Friday, May 7, 2021

The Gates Split: Conscious Uncoupling at the Movies

The news of the marital rift of Bill and Melinda Gates has of course made headlines. It’s big news when one of the world’s richest—and most philanthropic—couples goes pffft! This is not just a case of a marital unit splitting apart: the conscious uncoupling (in Gwyneth Paltrow’s memorably weird phrase) of this particular husband and wife after 27 years of marriage may send shockwaves through our culture.

 Oddly, their pending divorce makes me think back to classic movies from the 1940s. In an era when marriages tended to be forever, Hollywood released a whole slew of comedies in which the leading characters divorced, or threatened to. There was anger; there were tears. Nonetheless, hilarity ensued. Needless to say, before the lights came back up,  the husband and wife whose holy union had been rent asunder (by jealousy, by miscommunication, by ambition or greed) were back in each other’s arms, newly committed to living happily ever after.

 One of the earliest of these divorce comedies was The Philadelphia Story, the hilarious 1940 comeback vehicle for Katharine Hepburn, who had recently been named “box-office poison.” At the start of the film, she’s an heiress-type who’s very much divorced from the devil-may-care Cary Grant. And she’s on the brink of re-marriage to a bland chap with political ambitions when Grant’s character swoops back into her life. The presence of Jimmy Stewart complicates matters, and makes for a nifty subplot. But given the sparks that continue to fly between Hepburn and Grant, it’s easy to figure who will be reciting marriage vows at the film’s end. A similar story, though set in a newsroom, is another 1940s film starring Grant. This time, in His Girl Friday, he’s a newspaper editor, and his ex-wife is ace reporter Rosalind Russell. She’s engaged to the drab, domestically-inclined Ralph Bellamy, but her pending nuptials will deprive Grant of his best newshound. And darned if Grant and Russell don’t still love one another, despite it all. You can guess what happens.

 Perhaps the strangest divorce comedy is Preston Sturges’ The Palm Beach Story (1942), in which wife Claudette Colbert loves hubby Joel McCrea so much that she decides to divorce him in order to further his career. He’s the designer of an experimental (read: really peculiar) airport that will save space by hovering above a city. Her plan is to marry a millionaire so as to be able to finance McCrea’s vision. In Florida she finds her loving millionaire (Rudy Vallee), but ultimately can’t bring herself to consummate the deal. The film is fascinating, though, because it’s about money as much as love.

 Which brings me to a much more recent and much darker comedy, directed by Danny DeVito from a novel by Warren Adler.  The War of the Roses (1989), starring Kathleen Turner and Michael Douglas, zeroes in on the split of an affluent couple, Barbara and Oliver Rose. They’ve had a long and apparently successful marriage, which includes the loving restoration of an historic mansion, but over time they’ve grown apart. When they decide to divorce, the ownership of the house and its contents is the big issue that keeps them at loggerheads. So viciously do they vie to hold onto what has been  their shared property that the end result is not pretty. No happy reconciliation for these two, and no civilized parting of the ways.

 It’s well known that Bill and Melinda have—in addition to an important charitable foundation—several fabulous luxury homes, notably a high-tech built-to-order mansion in Washington State and a Santa Diego beach house. Here’s hoping that, in the divvying up of their property, they don’t replicate the war of the Roses.




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