By John H. Foote
Divorce is a difficult act to go through, punishing, the death of a union, often the passing of a love that was once so intense, the couple could not imagine living without the other. The best films about divorce, those most honest, explore both sides, favouring no one, and allowing the audience to side with who they choose, if indeed taking a side matters at all. It is a gut-wrenching experience, far worse than a mere breakup because each person thought this was it, this was my person and they have found that is not the case.
My first marriage lasted 12 weeks. It was a disaster, something that never should have happened. They say all things happen for a reason and the reason for that marriage was to teach me what real love was, because two years after the divorce, I met the love of my life Sherri. Even the day of the wedding I knew the first marriage was a terrible mistake, but once aboard that matrimonial train, once the family and friends are in the church, the best man and ushers are in place, the bridesmaids have arrived, it is nearly impossible to call it quits without a public lynching. I remember being in the back room of the church and my brother tossed me his wallet and keys and said, “Run”. My best man looked at me and said, “Road trip, let’s go”, but I could not do that to the girl. Though I thought it was a mistake, I could not wound her like that.
Twelve weeks later, I wounded her like that.
On film, divorce was danced delicately around until the seventies, with An Unmarried Woman (1978) being the first truly honest film to explore the subject. In doing so, the film was frank in the devastation of the wife after being told her marriage (which she thought was perfect) was over, that her husband had met another, younger woman and was leaving. She vomits into a garbage can and goes home to tell her daughter. At first raging, she acts out on that anger, but finally goes on a journey of self-discovery and comes to terms with not needing a man. Even when he comes back, hoping to reconcile, she has moved on, not necessarily with him, who she has empathy for, but from the old Erica.
From there came Kramer vs. Kramer (1979) which won five Academy Awards, and several other brilliant films about the subject.
Here are my ten best, with one aside, a comedy I did not quite know where to place.
And one I did not know what to do with….
THE WAR OF THE ROSES (1989)
A vicious black comedy about a well to do couple who have built their wealth together, he making the money while she tended the home, overseeing every possible detail of the renovation on the old home they purchased. But as the years go by, Barbara (Kathleen Turner) watches her husband Oliver (Michael Douglas) and slowly comes to despise him. She holds nothing back in telling him, talking about the way he chews, the manner in which he laughs, his smile, and his face which she says she would punch in. Dared to do so, she does, lacing him into his face, shocking him, launching the couple into a wildly funny, though cruel and violent divorce that is blackly comic as the two go to incredible lengths to get a leg up on the other. All this is told in flashback to a new client by the lawyer of the Rose couple, portrayed by Danny DeVito, who also directed the film. DeVito gives the film the perfect tone for a black comedy and is true to the darkness right through to the end when she pushes his hand off her body as they both die. Alarming, very funny, and likely too real for some.
10. TAKE THIS WALTZ (2011)
This daring film from director-writer Sarah Polley explores the divorce of a young couple who it seems should simply not be together. They are rarely, if ever, intimate, and it seems she cannot stand for him to touch her. Both writers, she travels a lot writing brochures for Canadian National Parks while he writes cookbooks, placing him almost always in the kitchen researching his next volume. She meets a young man on the East Coast who it turns out lives right across the street from her and begins a casual friendship that becomes an affair, that becomes love. Both characters, portrayed well by Michelle Williams and Seth Rogen are difficult to like, a bold move on the part of the actors and director, adding a grand sense of realism to the film. Would it not be easier just to tell him I wondered often throughout the film, questioning her cruelty in what comes to a humiliation of her husband? It made Williams tough to like and sympathize with. An honest, powerful film.
9. CAROL (2015)
While going through a divorce and child custody battle, a wealthy woman Carol (Cate Blanchett) befriends a lonely department store clerk, Therese, portrayed by Rooney Mara. Together they embark on a friendship that becomes very much more, crossing the line into lesbianism at a time when, 1952, it was looked upon as deviant behaviour. So strong is the attraction between the two women, Blanchett makes the move, knowing it could impact her custody with her daughter. The two women fall deeply in love, each knowing what it could do to their reputations, but fearlessly they move forward, letting go of the men in their lives. The final scene is a move towards love for both, a sign of hope for society as they do not fear their feelings, but rather embrace them. Beautifully directed by Todd Haynes, the film was acted with startling purity and truth by Blanchett and Rooney who each received well-earned Oscar nominations.
8. SCENES FROM A MARRIAGE (1974)
Initially made for Swedish television as a six to eight-part mini-series, Ingmar Bergman cut the film down to a two-hour running time for release in North America. It was met with rave reviews for its actress, Liv Ullman and director, and became a major success for a foreign language film in major cities across North America. Ullman was already well known to audiences for her superb work in The Passion of Anna (1970), The Emigrants (1972), Cries and Whispers (1972) and the dreadful American made Lost Horizon (1973). Though the film moves patiently (some say slowly), every detail of the pain the couple is in is explored on the screen. I have not seen the film for years, but its impact was indelible, I have never forgotten it, nor Ullman, a luminous screen presence who was astounding throughout the seventies as Bergman’s muse.
7. FAR FROM HEAVEN (2002)
Todd Haynes again, with the film I consider to be his masterpiece and the absolute best American film of 2002. In fifties suburbia a seemingly perfect couple Kathy (Julianne Moore) and Frank (Dennis Quaid) Whitaker are rocked with the revelation that he is attracted to men. This comes to her attention when she walks in on him kissing a man in his office. They try psychiatric counselling to “cure” Frank, but eventually split, hoping their secret remains such. Kathy enters into a friendship with her towering black gardener, portrayed with sensitive charm by the underappreciated Dennis Haysbert. More than Frank, that gets the rumour mill talking, because in the fifties it was not acceptable for a white housewife to be friends (of any kind) with a black man. What stuns Kathy is that the black community is as angry at her friend as the whites are at her! Admitting her love for him, she offers to run away with him, but knowing what their fate would be he politely declines, knowing he is losing his soulmate. In a sense we see two divorces, the legal one with Kathy and Frank due to his homosexuality and the second, due to racial prejudice, both despicable. Moore deserved the Academy Award for this film, as did Haynes for Best Director and Screenplay, and the Best Film award
6. THE SQUID AND THE WHALE (2006)
Based on the divorce of his parents while he grew up, Noah Baumbach directed and wrote this searing, intelligent film that explores the impact of the breakup of the family on the children as well as the husband and wife. A family of academics, both parents are successful writers though her star is on the rise, when affairs ruin their union. Jeff Daniels gives the performance of his career as a man who with all his intellect cannot quite understand why their marriage has failed, though his wife, portrayed with a bit of an edge by Laura Linney knows precisely why. Jesse Eisenberg is superb as their eldest son, meant to be Baumbach I suspect, with strong support from Anna Paquin as the object of both father and son’s affections. Nothing is held back, and try as they might to be civil, anger seeps in and rage bubbles over bringing out the worse in the parents as human beings. Try as they might to maintain their brownstone, bohemian lifestyle, divorce has a devastating impact on them because they find not even intellect can save you from pain. This appears to have been a warm up to Baumbach’s 2019 masterpiece Marriage Story.
5. AN UNMARRIED WOMAN (1978)
The look of devastation and hurt of Erica’s (Jill Clayburgh) face on the streets of New York as her husband weeps to her that he has fallen in love with the woman he has been having an affair with sears into your mind. You cannot forget it once having seen it. Pain, blinding, stunning, never saw it coming pain. At first Erica breaks apart, but slowly realizing she has no choice, she begins to put the pieces back together, becoming the woman she always wanted to be, realizing for the first time how he held her back. Jill Clayburgh won the New York Film Critics Award for Best Actress and received an Oscar nomination for the performance of her career in this nominee for Best Picture. Many believe, this critic included, Clayburgh deserved the Oscar this year. Alan Bates is terrific as the artist Erica finds herself liking, Lisa Lucas is wonderfully edgy as the teenager trying to understand the divorce but choosing often to allow the divorce to give her leverage over her mother. Eventually she sees what her mother is doing with her life and is proud of her. How I wish Lucas had worked more, she too should have been a nominee for Best Actress. The scene where her husband comes groveling back to Erica to be taken back, his girlfriend having left him is rather unexpected. She could destroy him with a look but instead feels for him, her growth as a human being shining through in her humanity. Erica has simply out grown him.
4. BLUE VALENTINE (2010)
You might find your nerves jangled raw by the intensity of this powerful drama about a young couple who married when discovering she was pregnant (maybe his, likely not) and now are coming apart at the seams. Michelle Williams, one of the greatest actresses of her generation is superb as a young woman who was destined for so much more, a career in medicine, doctorates, high education, but finds herself trapped in a mess of her own making. Her husband, also brilliantly portrayed by Ryan Gosling, is an unambitious house painter who likes his job because it allows him to drink on it, and he gets off work often mid-afternoon and spends time with their daughter. By all accounts he is a good father, loving, kind, but fails miserably as a husband because he has never grown up. It appears to us her feelings and needs are constantly secondary to his, thus beginning the end of their marriage. By the time she pushes him away we understand in every way why she is doing so, and though we might feel for her husband, he is dragging her down and will continue to do so. Beautifully, though painfully acted by the two leads, their relationship is told through flashback allowing us to see how they came together, how it grew and how it all fell apart to the extent she cannot stand to look at him. Brutal in its realism.
3. SHOOT THE MOON (1982)
When this film was released in early 1982, I attended an afternoon screening in downtown Toronto, and the only two people in the cinema where myself and my girlfriend. Leaving the theatre, both of us were convinced we had seen one of the year’s very best films, but at the end of the year were stunned when the film was nominated for not a single Academy Award. In hindsight, Oscar nominations should have come for Diane Keaton for Best Actress, Albert Finney for Best Actor, Best Picture, Best Director for Alan Parker, Dana Hill for Supporting Actress, and Best Screenplay. The raw power of the film is felt in the quiet rage with which everyone goes about their business during the split of Faith (Keaton) and George (Finney) which impacts their noisy brood of kids harshly. Karen Allen is very good as the shallow young woman Finney has taken up with, leaving his oldest daughter portrayed by Hill wondering what they could possibly talk about? Keaton gives what I think might be the finest performance of her career here, the betrayal, hurt and pain registered through every pore of her haunting face, and I remained both appalled and bewildered she was snubbed. The rave Pauline Kael wrote for this film is legendary, one of the most positive reviews ever written, I thought her review alone would keep the film in theatres for months. If you can find it, do not miss it. Intensely realistic and intimate.
2. KRAMER VS. KRAMER (1979)
The most honoured film ever made about divorce, Kramer vs. Kramer won five Academy Awards when it was released, wrongly besting Francis Ford Coppola’s masterpiece Apocalypse Now for Best Picture and Best Director. That said, and taking nothing away from the film, it is a beautiful, moving study of the evolution of a relationship between a five-year-old boy and his father, a workaholic who is now forced to get to know the son he has ignored. The boy, Billy (Justin Henry) is dependent on his mother and initially terrified that she is gone, blaming himself. Slowly, the man and child do a careful and not so careful dance around each other as trust is built and their love becomes concrete, unbreakable. Just when all seems perfect again for Ted and his son, Joanna comes back and wants custody. The hearing is ugly, with both lawyers attacking the others’ client. In the courtroom scenes each parent discusses why they should be the prime caregiver, and what is best for Billy, and what eventually happens is a profound display of love, one of the greatest on screen I have ever experienced. Hoffman was astonishing, displaying a range that was the instant envy of every actor in Hollywood, but the real news was Streep who staked her claim as the new greatest actress of her generation. An austere, beautifully film that surprisingly holds up 40 years later.
1. MARRIAGE STORY (2019)
I know, I know, it just came out, time needs to have its way it, but the film had a profound and lasting impact on me. In the month since I have seen the film for the first time, I have watched it another four times, and gone to You Tube to watch the argument scene over and over, in awe of the actors. Noah Baumbach directs and writes again, this time basing the film on his own marriage and divorce from actress Jennifer Jason Leigh, which was said to be painful for both parties. Adam Driver is simply brilliant, mining the very depths of his soul to bring his bewilderment and pain to Charlie. A major stage director in New York, his star is on the rise, his wife Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) was a teen film star who has helped him to form his own theatre company and gave him a son. Her career seems to have been placed on hold while his exploded. When offered a sitcom in Hollywood, she grabs it, moving in with her mother to shoot the show, taking their son with her. When he visits LA she serves him with divorce papers and the war begins. Though they hope to keep things civil, the proceedings become ugly. Hoping to break free of the legal dealings, the two agree to meet privately, but their discussion turns toxic, filled with accusations and white-hot rage. Driver has not had a better acted scene in his career, raging at Nicole before collapsing in shame on the floor, comforted by her, each realizing they love one another, but cannot live together. Possessing the same raw gifts as Brando, a purity in his work that is breathtaking to behold, Driver will one day be discussed in the same breath as Nicholson and Sean Penn. Scarlett Johanson has had quite a year in 2019, displaying confident comic chops in Jo Jo Rabbit and astonishing dramatic gifts in this film. The actress, who has been remarkable before, goes toe to toe with Driver in the film, fleshing out Nicole, and at the end of the film still has hope for them. Laura Dern is Nicole’s fire breathing lawyer, and Julie Hagerty is Nicole’s ditsy, one-time actress mom. A movie masterpiece destined to be remembered for decades to come.
John H. Foote is a well-recognized Canadian film critic/historian who has been an active critic for 30 years. His deep love for the movies began at a very young age. He began his career as co-host of the popular TV show Reel to Real where he remained for nine years. While on TV he began dabbling in education, eventually ascending to Director of the Toronto Film School, where he also taught film history. After leaving the college to care for his wife, he returned to teaching at Humber College where he taught both Film History and Method Acting Theory. John has written two books: “Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker” and the upcoming “Spielberg – American Film Visionary”. He is currently working on two books, one about the films of the seventies and another on the films of Martin Scorsese. Through his career he has worked in TV, radio, print and the web. John has interviewed everyone in the industry (more than 300 interviews) except Jack Nicholson, he says sadly. Highlights include Martin Scorsese, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep Robert Duvall, Jane Fonda, Francis Ford Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow.