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The War of the Roses (1989) - Plot Summary Poster

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Summaries

  • The Roses, Barbara and Oliver, live happily as a married couple. Then she starts to wonder what life would be like without Oliver, and likes what she sees. Both want to stay in the house, and so they begin a campaign to force each other to leave. In the middle of the fighting is D'Amato, the divorce lawyer. He gets to see how far both will go to get rid of the other, and boy do they go far..

  • A levelheaded lawyer, Gavin D'Amato, has a worried client sitting in his office. This client is going through a divorce, obviously his first. So to make sure this quiet unnamed man plays his cards right, Gavin tells him the story of what happened to a colleague and former client: Oliver Rose. Oliver was a fair-game law student who met Barbara, a gymnast who lived for the thrill of the moment. They both shared a love for exquisite possessions and married right away. Their differences finally caught with them after 18 years, and they ended up in a bitter divorce. But divorce was anything but a solution, as custody of their possessions escalated beyond anyone's, even Gavin's help.

  • It's been seventeen beautiful and prosperous years full of love and understanding for the once inseparable young lovebirds Barbara and Oliver Rose, nevertheless, now the love is gone. As a result, the couple embittered and determined to let all these years go down the drain, they desperately want out, except for one little problem: neither Oliver nor Barbara is willing to leave empty-handed. Under those circumstances, the couple is bound for an unnecessary, yet explosive and utterly catastrophic head-to-head collision, in a no-holds-barred civil war between sexes with their lavish mansion as the precious spoils of war. Without a doubt, theirs is a sad story, however, is there any marriage destined to succeed? After all, Barbara and Oliver's divorce lawyer is deeply sceptical.

  • As a cautionary tale, Washington DC based divorce lawyer Gavin D'Amato tells a potential new client the story of the Roses, Oliver and Barbara. The Roses fell in love at first sight when they were both poor college students - he on scholarship at Harvard Law, and she on a gymnastics scholarship at Madison - meeting by chance at an auction when they were both bidding on the same art piece. Through the early part of their marriage, they both seemed to be striving for the same thing, prestige and the image of perfection, they coming at it from two different directions. Oliver, the breadwinner, did everything he could to impress his bosses to make partner so as to make more and more money, while Barbara spent that money creating what they both considered the perfect showcase home, the house itself which she stumbled upon and bought relatively inexpensively on a white lie. In having that different focus, Barbara, after ostensibly making the house that perfect home and becoming empty nesters with their two children going off to college, realizes that she has lost any sense of herself, which she largely blames on Oliver, who in turn is oblivious to her unhappiness in his sole goal of that outward perfection and prestige, oblivious that is until she asks for a divorce. As the symbol of that prestige and perfection, both are unwilling to give up the house in the divorce settlement. Out of circumstance, both are living in the house during the divorce proceedings, with both their children, when home, and their housekeeper Susan being pawns and potential collateral damage in each doing whatever to get the other to leave and give up the house in the settlement.

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  • A married couple try everything to get each other to leave the house in a vicious divorce battle.


Spoilers

The synopsis below may give away important plot points.

Synopsis

  • Gavin D'Amato (Danny DeVito), a prominent Washington DC divorce attorney, is in his office discussing a divorce case with a client (Dan Castellaneta). Noticing the man's determination to divorce his wife, Gavin decides to tell him the story of one of his clients: the Roses.

    20 Years Earlier. Oliver Rose (Michael Douglas), a student at Harvard Law School, meets Barbara (Kathleen Turner) at an auction on the island of Nantucket, where they bid on the same antique. Oliver chats Barbara up and they become friends. When Barbara misses her ferry home, the two end up spending the night together at a local inn. Eventually after a whirlwind romance, the two marry and have two children, a twin boy and girl named Carolyn and Josh.

    Over the years, the Roses grow richer as one day, when driving the 10-year-old Josh and Carolyn to school, Barbara finds an old mansion whose owner has recently died, and purchases it. At first, Oliver and Barbara's marriage is happy and content as both of them share their materialist ways and views of modern American society with purchases of expensive furniture and clothing to show off their wealth. Barbara even hires a German housekeeper named Susan (Marianne Sägebrecht) to help her fix up the house while she is busy with other things.

    However, cracks seem to be forming in the family, such as the children growing up overweight because the shallow and insecure Barbara thinks that spoiling them with candy treats is positive, and they do not get in shape until their teen years. As Oliver becomes a successful partner in his law firm, Barbara appears to grow tired of her life with Oliver, and at the same time, begins to dislike him and everything he does. As Barbara becomes more cold and distant, Oliver, for his part, cannot think what he has done to earn Barbara's growing contempt. The reason being is that Oliver is oblivious to his controlling, self-centered, indifferent and generally dismissive behavior toward her. When Barbara decides to open her own catering business, Oliver (as he always does) reacts indifferent and dismisses it as Barbara should remain a housewife to take care of their house and kids.

    One day, after an argument with Barbara, Oliver believes he is suffering from a heart attack (he actually has a hiatal hernia). Barbara does not show any concern for his well-being or remorse and does not bother to show up at the hospital. In their discussion after Oliver is released from the hospital, she admits that she'd hoped he had died. She ultimately admits that she no longer loves him and wants a divorce. Oliver accepts and suggests they try to arrange a settlement to end their marriage. Realizing that it might not be wise to represent himself despite being a professional lawyer, Oliver hires his co-worker Gavin on retainer to be his legal representation.

    Tension arises between the two during the meeting with Barbara's lawyer when it becomes clear that Barbara wants the house and everything in it despite Oliver being entitled from to at least half of everything they own. Oliver becomes more determined than ever to keep the house when Barbara uses Oliver's supposed death will (which he had written when he believed he was going to die) to reinforce the fact that the house is all hers. Barbara initially throws Oliver out of the house, but he moves back in when he discovers a legal loophole that allows him to stay in the house while the divorce is pending. Barbara immediately begins plotting to remove Oliver from the picture.

    Oliver contacts his lawyer, Gavin, and comes up with several ideas to get Barbara to leave, even going as far as to offer her all the furniture, antiques, and valuables in the house in exchange for letting him have it as an empty shell, but the greedy Barbara refuses, accepting nothing less than everything. Barbara begins to show signs of a mental breakdown when she even shows up at Gavin's office and unsuccessfully attempts to seduce him as a way to make him side with her.

    Realizing that his client is in a no-win situation with his mentally warped wife, Gavin eventually tells Oliver that he cannot win in the long run, and advises him to leave Barbara, move out of the house for good, and find a new life with his own fortune. But as a result, Oliver fires Gavin and takes matters into his own hands, refusing to let Barbara destroy him and his manhood.

    Over the next few weeks, Oliver and Barbara begin spiting and humiliating each other in every way possible, even in front of friends and potential business clients of Barbara's. Both of them begin destroying the house furnishings; the stove, furniture, Staffordshire ornaments, and plateware. One evening, Oliver accidentally runs Barbara's cat over in the driveway. Despite the fact that it was clearly an accident, she actually attempts to kill him by nailing the basement sauna door (where Oliver had been relaxing) shut until he nearly succumbs to heatstroke and dehydration.

    Some months later, while the kids are away at college, Oliver eventually calms down and attempts to speak with Barbara in a civilized manner over an elegant dinner, but reaches his breaking point when Barbara serves him a paté which she implies was made from his beloved dog (although the dog is alive and well outside). Oliver angrily attacks Barbara, who flees into the attic to hide. Oliver boards up the house to prevent Barbara from escaping and attempts to kill her, while Barbara loosens the chandelier to drop on Oliver in order to kill him. Their housekeeper, Susan, sees this and discreetly contacts Gavin for help. But by the time Gavin arrives, Oliver and Barbara's quarrel has culminated in the two hanging dangerously from the insecure chandelier, over the solid marble floor of their foyer; a fall that would kill them both. While they are trapped on the chandelier, Oliver admits to Barbara that despite their hardships, he always loved her, but Barbara does not respond. Before Gavin can come inside with a ladder, the chandelier snaps and falls to the floor, and Oliver and Barbara are killed. With his final breath, Oliver reaches his hand out to Barbara's shoulder, and Barbara uses her last strength to hit Oliver's hand away, revealing that she truly did not love him anymore and she indeed wanted him dead.

    Finishing his story, Gavin presents his client with two options: either proceed with the divorce and face a horrific bloodbath in court, or go home to his wife to settle their differences properly. The client chooses the latter, and Gavin, satisfied, packs up his office to go home to his own wife.

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