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Classic Companion: Divorce American Style

This 1967 film starring Debbie Reynolds is funny in parts, grim in others, at times downright confounding, but all through, far ahead of its times

Vaishali DinakaranVaishali Dinakaran

February 9, 2017 | 02:02 PM

Divorce American Style, Vaishali Dinakaran, Hollywood Film, Film Companion, FilmCompanion, FC, Bud Yorkin, Debbie Reynolds, Dick Van Dyke, Jason Robards, Jean Simmons, Norman Lear, Robert Kaufman, Classic Companion,

Director: Bud Yorkin

Writer: Norman Lear (Screenplay), Robert Kaufman (Story)

Cast: Debbie Reynolds, Dick Van Dyke, Jason Robards, Jean Simmons

On the 28th of December 2016, the world lost Debbie Reynolds. And with her was lost that special blend of grace and immaculate comic timing that she always managed to bring to the roles she played. Whether it was slightly naive but earnest Kathy Selden who starred across Gene Kelly in 1952’s Singin’ in the Rain, the determined and scrappy Julie Gillis who manages to make a one woman man of Frank Sinatra’s rather Casanova-ish character in 1955’s The Tender Trap, or the new moneyed Molly Brown who holds her own in a world of snooty aristocrats in 1964’s The Unsinkable Molly Brown, she pulled off all her roles with dignity. 

But this is a tribute to Reynolds in all her glory, and that requires us to look beyond her more popular roles, the ones that just made us laugh. And it is in 1967’s Divorce American Style that we find a movie which is funny in parts, grim in others, at times downright confounding, but all through, far ahead of its times

Debbie Reynolds and Dick Van Dyke as the sparring Harmon couple work very well together thanks to their impeccable comic timing

Bud Yorkin’s look at the monotony and disintegration of American marriages in the 1960s features a brilliant, if somewhat unexpected, cast. There’s Reynolds as the frustrated Barbara Harmon who wants far more from her marriage than all the “things” that her husband has managed to provide her and their two sons with. She yearns for companionship and conversation, “Communication isn’t just talking. It’s feeling…” she says one evening in a rather bitter argument with her significant other.

“What’s been eating you lately?! Nothing I do is right!” is the question that triggers this response from Barbara. And throwing the question out in the open, and thus serving as the catalyst for what ends up as a rather long, complicated unravelling of a marriage of 17 years, is her husband Richard Harmon, played by the comedic talent that is Dick Van Dyke.

READ: Classic Companion: Miracle On 34th Street

And thus begins the end.

Then follows terrible advice from seemingly well-meaning family and friends, bored lawyers who view the case clinically while discussing golf games and club lunches, courtroom drama, adjustment to life without the other, and their experiments with dating that leave them wondering whether or not the divorce really is something that they want.

Full credit must be given to Norman Lear, whose screenplay serves to transform Robert Kaufman’s story into a poignant yet humorous portrayal of a sad situation, a wretched time and a rather disturbing reality. A reality that is articulated by the supporting character of Nancy Downes (played by Jean Simmons) - that in the end it all boils down to “economics”. That the movie manages to be as funny as it does through all the wretchedness, moves beyond the writing. It is also down to the sheer talent of its two stars. Reynolds is quiet, controlled, dignified, but manages to execute every little dialogue that she has to deliver with an understated, subtle hilarity. Van Dyke is far from controlled or dignified, but his portrayal of the blustering white collar worker living the American dream, but now shoved into a cheap motel, having swapped his swanky car for a dilapidated old Beetle, is outstanding. Replace either of them, and you’ll have a very different movie.

What makes Divorce American Style so special is the way the film has been shot and edited. Scenes where the sameness and dreaded routine that causes this particular marriage to fall apart are depicted cleverly. Whether it’s the beginning, with the shots of Richard Harmon driving up to the same front door every single day. Or whether it’s the bedroom scene, where not a single word is exchanged between the two protagonists, but just their movements, and patterns, like pre-programmed metronomes, serves to tell us a whole lot. In a movie full of rapid conversation and snarky retorts, it’s these silent scenes that stand out.

The supporting cast, headed by Jean Simmons and Jason Robbards, do a stellar job

Special mention must be made of the aforementioned Jean Simmons, as well as Jason Robards who plays her ex-husband Nelson Downes, as an amicable pair of exes trying to navigate the “what nexts” of divorce. However if there’s an Academy Award that is being handed out for best cameo appearance, it simply must go to Tom Bosley (of Happy Days fame) for his brief role as Farley. He delivers a more than memorable performance in what is at once one of the movie’s funniest and saddest scenes. But you’re going to have to watch it to find out more.

Here’s a quick caveat before you watch it though. Divorce American Style isn’t a movie where ends tie neatly up, and where stray strands of hair are whisked back into place with hairspray. Instead it’s a raw movie, where the children appear to be better adjusted to life than any of the adults. A movie where frustratingly enough, realisations are made, but perhaps too late. But it's also a movie where Reynolds and Van Dyke deliver very fine performances. Performances that they will be remembered for always. Which really makes it worth the watch.