Monday, September 7, 2015

Breaking Up is Hard to Do

Film: Divorce American Style
Format: Turner Classic Movies on rockin’ flatscreen.

Norman Lear was responsible for a lot of edgy television in his day. Lear’s shows were ostensibly comedies, but often had a much harder edge to them especially for the time. So it’s not much of a surprise when a Lear-written screenplay turns out to be edgy, too. Divorce American Style is a comedy, but not the sort of comedy that causes a lot of laughing. This film is like trying something to eat that you don’t quite like by keep trying to see if you’ve acquired the taste. Lear had a way of getting an audience to smile, but smile uncomfortably.

Richard (Dick Van Dyke) and Barbara Harmon (Debbie Reynolds) have been married for nearly a dozen and a half years and the spark has left the marriage. Now all they seem to do is fight. They’re both capable of maintaining a good front when they have guests, but on their own, they bicker constantly and tear each other down. Even an evening designed to bring the two of them closer ends up in an argument. Both get advice from friends to empty the joint accounts and safety deposit box and they discover each other in the act. Before you can say “Doodley-doodle-doop,” we’re in divorce court.

Divorce American Style takes place in the 1960s, which means that Richard gets a severe and complete dunking in the divorce settlement. Barbara gets virtually all of the assets and he gets virtually all of the bills. But, at least for now it’s better that being married.

While the divorce is going through, Richard encounters Nelson Downes (Jason Robards), who has been divorced from his wife for years. Nelson was also hammered in his divorce settlement, and despite having a good job, he lives like a pauper. Nelson’s entire reason for his existence is to find someone to marry Nancy (Jean Simmons), his ex-wife. Once she is married off, the alimony payments will stop and he can get on with his own life and marry Eunice (Eileen Brennan), his current girlfriend. But, of course, Richard is broke, too, and he can’t maintain Nancy in her lifestyle with his alimony payments.

And so Nelson and Nancy hatch a little plot. They figure that if they can get Barbara married off, it will free up Richard, who Nancy would like to be with. With Richard free and marrying Nancy, Nelson will also be free. They decide to fix up Barbara with a local car dealer named Al Yearling (Van Johnson), who has never been married. All had some mommy issues (which is why he never clicked with Nancy), but now his mother has died, which makes him prime marriage material.

There are a couple of truly beautiful set pieces in Divorce American Style. The first comes near the start of the film after Richard’s and Barbara’s guests have left their dinner party. The two argue and eventually stop fighting and prepare for bed. What follows is the world’s angriest dance. The two slam cabinets and closet doors, going back and forth opening their own sides of the close while closing the other’s. It builds and builds and until the end, the two never get in the way of each other. I can’t imagine how carefully choreographed this scene must have been, but it couldn’t have been easy.

A second noteworthy scene occurs when Barbara is out with a man named Farley (Tom Bosley). He’s there to pick up children from his second marriage. It seems everyone in the scene has more children by other marriages and everyone has come to the same place to drop off and pick up kids at the same time. The scene starts easily and builds slowly until it becomes impossible to tell who is who every with a scorecard.

The most significant issue with the film is that it doesn’t get to the ending it wants to give us honestly. Sure, it’s funny, and the ending is cute, but we get to it in a way that doesn’t fit with the rest of the movie. It feels dishonest, and because of that, the rest of the movie suffers. If there’s an ending that we want to have, we should get there without sacrificing a great deal of what the film has already built up by this point. It feels like a cheat.

Divorce American Style has its moments and it does a nice job of adding comedy to the dramatic moments. But this is not the film that it should be. With a screenplay this good, we should have an ending to match. Sorry, but that’s a significant flaw in the plotting, and that’s a damn shame.

Why to watch Divorce American Style: Normal Lear pushed a lot of envelopes.
Why not to watch: It doesn’t earn the ending it gives us.


  1. This is very much of its time but it has its entertaining elements. I agree about that path to the ending. Van Dyke was okay but I thought he was overshadowed by the other three leads.

    I adore Jean Simmons, she injected her effortless elegance and sense of bruised hopefulness into her character.

    To me at least it's always a bit surprising to see Jason Robards pop up in a comedy and be loose and frisky. It's not that I don't think he was capable but he had such an underlying air of gravity even though there was a world weary humor too but I think of him in drama.

    Then there's the always undervalued Debbie Reynolds who is very good as Barbara. It's shocking to realize that this was the end of her leading lady career. She's only 36 here performs very well and looks sensational yet she only had one more lead, the better than it should be What's the Matter with Helen? a couple of years later and then nothing significant in features for another 20 years. She worked in other avenues of entertainment but what a waste of talent.

    1. Dick Van Dyke is fine in this, but you're right--he's not playing at the same level as Robards, Simmons, or especially Debbie Reynolds.

      "Bruised hopefulness" is a great way to identify Jean Simmons in this. There's something world weary about her, matching the natural cast of Jason Robards. I wonder about Robards. He did have a sense of gravitas about him. I'm not sure if it's the voice or the natural "beaten man" cast of his face, but he's one of those actors I sit up and notice when I see him on screen because I expect what he's going to say is important.

      Debbie Reynolds not getting as much work after this seems to be par for the Hollywood course, where women were (and still are to an extent) relegated to smaller support roles once they no longer look like they can bear children. No one's ever said that they system is fair to anyone.

    2. Jean Simmons is great in Angel Face. But the one that really surprised me was her role in The Grass Is Greener. It's kind of silly most of the time and not a movie I would normally recommend.

      But, come on! Look at that cast! Cary Grant, Deborah Kerr, Robert Mitchum, all doing their darnedest with some material that's frequently pretty weak. But they do their best and it has a few fun scenes.

      Jean Simmons comes out the best. She's hilarious. I was thinking "THAT'S Jean SImmons!? But she's so funny!

      I never saw Divorce American Style but it has a lot of people I like so I'll start keeping my eyes open.

    3. This one is worth tracking down if only for the cast. The cast is better than the material, but this is also a cast capable of elevating the material.