In Defence of the Women You Divorced (and Wrote a Script About)

Marriage Story (Netflix)

It is said that there are usually 3 sides of a story, Person 1’s, Person 2’s, and the actual truth. In some cases, there’s a fourth: the script he wrote about the divorce. The story always goes: boy meets girl, they fall in love, they fall out of love, oh God that was dramatic – wait he cheated? Wait, why is he blaming her career? Wait, what’s going on? And while I could be talking about so many divorce cases, let’s focus on films. In this case: Marriage Story (2019) and The Last Five Years (2014).

Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story (which was loosely based on his own divorce) became an instant hit and an award favourite when it was released last November. Theatre director Charlie Barber (Adam Driver) divorces his actress wife Nicole (Scarlet Johansson), and what began as a friendly split, soon becomes a bicoastal fight for custody. In a way, it’s easy to draw comparisons between this movie and The Last Five Years, a musical from 2001 that became a film adaptation back in 2014. Again, based on Jason Robert Brown’s (the writer) own divorce, it explores the five-year love story of Jamie (Jeremy Jordan in the movie), a writer, and Cathy (Anna Kendrick), an actress. Jamie’s side of the story starts when they meet, while Cathy’s side is narrated in reverse, starting right when he leaves. As an aside – in the theatre version, they are only on stage together in two or three scenes.

These two movies have more in common than what one would think. For starters, both male leads are writers, that are extremely successful in their fields. Charlie has his own theatre company, and throughout the film, he wins a MacArthur Fellowship grant and finally, gets a residency at UCLA. On the other hand, Jamie, throughout the story, becomes a renowned published author. Whether this is a self-insert of both scriptwriters or not, is up to our imagination, but let’s be honest, if someone could write themselves into a script why wouldn’t they be extremely successful? And yes, that includes the lyrics: “Marvellous novelist, you!/Isn’t he wonderful, just twenty-eight!/The saviour of writing!”

The Last Five Years (Grand Peaks Ent.)

But it is perhaps the female protagonists that are the most interesting in both movies, the most complex and the ones who get the short end of the stick. Whether they were influenced or not by the writers’ exes, both Nicole and Cathy are at some points antagonised, if not by the audience, which soon empathises with them, by the way they are written. Nicole moves to California to be on a tv show, instead of continuing as a theatre actress in Charlie’s company. Cathy is an aspiring actress whose career doesn’t move past auditions. Their jobs soon become a problem. Nicole is trying to finally do the things she likes and desires, including directing without someone giving her notes constantly. Cathy’s bombed auditions become her main insecurities, to the point where Jamie calls her jealous of his own career and success. 

Nicole and Cathy’s drive and determination are even portrayed as selfishness, and you’ll hear Adam Driver in Marriage Story shout “BUT WE ARE A NEW YORK FAMILY” a million times to remind you that Nicole has chosen herself and her career for the first time. Don’t worry, Jamie has his fair share as well, blaming Cathy of destroying their relationship (“Jamie is convinced that the problems are mine”), despite, you know, the fact that he cheated on her multiple times. Somehow, the girls are also the ones to blame when it comes to their husbands’ affair. Both Charlie and Jamie are convinced that they have been good husbands, that they loved them and that should’ve been enough. Yet they needed an affair because they had problems because their wives didn’t fulfil that “something” they needed, sometimes someone who needed them back, whatever that means. Jamie leaves with a note telling Cathy that he tried to save their marriage and her (not sure why he thinks she needs to be saved and I assure you cheating is not the way to do it if so). Charlie punches a wall and tells Nicole he sometimes wishes she was dead and she consoles him for a reason. None of those men know how to deal with their feelings in a healthy way, and it should just be pointed out.

Nicole and Cathy, even as fictional characters, only represent half of an incomplete story, their personas, whoever they are based on, are only but a portion of reality, of the truth. The audience only watches the version their exes have constructed about them, and just like that, their lives and story are suddenly public domain, even when their side of it is never told. Whether one day we’ll see the version of a Cathy or a Nicole (or any other) we’ll never know, we can only imagine and wait. But until we start seeing her version, one has the moral obligation to shine a light on these characters, to all the Cathys and Nicoles, and the ones we haven’t seen (yet).

by Andrea de Lera

Andrea de Lera (she goes by her mother’s surname because it sounds better, sorry dad) is a graduate in English Studies and Communication from her hometown University of Oviedo (Spain) and spent a year at Leeds Uni. Someone told her once she was funny and she knew about movies and TV so she based her life around that. Her favorite movies include Singin’ In The RainSome Like It HotThe Rocky Horror Picture Show or When Harry Met Sally. Find her on Twitter and IG @andreadelera, on Letterboxd or her blog

1 reply »

  1. I completely agree that the female’s perspective is always left out in a relationship and Laura Dern’s briefing to Nicole in MARRIAGE STORY regarding the divorce in which the image of the mother has to be pristine as opposed to the man’s temperamental pinpoints suggests that gendered differences still exist at all times.

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