As “Eat Pray Love’s” saga of Elizabeth Gilbert finding herself after a devastating divorce comes to theaters, Slate has a terrific gallery of classic post-divorce movie moments, with women signaling their liberation through dancing, revenge, substance abuse — and of course a new love in films like “An Unmarried Woman,” “Learning to Exhale,” “Living Out Loud,” and “The First Wive’s Club.” (My recollection, though, is that the ballet in the underwear dance sequence in “An Unmarried Woman” comes before she gets dumped, right?)
Certainly, themes of second chances and renewal are important in movies and life after heartbreak is something everyone can relate to. There’s an entire genre of “movies of re-marriage” with classic romantic comedies about divorced or almost-divorced couple re-uniting in movies like “The Philadelphia Story,” “His Girl Friday,” “Adam’s Rib,” and “The Lady Eve.” The lesser-known “Perfect Strangers” is a favorite of mine, about a dull married couple (Robert Donat and Deborah Kerr) who come alive when they separate to fight in WWII. They do not know how they will be able to stand their old life and are afraid of getting back together. But they are overjoyed when they meet to find that separately they have come to the same realization that they wanted to feel more vitally engaged with the world and with each other.
There are many, many movies about people who feel as though they are on automatic pilot in their lives and marriages until they discover love again, sometimes with the spouse but more often with someone new. The under-appreciated “Twice in a Lifetime” has Gene Hackman in a comfortable but dull relationship until he meets Ann-Margret on his 50th birthday. In “The April Fools,” Jack Lemmon falls for the wife of his arrogant boss. In my favorite scene, Myrna Loy and Charles Boyer show them the beauty of a deep, long-lasting love. Cary Grant is married to social-climbing hypocrite Kay Francis and then he meets warm-hearted Carole Lombard in “In Name Only.” And Walter Houston does his best to be loyal to his selfish wife in “Dodsworth” in spite of his attraction for the lovely Mary Astor. In classics like “Casablanca,” “Bringing Up Baby,” “An Affair to Remember,” “Doctor Zhivago,” “Out of Africa,” “Now Voyager,” “Back Street,” “It Happened One Night,” “Titanic,” “The Bridges of Madison County,” “Brief Encounter,” and “Moonstruck,” married or engaged characters find love elsewhere. Watching them, we experience again the tremulous thrill of falling in love. If we’re lucky, we bring those feelings back to enlarge our own relationships.