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It may have lost some of its kick in the ensuing years, but Divorce American Style, which was written and produced by Norman Lear, was quite a spicy little number back in 1967. At that point in time, the breakup of a marriage was still viewed as a legitimate catastrophe, rather than the routine event it has become today. Lear and his director, Bud Yorkin, also chose to play dirty when they cast Dick Van Dyke, America's favorite lovable husband, as a white-collar type who's simply had enough of the equally adorable Debbie Reynolds. Given the lead performers' established personas, audiences must have been considerably taken aback by all the bitter arguments, yelling and door-slamming.
Van Dyke plays Richard Harmon, a suburban husband who, after 15 years of marriage, is finally fed up with his wife, Barbara(Reynolds). Richard's unhappiness is just fine with Barbara, since she also can't stand him. So, after a futile attempt at counseling, they decide to divorce. But that's easier said than done. Richard eventually ends up befriending Nelson (Jason Robards), an alimony-strapped divorcee who wants nothing more than for Richard to marry his ex-wife (Jean Simmons), which would relieve him of all those monthly payments. It all gets very complicated, and Lear, who was nominated for an Oscar® for his screenplay, obviously enjoys putting his characters through a satirical wringer.
Bosley Crowther, the critic from the New York Times, took issue with Divorce American Style, writing that it was "rather depressing, saddening and annoying, largely because it does labor to turn a solemn subject into a great big American-boob joke." But a young Chicago critic named Roger Ebert seemed to enjoy the picture for that very reason, when he called it, "a sly, sympathetic examination of divorce in the subculture of upper middle class suburbanites - why it is funny and why, in the end, it is not funny at all."
Lear, of course, went on to mastermind the groundbreaking TV series All in the Family, and Divorce American Style has the same aggressive zing to it that that show did. It may not have looked like a TV show when it was originally released, but this movie is crawling with people who would achieve their greatest fame on television, both in front of and behind the camera. Yorkin later directed many episodes of both All in the Family and Sanford and Son, and costume designer Bob Mackie would become a genuine household name for his consistently outre gown work for the likes of Cher and Carol Burnett. But a drinking game could be generated out of naming the familiar faces that inhabit Divorce American Style's cast. Knock back an extra brewski if you can recall how they became semi-famous.
Let's see. Joe Flynn was the harried commanding officer on the popular TV show, McHale's Navy. Shelley Berman appeared in everything from Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In to St. Elsewhere, and has recently enjoyed an unexpected career resurgence with a recurring role on Larry David's Curb Your Enthusiasm. Tom Bosley was Richie's father, "Mr.C," on Happy Days, and, for a while in the mid-1970s, Dick Gautier was a staple of several TV series and afternoon game shows. Then there's Eileen Brennan, who's probably best known for her supporting role as the vicious Army Captain in Private Benjamin (1980). Last, but not least, Tim Matheson was the over-sexed frat brother, Otter, in Animal House (1978), and has recently played the Vice-President on TV's The West Wing. With that kind of Rolodex, it's no wonder that Lear started cranking out hit TV shows.
One last bit of trivia - look for a rare appearance by Pat Collins, who probably did more to popularize hypnotism for mainstream American audiences in the sixties (through her various TV and movie appearances) than any other hypnotist working in the field.
Producer: Norman Lear
Director: Bud Yorkin
Screenplay: Norman Lear
Cinematography: Conrad L. Hall
Editing: Ferris Webster
Music: Dave Grusin
Production Design: Edward Stephenson
Set Design: Frank A. Tuttle
Costume Design: Bob Mackie
Cast: Dick Van Dyke (Richard Harmon), Debbie Reynolds (Barbara Harmon), Jason Robards (Nelson Downes), Jean Simmons (Nancy Downes), Van Johnson (Al Yearling), Joe Flynn (Lionel Blandsforth), Shelley Berman (David Grieff), Martin Gabel (Dr. Zenwinn), Lee Grant (Dede Murphy), Tom Bosley (Farley), Emmaline Henry (Fern Blandsforth), Dick Gautier (Larry Strickland), Eileen Brennan (Eunice), Tim Matheson (Mark Harmon), Pat Collins (herself, hypnotist).
by Paul Tatara