In the annals of actors-turned-directors, Charles Laughton is forever unbeatable: He made one of the greatest movies of all time (The Night Of The Hunter), then never set foot behind the camera again. We’ll never know whether subsequent efforts might have revealed him as a one-hit wonder (though Hunter wasn’t a hit in its day; it was poorly received critically and commercially), or whether there might have simply been a long, slow, dispiriting decline. When I try to imagine the career he might have had, another fireplug-shaped character actor springs to mind: Danny DeVito. Not that DeVito ever made a Night Of The Hunter, by any means, but there was a brief period in the late ’80s and early ’90s when it looked as if he might become a filmmaker to be reckoned with, savvy and subversive. Hoffa, starring Jack Nicholson in the title role, was a Christmas Day prestige release in 1992; it’s an indigestible lump of a movie, if memory serves, and effectively sunk DeVito’s chances of making anything more than curios in future. (He hasn’t directed since 2003’s Duplex, though he has a new project, St. Sebastian, due out in 2013.) But had it been as highly regarded a biopic as, say, Ray—not significantly better, if you ask me—who knows what might have happened?
His potential is clearest in The War Of The Roses, one of the darkest comedies ever financed by a major studio. It’s generally classified as a black comedy, in fact, though that designation implies a button-pushing gleefulness that this movie mostly lacks. Only in the final act, when the property battle between Barbara and Oliver Rose (Kathleen Turner and Michael Douglas) turns surreally literal, does it truly mix hilarity and discomfort; stick Swedish dialogue and English subtitles over some of the earlier scenes, and you could potentially fool Martian viewers into thinking they were watching Ingmar Bergman. I don’t laugh much at the following clip, in which Barbara finally tells Oliver she wants a divorce. But I do wonder when I last saw a Hollywood film on the subject that succeeded in being even fractionally as honest and direct as this ostensible comedy. Or a Hollywood film on the subject at all, actually.
First of all, it’s important to remember who we’re looking at here. The War Of The Roses was the third onscreen pairing of Turner and Douglas, both of whom were catapulted into stardom by their first collaboration, 1984’s Romancing The Stone. (Douglas had been kicking around for years without making much of an impression; Turner demonstrated she could do more than Body Heat’s femme fatale.) They weren’t quite Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks—their dynamic was more playfully combative—but there was still a sense that this movie was deliberately trampling an image, especially given that DeVito was their costar in both Romancing The Stone and its sequel, The Jewel Of The Nile. All the same, this scene occurs nearly halfway through The War Of The Roses, which takes the trouble to depict the Roses’ courtship and early marriage in considerable detail. In the unlikely event that a studio were to make this film today, surely they’d demand much quicker acrimony. DeVito (and screenwriter Michael Leeson, adapting a novel by Warren Adler) reminds us of their shared history before the sheer ugliness commences, heightening the feeling of something turned sour.
And man, it’s really sour. Turner begins with an anecdote about her experience of joy and liberation upon fantasizing that Douglas had died. (The story follows a scene depicting his emergency-room visit; he thinks he’s having a heart attack, but it turns out to be gas.) Somehow, it goes downhill from there. Emotions are exaggerated, but only slightly, and not exactly for comic effect. Even when she punches him at the end, it’s funny only for an instant—her reaction to having done it (a flicker of uncertainty, as if she’s unsure whether to commit, then resolution) and his threatening response are entirely credible. And the confrontation establishes the film’s bluntly realistic understanding of divorce, which is rarely a two-way street. Most of the time, one person wants out and the other struggles in vain to set things right; to the film’s credit, it makes Turner the heavy, without in any way blaming her for the marriage’s failure. The smug entitlement that she’s rejecting crops up immediately, as Douglas’ first impulse is to flat-out negate what she says. “I want a divorce.” “No you don’t.” Even if she didn’t when she said it, she sure does now.
As a filmmaker, DeVito has a weakness for flashy, ostentatious camera tricks; it serves him well in this film’s mock-Gothic finale, but the final image here, of Turner framed alone as the camera pulls back into infinite blackness, seems like overkill. At the same time, though, he’s a more visually sophisticated director than his reputation suggests. (Among other things, his commentary for this film—one of the first I ever heard, way back on laserdisc—delves into practical minutiae like few others, noting details like Douglas angrily punching a pillow in one shot because it was obstructing his key light.) The alternating angles just after Douglas switches the light on and sits up, for example, force perspective slightly so that the couple looks closer together from Douglas’ side of the bed than they do from Turner’s, reinforcing the schism between their viewpoints. (He spends the rest of the movie clinging to the hope of reconciliation, culminating in a final moment between them that’s simultaneously funny and terribly sad.) And while employing shadows as metaphorical prison bars isn’t the most original idea of all time, I still love the shot of Douglas outside the bedroom door, trapped by the banister overlooking his house’s grand staircase. Just shooting from that distance puts DeVito well ahead of many inexplicable Oscar nominees.
Mostly, though, I just admire how much he honors the characters’ dignity, allowing them to behave like autonomous adults before turning them into vengeful cartoons. Possibly the funniest moment in the movie for me comes toward the end, when the Roses’ housekeeper shows up and an armchair sails across the room and nearly clobbers her. “I’m sorry,” Douglas tells her, emerging from the shadows. “I thought you were Barbara.” The warped civility of that line works precisely because of how seriously the movie takes their relationship in scenes like this one. The movie is a gradual escalation into madness, and the initial rupture—which, again, takes place almost exactly at the midpoint—has to be perfectly calibrated, teetering between ghastly verisimilitude and cranked-up absurdity. It takes a skilled director to get that right, and it makes me sad that I’ve only since seen hints of the guy who made this picture—most notably, Edward Norton’s disarming performance in DeVito’s otherwise unfortunate Death To Smoochy (which really is a black comedy, to a fault). Still, at least DeVito got to make more than one film. And since The War Of The Roses was actually his second theatrical feature effort, following the mildly amusing Throw Momma From The Train, it was arguably just a fluke. Maybe Night Of The Hunter was a fluke, too. Forever a mystery.