FILMS… The War of the Roses (1989)

#1980s #AllPosts


As two Roses go to war…


Will it be a happy ever after from here to eternity for the Roses as played by my favourite 1980s on-screen couple (from another movie and its sequel)?


The War Of The Roses Trailer 1989, Video Detective AND PHOTOS © 20th century fox


Firstly, flashback to time about 20 years before this film, War of the Roses (1989) was made. Then picture this scene in your imagination where a director pitches this romantic comedy movie to the head honcho at a film studio. The script is about a divorce lawyer who talks to his client about a couple he once knew, who fell in love and then things changed – for her anyway – and their divorce was imminent. This led to a battle for their much-loved home and its antique contents.

The then casting agent debates if this is the project for Doris Day and Rock Hudson in a fourth comeback movie as our unhappily married couple, with Tony Randall as the lawyer… then the idea was shelved. This possibly as in the last of this trio’s joint film outings – Send Me No Flowers (1964) – had the then on-screen dream team of Day and Hudson living happily ever after… and that was how the masses wanted to remember this on-screen couple.

Fast forward 25 years, and picture this scene again, for real. The director is now Danny DeVito and wants to direct this same movie based on the William Adler book. He has no such fears and calls up two acting friends who once were that on-screen pairing who joined him for Romancing the Stone (1984) and The Jewel of the Nile (1985). Both Michael Douglas and Kathleen Turner then sign up for this new project and then DeVito adds himself to the cast as the lawyer. Then this film, The War of the Roses is made…

The film starts with a man visiting a divorce lawyer named Gavin d’Amato (Danny DeVito). This lawyer offers to waive his hourly fee of 450 dollars, offering to tell this client a true story about his friends, the Roses. Hearing this couple’s story, the lawyer feels might just make his client think twice before heading for the divorce court. This couple – Oliver and Barbara Rose are the reason behind this lawyer’s renewed smoking habit (after giving up for thirteen years)… and Gavin ominously hints that he kept their story away from the Press.

He then narrates a wee bit of a meet-cute flashback to many years earlier. So it’s a flashback to Nantucket, as a storm develops. A pretty blonde, Barbara (Kathleen Turner) attends an antique auction. She spots a cute guy – Oliver (Michael Douglas) eyeing up the antiques. Later this pair are embroiled in a bidding battle to own an 18th-century Japanese carving and she outbids him. Despite this, there is an obvious sexual attraction between this pair…

Oliver catches up with Barbara – in the rain – as she runs for the ferry home. They stop and chat and it’s clear from some sexy flirting, that he’s obviously besotted by her. She learns he’s got a scholarship for Harvard to train as a lawyer. He discovers that she’s a scholarship student too but is at Madison studying gymnastics. As they lose track of time, she notices that the ferry is about to leave and she runs to catch it. But he has a better idea, and they end up staying over and making mad passionate love…

Then another but later flashback, it’s Christmas time, and it’s snowing outside. Oliver works as an associate lawyer and she is the mother of his two kids, a son, Josh and a daughter, Caroline. Barbara manages to convince Oliver to leave his work and come outside with her and their kids. She’s bought him a vintage car – a Morgan – for Christmas… and then later she finds their dream house, and she has a cat, him a dog.

Gavin then remembers another time, after he worked on a legal project with Oliver. These men celebrated their success in this venture at a dinner party at the Roses’ home. As Gavin flirted with his then girlfriend, Oliver encouraged Barbara to tell a story. It ended up with an impatient Oliver taking over and telling this story to the senior partners. Oliver’s behaviour obviously niggled Barbara, and later she tells him so in bed. She continues to add his most annoying faults, but they end up laughing about it.

As they become richer and richer, they take on a live-in housekeeper, Susan (Marianne Sägebrecht) much to Barbara’s obvious dismay. Barbara starts a catering business, as the children grow up. (Josh aged 17 is played by The Goonies (1985), Sean Astin and Carolyn by Heather Fairfield). It’s suggested that Oliver isn’t that encouraging about this new role for Barbara and puts himself and his needs and work first. This leads to her feeling really, really annoyed with him.

The next day, after Oliver leaves for a work trip to Philadelphia, at lunch he has a suspected heart attack. Barbara doesn’t rush to his sick bed. He writes a letter to her and it’s clear he appreciates her. Meanwhile back home, Barbara learns that he had a hernia and is out of the danger zone. She later tells Oliver after he returns home, why she didn’t come to the hospital to support him after she found out he was in the hospital.

It appeared that for a moment, she was worried that he would die, and then she was horrified by her reaction… This was because she would have been happy if he had died and she now she wants a divorce… Oliver agrees to this divorce, and he later learns through a loophole in the law, that he can live in their home until the divorce is final…

This film version starts with a number of flashbacks with subtle visual hints on screen and in the dialogue content that foreshadow later events in this film’s plot. Adding their meet-cute was a nice touch you will discover that even this event, their college degree subjects and their personal pet choice will foreshadow later more unsettling scenes.

DeVito beautifully sets these loved up moments up like little delicious aperitifs where they seem like throwaway moments. He lulls us into this romance between one of our 80s favourite on-screen couples…

Then he returns to these later in the film with more of a punch and more viciousness later in the film. Where to continue the food theme, these “ingredients” are served up in the main course and are clearly relished in their screen retelling.

This actor-director takes full advantage of our love of this on-screen couple we adored watching fall in love in Romancing the Stone just five years previously. We then are more shocked by this darker end to the Roses’ continuum of love and hate as their actions feel more vicious and cruel. Especially for those of us, who like me grew to invest in the happy ever after for this on-screen pairing with the romantic end to the sequel, The Jewel of the Nile.

The Roses’ meet-cute ominously foreshadows their later more extreme behaviour, when their competitive natures are seen in a bidding battle for an antique. This bidding battle antique is then replaced by war for a home and those antique possessions (including that first antique) that escalate between the Roses, as they up the stakes.. scene by scene and moment by calculated moment.

An example of this build-up, has Gavin stating to his client that the Roses’ hatred became more than a personal difference with a partner, that you can live with. He gives the example of dog and cat people living happily together. Scenes show the facts with cute scenes showing that Oliver is more of a dog person and Barbara is more of a cat person. Oliver is then seen pushing Barbara’s cat off a stool and she teases his dog. Later this cat  – after being chased by his dog outside in the dark is accidentally run over by him.

This was after he leaves in his car to buy a sleeping remedy in the wee small hours as Barbara won’t give him a tablet to help him out. The death of this cat is later used as a way of watching his wife hurt as he hears her calling for her pet, as he doesn’t tell her the truth. Later he blames her for this cat’s death, in vicious words to hurt his wife saying this cat would be alive had she helped him and shifting the blame onto her. And it’s her turn much later, as she dishes up revenge using his pet…

The story was interestingly told as it was the wife, Barbara who sought their divorce. It is clear she detests her husband and that her husband is still in love with her but is ignorant of his faults. This behaviour is at its worst when he crushes her entrepreneurial spirit after she sells some pate to one of his colleague’s wives as he chides her for this action. Later she asks him to read her business proposal and he uses this legal paper to swat a fly. Her hurt and contempt for him at this moment isn’t placated in the bedroom… and it is the following morning that he then leaves on the business trip.

Both partners became bitter and angry with each other and this feeling went to deadly extremes.  This was seen on screen with both these characters spitting out insults, looks of contempt and hatred toward each other and in their behaviours set up to cause pain. Their actions and words seemed much more vicious and less manipulative and in no way passive-aggressive when compared with Martha and George respectively as seen in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966).

The divorce in The War of the Roses – Wikipedia adds HERE – even coined a German phrase, inspired by the film where the German translation, Der Rosenkrieg,

became synonymous with high-conflict divorce and is now regularly used in the media.

This was just one of the many films directed by actor Danny DeVito, and others included Hoffa (1992), Throw Momma from the Train (1986) and Matilda (1996). In this article HERE it’s suggested by the author, Gerardo Valero that the 5ft director DeVito’s height was advantageous to the storytelling as

what makes it unique is its visual style, told mostly through DeVito’s own eye-level POV which makes all taller characters look like giants. There is a constant use of odd angles that seem to spring from the subject matter and never feel gratuitous.

I agreed with this and that DeVito clearly enjoyed his role as director and used some great inventive techniques to convey the plot. I return to my earlier praise regarding his initial flashback scenes which are not as innocent as they seem. Valero adds,

The film comes alive with countless visual and audio gags such as those showing the steam related to the “pissed-on fish” and the sizzling sound of frying onions while Olivier is stuck in the sauna, with his subsequent recovery by drinking what seems like a gallon bottle of Gatorade.

Adding to these attributes is DeVito’s handling of those final dramatic scenes, where this comedy is at its darkest and also at its most cartoon-like.

These scenes are reminiscent of those Looney Tunes cartoons where the hunter hunts the hunted. They echo those scenes as seen earlier when Oliver’s dog chases Barbara’s cat in the dark. Scenes now show Oliver trapping and chasing Barbara through their darkened home. These moments are made all the more compelling with the use of jump scares, more foreshadowing scenes and then payoffs to these and earlier plotlines.

Finally, after reading a wee bit more about the book in this article in the New York Times HERE, it appears that many of the ways these characters hurt each other were changed for this film script. The most interesting change is in the role of the housekeeper Susan.

In the book, this character is an au pair, who Barbara tries to frame apparently in a liaison with her estranged husband. This sexual angle was not used in the film. In spite of everything, that’s been said and done Oliver still loves his wife, and we wonder if Barbara loves him back. And light is thrown on the answer to that question in their final fallout in a touching scene…


Weeper Rating😦 😦 😦 😦/10

Handsqueeze Rating:  🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂/10

Hulk Rating:  mrgreen  mrgreen  mrgreen/10


Cinema Shame June 2022

The three leads in this cast starred in Romancing the Stone. Michael Douglas features in 80s Crushes and Oscar Winning Actors in Superhero Movies. Kathleen Turner stars in my posts on Peggy Sue Got Married, Prizzi’s Honor and Californication. Danny DeVito starred in Goin South, One Flew over the Cuckoo’s NestTerms of Endearment and Mars Attacks! reviews. Sean Austin starred in The Goonies and Stranger Things.




12 thoughts on “FILMS… The War of the Roses (1989)

  1. Good review, Gill.
    I saw war of the roses when I was a young teenager. I didn’t really like it and I never watched it again and after reading your review, I know why.
    The cruel stuff with the pets irritated me then and would probably completely infuriate me now.
    So I’ll leave this one to history.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. The casting of Michael Douglas and Kathleen Turner here was an inspired choice, as the playful banter of their two previous films gives way to something closer to outright hatred.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Perfectly constructed, perfectly acted black comedy. I never thought about this being a darker take on the Day-Hudson-Randall movies, but that’s a great interpretation (I myself thought it was like a wicked sequel to Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House).

    I agree with you that DeVito did a wonderful job as a director. Not only that, but I have the DVD with his audio commentary and DeVito sounds like a thoughtful and intelligent filmmaker. I also liked DeVito’s Matilda, Hoffa and the unjustly ignored Death To Smoochy.

    As always, a great review — you make me want to watch it again! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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