Divorce: the biggest Hollywood marriages are about nothing else

A-list break-ups don't just make good showbiz news, they go right to the heart of the cinema ­ the forthcoming attraction, a new start...
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Supposedly, we are accustomed to divorce now. Though I'm not sure whether that kind of horror can be digested in just two or three generations. Once upon a time, people stayed unhappily married, and you can ascribe the exquisite furtive genius of the domestic English murder to that torture. These days, though, happiness is such a requirement ­ we demand it as a right. And people desperate for happiness are often more dangerous than the wretched spouse who began to think of arsenic administered over two years. He, or she, had all the time in the world then.

Supposedly, we are accustomed to divorce now. Though I'm not sure whether that kind of horror can be digested in just two or three generations. Once upon a time, people stayed unhappily married, and you can ascribe the exquisite furtive genius of the domestic English murder to that torture. These days, though, happiness is such a requirement ­ we demand it as a right. And people desperate for happiness are often more dangerous than the wretched spouse who began to think of arsenic administered over two years. He, or she, had all the time in the world then.

I was thinking of this when I saw that Harrison Ford and his wife (Melissa Mathison, who wrote E.T.) have decided to be reconciled.So, good for them. But it doesn't seem as if anything can keep Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman together. That's a hard case to read, with her baby miscarrying after their break-up. Perhaps it got to them in the end ­ the burden of seeming perfect, or ideal. It's difficult for actors to accept habit; they thrive on new lives and instability.

It's too old a story for sympathy, perhaps; the way movie stars end up marrying one another, because they're the only people with any chance of understanding each other's selfishness, insecurity and hope. So they divorce ­ and then sometimes re-marry, and divorce again. That's what happened with Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor who were more intelligent, practical and given to seeing the funny side of things more than most actors. In addition to which, Liz had been married four times already when she met Burton.

You can argue that Hollywood lifestyle popularised divorce, or turned it in less than 50 years from something unknown in "our" family, our street or our class, to the skidpan of half the marriages entered into. I doubt that. Ordinary people don't copy star behaviour. But how they have tried to live up to the lives and dreams on screen. And especially the way life can change all the time in the movies.

It's not just that the movies make us giddy with the thought of falling in love so regularly. It is also the rhythm of the screen: if you don't enjoy this week's film, wait until next week's ­ revealed in the trailer for coming attractions. In other words, begin again. Go back to zero, re-start, take two, wipe the slate clean. Of course, minds and families aren't wiped clean. Damage leaves stain marks and burns. Nevertheless, the movies are still a darkness that shuts out real light and life.

You can't really be happy about all the modern pursuit of happiness, not if you've any sense of conscience or consequence left ­ and we may yet shrug those things off. That said, the cutest thing about Hollywood is the genre unique to its inhabitants' predicament. It's sometimes called the comedy of re-marriage. A couple are much in love, but they stray. One or both of them commits adultery; there's a divorce. The one partner is about to re-marry, when magic strikes and the chance of the original couple reuniting stirs.

What's remarkable is not just how many films used that story, but the way so many are great movies: Howard Hawks's His Girl Friday, where Cary Grant hires his ex, Rosalind Russell, on a hot news story to stop her marrying Ralph Bellamy; Leo McCarey's The Awful Truth, where it's Grant and Bellamy and Irene Dunne; The Philadelphia Story, with Grant and Katharine Hepburn as the couple who find sense at last; Garson Kanin's My Favorite Wife, with Irene Dunne coming back from the dead to find Cary Grant married to Gail Patrick.

There are plenty of others. As you start collecting them, you may even bring to mind the recent Cast Away in which Tom Hanks and Helen Hunt are separated by the plane crash and his years on a desert island. Hanks thinks of her all the time ­ he makes a face out of a ball, if you remember. However, when he comes back, she has married someone else. There's a moment when you wonder if the movie means to resurrect the code of 1940. But, no, things move on so that the magic of Federal Express may find another love for Hanks.

The thing the movies do best is yearning. They are brilliant at evoking that fall into love and the separation of lovers ­ it's like a model for the way the audience looks at the screen but can never inhabit it. The movies are far less good, or interested, in having lovers be together, be married and still exalted. Does habit wear the shine away? In His Girl Friday, Hawks seemed to come upon an inspiring trick ­ that lovers can make love last by inventing breakdown, separation or the distance vital to yearning. They go to the brink of final loss in order to sustain the thrill of wooing and being wooed.

It's a kind of rapture and it could keep people going through so many real failures. In life, Cary Grant was a disastrous husband, and he regretted it. On screen, he was the perfect lover. No wonder he was so wistful always about wanting to be "Cary Grant", and not Archie Leach in disguise.

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