I decided to revisit this film from 1989 because of its acrimonious divorce: I’ve been wanting to write about a particular process that sometimes occurs when a marriage falls apart, where the couple seems to be trapped in a struggle over who will emerge the “winner” and who the “loser” (I’ve written about this dynamic more generally elsewhere).
Although The War of the Roses portrayed this dynamic, I came away from my viewing more impressed by another issue: the way some people seek to find self-fulfillment through satisfying the needs of their partners, how this strategy inevitably fails, and the kind of hatred and destructiveness that often results.
Barbara (Kathleen Turner) and Oliver Rose (Michael Douglas) “meet cute” during an auction on Nantucket and spend a highly romantic evening that culminates in bed. “If we end up together,” Barbara says, “this is the most romantic day of my life.” Oliver says, “This is the story we’re going to tell our grandchildren.” It all begins so beautifully, a picture-perfect vision of romantic love.
Flash forward to a Christmas six years later. Barbara and Oliver have two ill-behaved children and caught up with his law career, Oliver is distracted and self-absorbed. When Barbara puts a foil star that she found atop their Christmas tree and Oliver dismisses it, she readily agrees that it’s tacky. His taste always takes precedence over hers. She’s willing to go along because she wants to make him happy. She even bought him a classic old car, a Morgan, for his Christmas present. “I’m more than happy,” Oliver tells her. “I’m way past happy. I’m married.”
We never see what, if anything, Oliver bought his wife for Christmas. We don’t know how she actually feels about married life.
We’ve glimpsed the seeds of trouble; during the next scene — a dinner party several years later with partners from Oliver’s law firm — those seeds blossom forth. Oliver is pretentious and condescending toward Barbara; she looks bored and resentful. She has taken on the role of wife and hostess, to give Oliver what he needs and to further his career, but it’s clear to us (if not yet to her) that the arrangement doesn’t fulfill her own needs.
When Oliver prompts her to tell one of their cute “stories,” then cuts her off because she’s not doing it well enough, she looks angry and humiliated. Later than night in bed, Barbara lays into him: Tell your own story next time you care so desperately what everybody thinks, Fuck Face.” Her hatred is palpable. While Oliver’s obvious narcissism and pretentiousness may fuel that hatred, it originates in her lack of fulfillment and the feeling that her life has no meaning.
Nonetheless, she carries on her accepted role as adjunct to Oliver’s more important life. In voice-over narration, divorce lawyer Gavin D’Amato (Danny DeVito) tells us that “Barbara labored seven days a week to create the perfect home that Oliver always dreamed of.” There follows a long description of her struggles over every purchase, every aesthetic choice necessary to create the perfect house, an image of the perfect successful life, complete with two children soon on their way to Harvard.
Oliver seems proud and satisfied; Barbara seems increasingly depressed. As D’Amato tells us, again in voice-over, “When you work that hard on something, eventually you have to finish and face the awful question, what’s left to do?” Barbara has labored for years to give Oliver what he longs for and now, at the end of it, she feels empty.
She decides she wants to start her own business and does so, despite Oliver’s dismissive attitude. Her hostility toward her husband grows deeper. “Look how crazy you are about yourself right now,” she tells him, one night while he primps before a mirror. “You’re so full of shit.” Given her own feelings of emptiness, it’s not surprising that she envies his self-satisfaction and hates him for it. When he suffers what at first appears to be a heart attack but turns out to be a minor gastrointestinal problem, she realizes she’d feel relieved if he were to die.
She tells him she wants a divorce; Oliver naturally wants to know why, and she says it’s “because when I watch you eat, when I see you asleep, when I look at you lately, I just want to smash your face in.” And when he goads her, she actually punches him in the face.
The remainder of the film concerns their battle over the house — who will get to be the “winner” and keep the idealized image of a successful life. D’Amato tells Oliver that “there’s no winning in this, there’s only degrees of losing,” but Oliver won’t listen. As a result, the Roses end up destroying one another and their home because neither can bear to lose it.
I’ve seen this dynamic in other real-life divorces, where estranged couples who once had the “picture perfect” life wind up locked in a struggle to emerge victorious, to “win” because neither wants to be left carrying their shame. It’s a background theme in The War of the Roses; its more potent message concerns the perils of self-abnegating love.
Because Barbara spends too many years trying to fulfill her own needs indirectly by fulfilling those of her husband, her love slowly sours. After giving Oliver everything he’s always wanted but feeling tormented by her own emptiness, she comes to hate him for feeling self-confident and satisfied with his life — the very emotional state she longs to experience. Love can’t endure in such an atmosphere of self-abnegation. Both partners must have their personal needs met if love is to survive.
Photo by Partha Sarathi Sahana, available under a Creative Commons attribution license.