Entry #69: Irreconcilable Differences
By Nathan Rabin
The Fractured Mirror is an ongoing column about movies about making movies.
Peter Bogdanovich looms large in the world of film as a director, writer, actor, producer, historian, personality, author and the ultimate cinephile but also as a cinematic type. Actually being Peter Bogdanovich gave the Last Picture Show director a real advantage when it came to getting cast as fictionalized versions of himself.
Bogdanovich accordingly played the two ultimate Peter Bogdanovich types in his career-making debut masterpiece (and previous Fractured Mirror entry) Targets, in which he smartly typecast himself as a cocky, cinephile hotshot movie maker opposite towering Hollywood legend Boris Karloff and Orson Welles’ fascinatingly messy posthumous New Hollywood homage/parody/pastiche The Other Side of the Wind, (which I also wrote about for The Fractured Mirror) where Welles brilliantly typecast his friend/sidekick as a cocky, cinephile hotshot movie maker opposite towering Hollywood legend John Huston as a character Orson Welles insists is not based on himself despite cutting a distinctly Wellesian figure.
In Hooper (another Fractured Mirror subject), Robert Klein hilariously plays a pompous auteur clearly based on star Burt Reynolds’ Nickelodeon (another!) and At Long Last Love director Bogdanovich while the 1984 satirical show-business romantic-comedy family melodrama Irreconcilable Differences is so overtly based on the personal and professional relationship of Bogdanovich and ex-wife and collaborator Polly Platt that it borders on fan fiction.
Protagonist Albert Brodsky (Ryan O’Neal, who was directed by Bogdanovich to two of his best performances in What’s Up, Doc? and Paper Moon) is so unmistakably a thinly fictionalized version of the Hollywood legend that when bit player Rex Reed compares Albert’s rocket ride to superstardom to such titans of the silver screen as Francis Ford Coppola and, yes, Peter Bogdanovich, it feels like the existence of two such identical figures in one fictional universe might tear a hole through the fabric of time and space.
Irreconcilable Differences captures what has made Bogdanovich a popular target of mockery and satire for multiple generations of smartasses and wisenheimers but also what makes him an inspirational figure as well. Albert may be a classic show-business narcissist high on his own self-regard but he’s not a phony. He’s a passionate true believer in the life-affirming power of cinema with a genius for roping other people into his fantasies.
The impulse when making a satirical comedy about an outsized figure like Bogdanovich would be to go big, broad and mean, to depict the neckerchief enthusiast and world-class name dropper as a glad-handing phony in need of a comeuppance and karmic justice. Irreconcilable Differences instead portrays its Bogdanovich surrogate as a genuinely good man with an authentic zeal for everything film who is corrupted by money, power and fame but retains a core of scruffy decency throughout. Though it is not at all averse to tapping into the unholy power of schadenfreude, Hollywood-style, Irreconcilable Differences is ultimately more interested in empathy and compassion.
Irreconcilable Differences may be cynical about show-business and celebrity but it shares Albert’s passion for film. Movie making may be a ridiculous business but when practiced by high priests like Ernest Lubitsch and of course Orson Welles (who Albert quotes reverently) it's nothing short of sacred.
Real-life writing team Charles and Nancy Shyer’s marvelously meta New Hollywood riff opens with high-powered lawyer Phil Hanner (Allen Garfield) agreeing to take on a divorce on the grounds that the person seeking it is absolutely sure that she’s doing the right thing. This is no ordinary divorce, however.
Not long before Drew Barrymore essentially divorced her own parents by successfully filing to be legally emancipated from her real-life stage parents, she played Casey Brodsky, a little girl who seeks to have nanny Maria Hernandez (Hortensia Colorado) named her legal guardian after becoming disillusioned with the selfishness and self-absorption of her divorced parents, filmmaker Albert (O’Neal) and his now ex-wife Lucy Van Patten Brodsky (Shelly Long), a best-selling novelist, who lived for many long, unhappy years in her ex-husband’s shadow.
The film then unfolds in flashback as Albert and Lucy deliver testimony in court about how they met, fell in love, got married and made their mark in Hollywood as a team, only to watch their personal and professional lives together fall dramatically and publicly apart when Albert falls hopelessly in love and lust with Blake Chandler (Sharon Stone), the radiant star of his newest movie, an absolute bombshell who ingratiates herself into the couple’s household as a family friend and eager mentor and, with an unmistakable air of inevitability, proceeds to seduce a married man aching to be corrupted. Blake is a gloriously mean-spirited parody of Cybill Shepard, who notoriously rose to super-stardom with Bogdanovich’s The Last Picture Show and quickly became his leading lady offscreen as well as on.
The flashbacks begin in 1973, with Albert as a nerdy, bespectacled academic in love with the entirety of film who meets the adorably neurotic Lucy when she picks him up while he’s hitchhiking to Los Angeles to make his fortune in academia and/or film.
Lucy is charmed by Albert’s passion for movies and life and they build a life together in Los Angeles that changes forever when Albert gets an opportunity to make the big leap from writing about movies to actually making them. With an enormous amount of help from his better half, Albert quickly becomes a moviemaking force but professional success leads to the failure of their marriage.
The vehicle for Albert’s personal and professional ruin is Atlanta!, a musical adaptation of Gone With the Wind designed as a vehicle for Blake that combines elements of three of Bogdanovich’s biggest personal and professional humiliations. Like Bogdanovich’s legendarily unsuccessful 1975 musical At Long Last Love, Atlanta! is a musical that makes the bold if questionable choice to star someone who can’t sing. Like Daisy Miller it’s a period film with an unmistakably, distractingly modern star in Cybill Shepard. Like 1980’s They All Laughed, it’s a perversely non-commercial labor of love its director made the exceedingly costly and public mistake of investing all of his money in.
If Irreconcilable Differences is ambivalent but ultimately affectionate in its depiction of Albert and Lucy it is deliciously nasty in its portrayal of Blake as a monster of id and ego who goes from beaming, disingenuous ingenue to coke-snorting, director-antagonizing diva the first chance she gets.
Stone doesn’t just match the dazzling star-power and explosive sexuality of Cybill Shepard at her most incandescent and undeniable; she tops it. From her first second on-screen it’s apparent that the ruthlessly ambitious, just plain ruthless starlet can, and will, destroy Albert just for laughs, that even a partnership as seemingly strong as Albert and Lucy’s cannot withstand a force this volcanic.
Irreconcilable Differences is keenly attuned to the seemingly infinite number of ways Hollywood’s poisonous sexism manifests itself. Lucy, for example, is, like the real-life legend she’s based upon, smart and talented and hard-working, with a preternatural gift for fixing things and solving problems but because she’s a woman she’s ignored and overlooked while her husband soaks up all of the attention, acclaim and credit.
In a Golden Globe-nominated performance that seemed to anticipate a more impressive career as a leading lady than Long ended up having, the Cheers star is absolutely wonderful: funny, complex, vulnerable, sad, overwhelmed and strong all at the same time, with a terrific, unique presence and wonderful comic timing. She is every bit a movie star, even if film audiences never seem to have forgiven her for the unforgivable crime of leaving a beloved pop culture staple like Cheers at the apex of its popularity for vehicles like Troop Beverly Hills, Frozen Assets and Don’t Tell Her It’s Me (a.k.a. The Boyfriend School).
O’Neal is uncharacteristically likable and warm as a man whose all-consuming passion for film brings out the best and worst in himself and the people around him. It’s not hard to get audiences to laugh at someone like Bogdanovich; it’s considerably harder to get audiences to feel for him but Irreconcilable Differences manages that tricky feat.
Barrymore, meanwhile, knows all too too well what it’s like to have to sacrifice your childhood to Hollywood and its insatiable demands. She brings an effortless authenticity to the role of a little girl who had to grow up way too fast because her parents are unwilling and unable to be the grown-ups she desperately needs them to be.
In Irreconcilable Differences, the female half of a screenwriting team is usurped by her much more successful husband until the dynamic is reversed and she becomes a very successful novelist while he flounders professionally. Life ended up imitating art: after Charlie and Nancy Shyer divorced in 1999 she became one of the most commercially successful filmmakers in history thanks to hits like The Parent Trap, What Women Want, Something’s Gotta Give, It’s Complicated and The Intern while her ex-husband Charlie’s career has floundered.
Myers is famous for writing strong roles for women. That gift is very much in evidence here. Behind the big gimmick of a child breaking up with her parents, Irreconcilable Differences tells a shockingly relatable, multidimensional, multi-generational tale of strong women finding their true voice and their agency in a culture and a business seemingly designed to make that prohibitively difficult, if not impossible.
Nathan Rabin is a pop culture writer, columnist and the author of six books, including Weird Al: The Book (with Al Yankovic) and You Don’t Know Me But You Don’t Like Me. He lives in Atlanta, Georgia with his wife, sons and dog.