Broadcast on television over consecutive nights as a two-part movie, Divorce His, Divorce Hers represents the last of 11 cinematic collaborations between the most famous on-again/off-again couple in Hollywood history, Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor. The irony that the actors divorced in real life a year after the picture was broadcast, only to remarry in 1975 and divorce again in 1976, is but one of many parallels that makes the project interesting. For while the underlying material is respectable, exploring the dissipation of a marriage first from the husband’s perspective and then from the wife’s, the script is a bit long-winded and superficial, so it’s probable the film would have faded from memory had it not been for the participation of a notorious couple. As is, Divorce His, Divorce His failed to make much noise at the time of its original broadcast (not a single Emmy nomination, for instance), and none would make the argument that it’s essential viewing. Still, those curious to explore whether Liz and Dick still had any of the fire that made Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966) so powerful could do worse than tracking this one down. As in most of their latter-day projects, the leading actors rely too heavily on old tricks—his sullen scowling, her breathy overplaying—but every so often, something connects.
Divorce His, the first part, lays out the particulars. International businessman Martin Reynolds (Burton) navigates life after his divorce from Jane (Taylor), his wife of 18 years and the mother of their three children. Present-day action takes place in Rome, where Jane lives with the kids, and the story begins with Martin returning from Africa, where he lives and works, for a visit. Seeing his estranged loved ones triggers flashbacks. From Martin’s perspective, he was in many ways the culprit for the separation, a cold and distant man who forced Jane to demand affection and to provide emotional support for their children. The more he devoted himself to business, the needier she became. In the harshest Divorce His scene, Martin strikes Jane, only to immediately regret the action, and she suffers the blow willingly: “Beat me black and blue,” she moans, “but please don’t leave me.” The implication is that he finds her complicated psychology erotic and maddening in equal measure—which isn’t far from the read most historians provide about the real Burton/Taylor relationship—but of course this dynamic is supercharged with all sorts of troubling connotations related to gender roles. At its best, Divorce His allows Taylor to convey unaffected vulnerability, something sorely lacking from most of her work in the late ’60s and beyond, while allowing Burton to channel the elegant cruelty that eventually became his cinematic signature.
Things get messy with Divorce Hers, which portrays the end of the marriage far less clinically. Divorce Hers plays out like an emotional horror movie, with Jane pulled in myriad directions at once. The best thing Divorce Hers conveys is the way Jane handles the everyday work of managing her children’s reactions to the breakup. A young daughter asks if the divorce is her fault, and an adult son dismisses his father as a soulless cash machine. As Jane says to Martin in Divorce Hers, “Where are you when things go wrong?” Alas, things go wrong with the storytelling in Divorce Hers, because the filmmakers get mired in melodrama about the ex-spouses’ new lovers and then get totally lost in pointless scenes about Martin’s latest business deal. It should also be noted that Divorce Hers is less watchable simply because Taylor lacks Burton’s precision as an actor. Considering its cumbersome total length of three hours, Divorce His, Divorce Hers rewards the viewer’s time more often than not, especially if the viewer plays along with the game of looking for clues about the real Burton/Taylor relationship. Surely that was the filmmakers’ intention when casting the leading roles as they did.
Divorce His, Divorce Hers: FUNKY