Specialty: Divorce -- Domestic warfare in the movies, told with tears, fears, and laughs

  • Movie

Specialty: Divorce

They say that breaking up is hard to do — but more and more couples are doing it all the time. Divorce also shows up frequently in films. Just as in real life, big-screen breakups can be brutal, bittersweet, or, as in the case of The War of the Roses, one of the hottest video rentals of the past month, the stuff of black comedy. Here are the most interesting cinematic examinations of this vast subject, told with tears, fears, and, in some cases, even laughs.

Scenes From a Marriage (1973)
This Ingmar Bergman film qualifies as a divorce epic. Spanning close to 10 years, the movie is exactly what its title suggests: a series of intensely intimate scenes detailing the death of a marriage. Erland Josephson doesn’t actually leave Liv Ullmann until about halfway through, but from beginning to end, Bergman’s relentless closeups peel away the layers of repressed emotion, revealing what drives people apart. A

Shoot the Moon (1982)
Eschewing his usual slickness, director Alan Parker cuts right to the bone with this portrait of a divorce that disturbs the peace of picturesque Marin County, Calif. When unfaithful Albert Finney walks out on Diane Keaton, he doesn’t stop to consider that he’s also leaving behind his family, his home, and his life. His efforts to force his way back in — both emotionally and physically — lead to some excruciatingly cathartic confrontations. Erupting like a volcano, Finney’s rage and pain rock the walls-and the landscape. A

My First Wife (1984)
In this Australian import, a self-satisfied highbrow (John Hargreaves) sees his world come crashing down when his wife (Wendy Hughes) announces she’s leaving. What follows is one man’s marathon wrestling match with his own self-pity. And though he loses without much dignity intact, it’s to director Paul Cox’s credit that this film never seems like a wallow. In fact, it’s utterly mesmerizing — and all too true to life. B+

Kramer vs. Kramer (1979)
Dustin Hoffman gives one of the most sympathetic performances of his career as a man who becomes a better father when his wife (Meryl Streep) walks out on him and their son. Hoffman’s struggle to learn the rudiments of single parenthood is played for comedy, but his portrayal of a man’s dedication to his child runs far deeper than the laughs. The film, directed by Robert Benton, won five Oscars. A

Blume in Love (1973)
In Paul Mazursky’s most romantic comedy, nothing is forever, not even divorce. Or so hopes Stephen Blume (George Segal) after he cheats on hhs wife (Susan Anspach) and loses her. Blume’s attempts to worm his way back into her heart are alternately infuriating and endearing. But he’s nothing if not persistent and, as played by Segal, that’s his shaggy-dog appeal. If Blume doesn’t win his ex-wife over, he may just wear down her defenses. This warmly insightful and witty movie works much the same way. B

An Unmarried Woman (1978)
Five years after Blume in Love, Paul Mazursky returned to the subject of life after marriage, this time from the woman’s point of view. Upscale Manhattanite Erica (Jill Clayburgh) is shaken out of her complacent shell when her husband, Martin (Michael Murphy), announces he’s leaving her for another woman. First Erica falls apart, then she picks up the pieces. But emotional reconstruction doesn’t come easily: Just when she’s learning to live alone, along comes the new love of her life (Alan Bates). This serious comedy about survival and growth gave Clayburgh her best role ever. B+

The Awful Truth (1937)
Leo McCarey’s screwball farce offers glittering evidence that divorce can be funny — especially if the opponents are as urbane and witty as Cary Grant and Irene Dunne. Catching each other in adultery, they impulsively part company, then spend the rest of the movie sabotaging each other’s rebound romances. For all their spite, though, these two are still in love. They simply must stay together, if only to keep their wits sharp. B

Kramer vs. Kramer

  • Movie
  • 105 minutes
  • Robert Benton