Skip navigation

Tag Archives: Danny DeVito

The brutal 1989 hit took a much-loved onscreen pairing, Michael Douglas and Kathleen Turner, and tore them to pieces

Its easy to forget just how consistently, bracingly nasty The War of the Roses is, thanks in great part to the extravagant, and festive, studio packaging it arrived in, unwrapped in cinemas 30 years ago this month. It was fast-paced, glossy, Christmassy and, deceptively, it starred one of the most beloved onscreen couples of the 80s: Michael Douglas and Kathleen Turner. Audiences were accustomed to seeing them bicker in the hit adventures Romancing the Stone and The Jewel of the Nile but their sparring was only ever of the screwball variety, a string of lighthearted quips signposting a Billy Ocean-soundtracked happy ending on the horizon.

At the end of the decade, they reunited to show us that happily ever afters are as fantastical as treasure maps and that early romance will more likely give way to seething resentment and sadistic violence. The film was a cruel R-rated footnote to their era of PG-13 flirting and it both shocked and compelled me as a child whose family was in the thick of a divorce at the same time. I didnt see it upon release I was five at the time but as it tore its way to the small screen, it became an early object of obsession. Each rewatch was met with a certain amount of parental displeasure, an understandable concern that I would blur the lines between what happened on screen and what was happening in real life

The War of the Roses unfolds as a cautionary tale, shared by the lawyer Gavin DAmato (Danny DeVito, the reliable third wheel in Douglas and Turners previous two capers and also playing director here) with a client seeking a divorce. Urging him to consider his options, he tells the story of the Roses, a couple whose marital bliss ended in disaster. They met great. They agreed on that, he says, while were taken back to a charming meet-cute as Barbara (Turner) and Oliver (Douglas) compete at an auction in Nantucket. The film leaps forward from the auction to the bedroom to their first apartment to their first house, the couple gliding from one rite of passage to the next, ticking every box that society has taught them to tick. Barbara becomes the perfect housewife, Oliver goes from associate to senior partner at his law firm and they have two cute kids, one boy and one girl.

Everything was working for the Roses, Gavin says. Let me restate that. The Roses were working for everything.

Because in Michael J Leesons exuberantly cynical script, based on the book by Warren Adler, hard work only gets you so far. The Roses were doing everything they thought they needed to do to be happy but it wasnt enough. Those cute kids grow up to be overweight and insolent. That grandiose house ends up feeling empty and alienating. Their relationship goes from fun and frisky to stale and stuffy. The cracks that start to show are initially relatable the annoying way your partner laughs, the rambling way they tell a story, the endless fucking snoring and the escalation is believably restrained. For a while. But the potholes they encounter culminate in more of a sinkhole, those niggling issues no longer fixable with just a brave face.

Barbara asks for a divorce. Oliver says no. Barbara wants the house. So does Oliver. Both stand their ground, refusing to abandon their much-loved home, and the competitive edge that brought them together on that rainy Nantucket day soon becomes the same thing that starts tearing them apart. Its the cruel irony of so many breakups and the film revels in this. As their beautiful house becomes a war zone, the ornament they playfully fought over years ago is brought back to be used as a cruel reminder of what they once had. Its the last straw that forces them into their final physical duel, which leads to their deaths.

Photograph: taken from picture library

In this years wonderful, Oscar-tipped drama Marriage Story, Noah Baumbach similarly shows how divorce can bring out the worst in a couple, especially in one virtuosic show-stopping argument, but he also shows how humanity can still be maintained and, in a gut-wrenching final scene, how tenderness remains. In The War of the Roses, theres no such relief. As the crumpled-up couple lie dying on a broken chandelier, one thats crashed to the ground, Oliver reaches to touch Barbara, music swelling, but she pushes him off, a final, brutal rejection that remains one of the coldest endings I can remember in studio cinema.

Critics at the time were unsure what to make of it, unsure exactly how to enjoy watching a sprightly holiday comedy involving two big stars inflicting verbal and physical abuse on each other. In a mostly positive review, Roger Ebert nonetheless remarked: There are times when its ferocity threatens to break through the boundaries of comedy to become so unremitting we find we cannot laugh, while Janet Maslin praised its outstanding nastiness but worried that the ending took things too far.

It was rare in 1989 and arguably rarer now to see a film of this scale have the courage of its convictions, maintaining its dour worldview right up until the bitter and bloody end. Dark studio comedies tend to end with light in fear of scaring off the wider crowd needed to justify a hefty budget, but global audiences embraced The War of the Roses in all its filthy glory. It was a box office smash, making $160m worldwide (with inflation, that number doubles). And whats most revealing about its success is that it outgrossed both Romancing the Stone and The Jewel of the Nile, a happy ending for a film so keen to avoid one.

But for all its critical and commercial wins at the time, it has not had the afterlife one might expect. In the years since, its cultural impact has been surprisingly slight and despite talk of adapting Adlers rather mediocre follow-up novel, The Children of the Roses, its the rare 80s hit not to receive a sequel, remake or reboot a blessing, Id argue. Its DNA can be felt, though, mostly in Gillian Flynns cynical marital thriller Gone Girl and its faithful big-screen adaptation, with the author herself naming Adlers source novel as one of her favourites. Whats fascinating, on my umpteenth rewatch this year, is just how cruel it still is, 30 years on, at a time when its much harder to shock. Its less the behaviour of the couple and more how it found its way into a film of this scale and gloss, uncensored, played for laughs.

As a child, I think I found something cathartic in its garish excess. It gave me the chance to laugh at a situation that was humourless in real life. As an adult, Im far removed from that experience, of witnessing my parents divorce, but closer to my own romantic history and theres something similarly fulfilling about witnessing the fall of the Roses. They act in ways that I would never but their relentless spite, right up until the finale, is oddly satisfying, a dogged commitment to not forgiving, forgetting or pretending that wounds have healed.

Its an untamed assault, a frantic, shameless race to, as Oliver puts it, the deepest layer of prehistoric frog shit at the bottom of a New Jersey scum swamp and, ultimately, a horribly convincing argument against matrimony. I remain unmarried.

Read more:

As an adolescent misfit, Hadley Freeman fell in love with the warped movie worlds of Tim Burton. What happened when she met Danny DeVito, Colin Farrell and her idol himself?

When I was an oversensitive, confusedly furious and faintly morbid teenager in the 90s, there was one film director who seemed to know my soul better than anyone. And that director was, of course, Tim Burton. Pee-wees Big Adventure was the first of his films I saw, after being taken by a friends mother, who mistakenly thought it would be a typical kids movie as opposed to one of the more slyly subversive takes on modern US life. I was far too young to appreciate all the jokes, but there was something about the colours, the hyperrealism and the Danny Elfman music that intrigued me. It was like being kissed for the first time: you dont really get whats happening, but youd definitely like to investigate further.

By the time Burtons great late-80s and 90s films came along Beetlejuice, Batman, Edward Scissorhands, Batman Returns and Ed Wood (surely one of the greatest movie runs of any modern director), I was primed to fall headlong in love. It is hard to think of another clutch of films that capture in a more heartfelt way what it feels like to see yourself as a freakish outsider. As I entered a rocky puberty, followed by disastrous teenage years, these movies were like my internal soundtrack, each one investigating the subject more deeply as my own hormonal misery deepened.

The trailer for Tim Burtons Dumbo.

Something else was kicking in for me, too. I was starting to see how Burtons movies linked together visually: the model towns, the holes in the roofs, the black-and-white stripes. Even the characters Jack Nicholsons Joker is recognisably an evolution of Michael Keatons Beetlejuice. And I loved seeing Keaton move from Beetlejuice to Batman, playing the weirdo in both. Burton was then considered something of an anomaly in Hollywood, the opposite to your usual director. But the truth is, he taught me how to watch movies.

Looking back at the few photos I allowed to be taken of me during my teenage years, I noticed that the fictional character I most closely resembled was Allison, the self-consciously weird outsider played by Ally Sheedy in The Breakfast Club. But as I entered my 15th year by then refusing to brush my hair and finding myself riddled with, among other things, OCDs that made me fearful of touching anything, and left my hands cracked and bleeding from compulsive overwashing the one I related to most deeply was Edward Scissorhands. When I read in what was then one of my most treasured books, Fabers Burton on Burton, that when Burton was younger he was so unhappy he used to hide in the closet, pull at his wisdom teeth and bleed all over his office, I knew for sure I had found a kindred soul.

Johnny Depp as Edward Scissorhands: the embodiment of teenage unhappiness.

Its not so much that Burton was my childlike thing I put away as an adult, but there did come a point when we outgrew one another. I stuck with him up to Sleepy Hollow because, even if I didnt love Johnny Depp as much as I did Michael Keaton, I still got such a kick out of seeing Burtons signature in every frame and because I thought (and still think) that making visually bland movies is analogous to writing only in cliche. You are disrespecting your audience by serving up such thoughtless, personality-free fare. Burton taught me that.

But with Sleepy Hollow, it began to feel like what had once made Burton feel distinctive was calcifying into a cliche itself. Then he entered what we Burton fans call the dark ages Planet of the Apes, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and we clung to promises that his next film would be a return to form, the way Woody Allen fans once did.

Recently, he has returned to form, although, for me, seeing movies such as Dark Shadows and Big Eyes is a bit like meeting up with your teenage boyfriend: youre glad things have worked out for them, but you feel a little wistful for the lost youthful magic; something that has much to do with you as it does with them. But Burtons earlier films still touch a tender part of my heart. When Batman Returns came out in 1992, it was widely deemed a bit of a disappointment compared with the original film, largely, I think, because people felt there were too many characters (ie two villains), a complaint that seems adorably quaint now that we are in the era of endless X-Men spin-offs. But when I watch it now, I find it thrilling to see Burton allied with such obviously kindred spirits, namely Keaton and Danny DeVito, who so effectively embodied his vision that they changed their own images for ever.

Costume designer Colleen Atwood on the Dumbo set. Photograph: Jay Maidment/Disney

And Burton obviously loved both of them, working with DeVito two more times, in Mars Attacks! and Big Fish. So, although I wasnt wildly overexcited when I heard that Burton was directing Dumbo (another Disney remake just what the world needs), my inner teenager melted a little when I heard that DeVito and Keaton would be working with him. And when I was then asked if I would like to spend a day on the set watching Burton directing it, my inner teenager became my desperately overexcited outer adult, and I was on the next bus to Pinewood studios, in the incongruously uncinematic setting of Slough.

If Burton was ever going to direct a straightforward childrens movie, then Dumbo the story of a freakish outsider is clearly a more natural fit for him than, say, Cinderella. And judging from the storyboards I am shown backstage, this one seems sweeter and more geared to children than his Alice in Wonderland was: the sets are all in very un-Burtonesque warm and cheerful colours. There is even a happy parade of pink elephants, a last-minute reference to the 1941 cartoon.

When you work with Tim, you always pay homage to Tim. But with this movie, I didnt put in any of the expected touches, not even a black-and-white stripe, says Colleen Atwood, the films costume designer, and regular Burton collaborator.

Its not fair to have complained in one breath about Burton repeating himself and in the next to whinge that a movie doesnt look sufficiently Burtonesque, so I force myself not to miss the old gothic monochrome too much. And the sets and costumes do look undeniably beautiful, or as Colin Farrell puts it more succinctly when he walks in and does a double-take at all the costumes on their rails: Oh, fuck!

Farrell plays Holt, Dumbos handler, and he proves himself to be a fully paid-up member of the Burton fanclub when he immediately, and somewhat randomly, starts talking about images of Burtons childhood you can find online: Have you seen that one of him from when he was 10 or so, and hes wearing a Halloween costume that is straight out of The Nightmare Before Christmas? Its such a touching testament to how those images in childhood bed into you, and he gets that

When I ask if Burton reminds him of anyone else he has worked with, Farrell instantly names Yorgos Lanthimos, with whom he worked on The Lobster and The Killing of the Sacred Deer: With Yorgos, the work almost destroys him. I dont even know if he sleeps during the shoot. And Tim is emotionally, physically and intellectually invested in every detail. After all this time, he still cares about EVERYTHING. One of the things that surprised me is how much actual set there is here. You know, I was talking to someone from the [live action] Lion King and, Im sure it will look beautiful, but theres nothing on set [because its all CGI]. Its just a fucking cameraman and some green screen. But we have a whole big top here!

At this point, something more vaudevillian than Burtonesque happens (or maybe its just the revenge of the Lion King): Farrells wooden chair breaks underneath him. Farrell braces his elbows on the table as it breaks, so he doesnt fall on the floor, but rather stays in a seated position above a vanished chair. 20th Century Fox better pay for this, he grins, utterly unflustered. Now that, ladies and gentlemen, is a movie star.

Costumes and props on the set. Photograph: Leah Gallo/Disney

DeVito, still in costume as the circus ringmaster, comes into the dressing room. Some actors look disappointingly different off-screen, but he looks even more DeVitoesque in person, wearing a top hat about twice as tall as he is.

Wheres the Guardian? I love the Guardian! You like my hat? Hahaha! he cackles. Right, which ones the trick chair? Youre not gonna get me like you got Colin!

This is DeVito and Burtons third film together fourth if you count Burtons cameo as a corpse in DeVitos movie Hoffa, which DeVito very much does: Wasnt that cool? Theres Tim!

Is Burton the director he has worked with the most? Mmm I think so. Well, except Ingmar Bergman. Ha!

In Burtons films, DeVito invariably plays a top-hatted impresario. Why does he think Burton associates him so closely with top hats? Ha! I dont know. I just feel like Im part of the palette Kandinskys world, because Tim is an artist.

So no worry about repeating himself? Oh God, no. And its really fun that Michael [Keaton]s here, too, because, unlike in Batman Returns, this time hes the bad guy and Im the good one, so thats progression. Ha! Also, I get a naked scene in this. Did you know that? Im in the bathtub. In Big Fish, you got to see my tush, so when Tim said: Danny, theres a naked scene in Dumbo I was like: Sign me up! Anyway, gotta go. Ill keep reading the Guardian! Ha!

DeVito has to film the last scene in the movie, and I follow him out on to an enormous stage set, mocked up to look like the most lavish fantasy circus of any childs dream, replete with a marching band and acrobats. There are 350 brightly costumed extras, half as many as in other circus scenes. DeVito jokes around with them, keeping spirits up during the boring technical adjustments. The whole tent is a rainbow of sepia-tinted colours, except for one small square black tent in the middle which is, inevitably, where Burton is based. He pops out of the tent, all in black, a beetle among fireflies, and pats DeVito on the shoulder. You just start when youre ready, he says exploiting the kind of mutual trust that can only come from a 25-year working relationship.

Danny DeVito as Max Medici in Dumbo. Photograph: Jay Maidment/Disney

But DeVito keeps fluffing his short line, promising the circus audience advancements instead of amazements.

Burton laughs: Never mind! Action!

DeVito continues to garble the line. At last, he gets it. I vote for that one! That was the best take yet! he crows.

What are you doing here? Star Wars is just across the road, you know, ha-ha! Burton says, suddenly appearing next to me, unexpectedly tall and even more unexpectedly cheerful. I cant really talk about the movie because I dont know if its a comedy or drama yet. I never do. Ill let you know when Im done, he says, slipping back into his tent.

Burton has to go back to work and I have to go home. I no longer need Burton, or any film director, to understand my soul, but as I sit on the bus looking out the window at the landmarks of Slough, I think about how I got to spend the day, watching Burton direct DeVito, 25 years after I fell in love with Batman Returns. As Farrell said, the images from our childhood bed in for ever, and Burtons movies will always be among those bedded-in images for me. I suspect hed hate being told that, but I know hed understand.

Dumbo is released on 29 March

Read more:

The writer-director has mined the darkest of subjects from stalking to rape to paedophilia. In Wiener-Dog he turns his attention to dachshunds and death

In an unlikely turret right at the top of a cinema in Piccadilly, the film director Todd Solondz and I, practically knee to knee, are discussing dog ownership. Does he have one? No. He wrinkles his nose, on which are perched his trademark jam jar-thick spectacles. I mean, I might if someone else would walk it for me. But if I have to walk it and pick up after it Imagine its really cold out, and its New Years morning, and your dog needs to go. His voice, already quite high, rises a notch. I just dont want that!

Solondzs new film, Wiener-Dog, comprises four short stories about love and death, all of which are linked together, like beads on a string, by a dachshund; halfway through, this animal also stars in a jokey intermission in which it jauntily (or annoyingly, depending on how you feel about tiny dogs) travels the world.

So where did the dog in the film come from? I dont know, Solondz says, dreamily. Its a cute little dog, the dachshund, and that cuteness was attractive for my purposes. The movie is not really about the dog, its trials and triumphs: that would be Lassie. This dog is more a filter through which I explore things like mortality.

What about the suggestion that dog owners are not, as some of them may like to believe, any more caring than the rest of us? Given the sheer meanness of some of the films characters, this seems to me to be one of its major themes. He nods. Look, when a dog is violated, its the greatest transgression possible for many people. You could bludgeon babies and not get so shocked a response. People project a kind of innocence on to these cute little creatures, as if they dont have their own desires and wills, as if theyre happy to be spayed, or otherwise reduced.

Watch the trailer for Wiener-Dog

Aware, perhaps, that dachshund lovers the world over are about to make him their hate-figure, he titters. This species, I learned, is bred to look cute at the expense of other aspects of its wellbeing. Thats one of the reasons why it is so deficient in intelligence. We had a number of them playing the part, and the one thing they all had in common was their stupidity. They were so stupid! When we said stay, they did not stay, and when we said sit, they did not sit. It was horrible! The patience you needed. You had a whole crew waiting and waiting just for the dog to lift its head: Look up, look up, look up, look up! But maybe the dogs were just sadistic. The one in the first story wasnt the sweetest, you know. It even bit the little boy.

Solondz, the acclaimed director of Welcome to the Dollhouse and Happiness, makes unusual, divisive and often highly prescient movies. Rape, stalking, incest, paedophilia: no subject is for him untouchable, or, apparently, for the big name actors who seemingly line up to star in them. Wiener-Dog, in which, among other things, a sadistic mother tells her small son a vicious story about a rape, is no exception. Among its cast are Julie Delpy (the spiteful mother), Ellen Burstyn (a sour old woman), Greta Gerwig (playing, it seems, an adult version of Dawn Wiener from Welcome to the Dollhouse), and Danny de Vito, as a disillusioned professor of screenwriting at a New York university. How hard is it to bag such stars? He shrugs. If they say yes, its easy. If they say no, its not.

As for De Vitos role as Dave Schmerz, whose cynicism and exasperation lead him to put poor little Wiener-Dog to dastardly use, this seems how to put this? quite daring, given that since 2009, Solondz has taught film at New York University. What, I wonder, is his department head going to make of his using Schmerz as his proxy to rubbish film studies? Solondz, though, clearly couldnt care less. NYU. It is an evil empire. Im in awe of how incompetent and corrupt the administration is. But that said, I love teaching there. I love the students. Its the opposite of making a movie. I cant take any of the credit, or any of the blame, for the students work.

Greta Gerwig in Wiener-Dog. Photograph: Annapurna Pictures

Long ago, after he completed his English literature degree at Yale, Solondz enrolled at NYUs graduate film school himself. He dropped out after two years. I didnt like production, he says. Working crews: it was too horrible. If youre not a director, working on a movie is incredibly boring. And if you are a director? Its incredibly boring, and stressful. Its a nightmare.

So why do it? Its the price I pay to get the movies made. I direct not so much because I want to direct but because I dont want someone else to screw up my material. There is something gratifying in writing the script, in finding a story thats important enough that you want to put yourself through that ordeal. And I love the casting process, the editing, the music. Its just production I hate. All I ever think while Im doing it is: why did I ever leave my apartment? He emits a strangled cry. I was so happy at home!

Solondz, who is 56, grew up in New Jersey. His father had his own building business, his mother stayed at home. It was a 40-minute drive to the city, but it was another world entirely. It may as well have been Oz. My dream was to one day live in New York, so Im living that now [he shares his Manhattan apartment with his wife, and two young children]. What can I tell you? It was a very classical, middle-class, suburban sort of life. I wasnt a cinephile then. I wasnt allowed to see anything that wasnt a childrens movie, and in the suburbs you cant get around without a car, so that was it. I remember one day, my mom went to see One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest with one of my older siblings. I said I really wanted to see it too, and she said: no, youre too young. I was 16! So, I saw Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and The Sound of Music, but no Truffaut, no Godard, no serious cinema at all.

Philip Seymour Hoffman and Lara Flynn Boyle in Happiness. Photograph: Allstar/Trimark/Sportsphoto

It was big deal to land a place at Yale, though he says now that if hed had the courage, he would have dropped out there, too: I wasnt even a big reader! Nevertheless, it was the university, with its many film societies, that gave him his cinema education: I was socially very shy, so those societies were a kind of sanctuary for me.

After college, he wrote a couple of scripts they were very juvenile and went to LA, where he got himself an agent. But of course, nothing happened, and I didnt want to live in LA, so I applied to NYU, and that was the first time I had enjoyed school since I was a child. I mean, I think the school was kind of a rip-off, and a joke. I couldnt take any of it seriously. But in another sense, so many things clicked there. I did become something of an it person at NYU.

The shorts he made as a student caused a stir, and after they were screened in LA it was only 24 hours before he was standing in the office of the president of 20th Century Fox. Both it and Columbia wanted to sign him up for a three-picture deal. It was kind of heady. But it was also the lowest point in my life. The only thing I liked about these deals was telling people I had these deals. I was questioning everything and it was hard though which of my classmates was going to give me any sympathy for that? The upshot was that I ended up making an ill-begotten and ill-conceived movie [Fear, Anxiety & Depression, in which a young Stanley Tucci appeared], and then I just walked away. It was a real humiliation. I thought that was it. I was 29, or thereabouts.

For the next few years, he taught English as a second language to Russian immigrants in New York, and was truly happy. I was freed from everything. I had no ambition. When the students asked me what I really did, I said: Computers. But then I began to wonder: will I be happy doing this when Im 40 or 50? And I didnt want that first movie to have the last word. So I made Welcome to the Dollhouse.

That film, which was released in 1995, was about a bespectacled, friendless girl who is bullied at school. It went on to win the Grand Jury prize at the Sundance film festival. I had no expectations of it, says Solondz. When I got a fax from the Toronto film festival telling me it had been accepted, I thought it was a prank. I mean, this wasnt paranoia. Id showed it to some sales people, and they didnt even finish watching it. Anyway, that changed everything. Ive had creative control ever since.

He followed it three years later with Happiness, in which one of the male characters drugs and rapes his sons school friend. What made it controversial was that I was putting a human face on a monster. After Dollhouse, you see, every door was open, and so I wanted to take advantage of that and do something I could never do otherwise. Did he have to screw up his courage, though? I still remember the intense silence in the cinema when I saw it. Yes, I guess so. But its like that every time. Youre always hoping you wont embarrass yourself.

Is financing his films getting harder? His namesake and near contemporary, Todd Haynes, complained to me last year that it was scarcely any easier for him than when he started. Well, its always been hard, and I accept that. Im not angry about it, though I feel like Ive only been able to survive this long by the skin of my teeth. Its luck, and its tenacity. If your movie is profitable, that makes it less difficult to do the next one, but we all know everything can change on a dime. Im always vulnerable. I certainly make movies less frequently than I would if money were not an issue.

His backers dont, he insists, put him under pressure to make his films more upbeat though for all its suburban bleakness, the picaresque Wiener-Dog seems to me to be far sunnier than some of his pictures. Whatever the American critics say the word caustic has been used jokes lurk in every scene. There may be a line I should not cross, but if there is, I dont know where it is, he says. This is instinctive for me. Sweet and acid: I want both. Smiling, he presses his palms to his thighs. If Im going to use a big truck to crush a tiny little dog Well, Im really going to do it. Because life is crushing.

Wiener-Dog is out on 12 August

Read more: