Marriage and the movies have a healthy long-term relationship. But they’re usually divorced.
2013’s nominated screenplays support film historian Jeanine Basinger’s thesis, in her breakthrough study “I Do and I Don’t,” that there’s no “marriage movie” genre per se. While wedlock is most people’s life-defining experience, it’s also static-state, too mundane and unchanging to propel a suitable plot.
Richard Linklater, Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke intended to go “right into the belly of the domestic beast” on “Before Midnight,” part three of their romantic series. Linklater remembers calculating, “It’s a Tuesday and they’re both working, and they have child care … and after six months we said, ‘Hey, that’s depressing.’ ”
Instead, “Let’s put them on holiday in paradise and they’ll bring all their domestic baggage with them.” Their conflicts are conventional but also dramatic as hell. A first-act tiff over a proposed move from Paris to Chicago is later joked about, and eventually explodes into “the fight of all fights. … People say it’s so gut-wrenching, but we thought it was funny, too.”
Unforgettable takes on marriage tend to get hitched to stories with other things going on. Just as Nick and Nora Charles reveal themselves through the murder mystery of “The Thin Man,” Bob Nelson’s road movie “Nebraska” makes pit stops to portray an elderly couple in three dimensions: bickering and emotionally distant, yet fundamentally joined at the hip.
Awful marriages send a wife on a downward spiral in Woody Allen’s “Blue Jasmine,” and a husband on an upward trajectory to an operating-system cloud in Spike Jonze’s “Her.”
To David O. Russell, the “emotional hostage-taking and survival” at work between contentious Irving and Rosalyn Rosenfeld is central to “American Hustle.” “He knows they’re not happy, but she’s scared of change and wants to keep it together at any price.”
At the same time, Russell says, “there’s an unspoken partnership where she’s able to help him, in ways that defy reason. That’s part of the magic of some relationships that work in spite of themselves.”
Mayor Carmine Polito and spouse, by contrast, represent a “Rock of Gibraltar” couple Russell relished writing. Irving suffers great torment spending time with the new, loving friends he’s conning.
“Part of what Irving falls in love with is the mayor’s home life, his marriage, and that’s why he has so much trouble telling him the truth.”
Marriage can tie the knot thematically even in action-oriented features. By kicking off “Captain Phillips” with the captain and missus squabbling about their son while driving to the airport, Billy Ray establishes stakes and builds our empathy for the ordeal that’s to follow.
John Ridley does likewise by bookending “12 Years a Slave” with the loving Northups, though the adapter struggled at the back end.
“The final scene wasn’t covered in the book,” he recalls. “The man was the breadwinner, the caretaker. What would he want to say first to the wife he’d apparently abandoned without leaving a note?”
A solution emerged from matrimony’s powerful hold on those who enter into it. “We finally realized, the first thing Solomon would want to say is, ‘I’m sorry.’ ”