing them. With his dying gesture, Oliver reaches out to Barbara, but with her last effort she pushes his hand away. As Gavin concludes his lengthy story for his client, he is pleased that the man takes his advice and decides to try for a reconciliation.


In analyzing The War of the Roses , the flaws of both the husband and wife are both obvious and human. Boiled down to the essence, Barbara simply has no love left for Oliver, and he cannot accept that. The divorce is her solution, and he wants to oppose it. The point of the story, according to Gavin at the end of the film, is that there may not be such a thing as a civilized divorce unless both parties want out. As a satire, The War of the Roses exaggerates the situation, yet the points of contention can be seen as genuine. Oliver believes he loves Barbara, but he gives her little in terms of human warmth and affection. He does not cheat on her, but on the other hand he does not show her any respect. As long as the children were growing up, the marriage stayed intact. When they left the nest, Barbara came to realize how entirely empty her life had become. On the other hand, Oliver did nothing of consequence to earn his wife’s wrath. In terms of physical abuse, Barbara, the trained gymnast, is the aggressor. In fact, his hernia was the result of a body scissors applied by Barbara. There are numerous other clues that indicate which spouse may be at fault in the breakup of the marriage. Oliver sees it somewhat as a game and never appreciates the depth of his wife’s anger or the fact that she really does not love him. For Barbara, it is a life or death struggle, and if it takes Oliver’s death to end the marriage, that is the price she is willing to pay. Gavin sees the hopelessness of Oliver’s position, but when he tells him he cannot win (“It is only a matter of how badly you lose”), Oliver fires him.

As an allegory, the film is excellent even when it seems to go over the line. In fact, it is no more absurd than the reality of many divorce scenarios. If anything, the divorce lawyer, Gavin, becomes an advocate of reason in matters of divorce. In the framework story, he would rather lose a client than generate a divorce, unless it is the last resort. The War of the Roses also manages to capture the emotional trauma of divorce, which can strip both parties of their humanity, leaving only rage and despair.

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