Sunday, March 6, 2011

'Happy Ending' a Sad State of Marriage


When I first began devouring all things movies, including the Oscars, I would always run across films that I never heard of before.

Over the years, I’d keep an eye out for them, but there are still quite a few that I’ve never seen broadcast on television. Now thanks to Tivo, I have a large wish list that helps me find some of these films.

One is “The Happy Ending,” which brought Jean Simmons a surprise best actress nomination in 1969. It was written and directed by her then husband, Richard Brooks, who made such searing dramas as “Blackboard Jungle,” “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” “Elmer Gantry” (which co-starred Simmons) and “In Cold Blood.”

He apparently wrote “The Happy Ending” and the part of Mary Wilson specifically for his wife as a way to tell her she had a drinking problem that needed to be addressed. While most of us would suggest a heart-to-heart talk, I guess Brooks felt the role would be cathartic for Simmons.

But in trying to craft this story of a woman who didn’t live happily ever after once she married, who confronts her loneliness and boredom with drink, Brooks seems as confused as his main character. He grasps the situation but gets lost effectively conveying it, which is pretty surprising when you consider how focused and emotionally complex his other films are.

Instead, “The Happy Ending” contains some sharply observed truths presented as glossy melodrama, and its frankness can come across as trashy exploitation. In the end, no one has an answer, which isn’t bad except the film too often seems to meander.

The best part is Simmons, who creates this lost character so beautifully that I both ached for her character and for an actress caught up in this well-intentioned mess.

The set-up for the film is simple and smoothly presented. The beginning montage goes through the romance of Mary and Fred (John Forsythe) in the early 1950s. They are at a drive-in, with Mary crying at the film’s end and Fred comforting her by saying, “Honey, it has a happy ending.” Everything after this shows the couple merrily together, whether it’s frolicking in the snow or driving past a billboard that contains the image of a bride with the message “Diamonds Are Forever.”

Fred and Mary do marry, and the words “The End” flash across the screen. But clearly this movie is to expose as myth the fairy-tale, Hollywood notion of “happily ever after” and what really happens.

The movie flashes forward to 1969 and the suburbs. Mary makes Fred’s breakfast and fetches his paper, while the television set in the kitchen shows Jack Lalanne promoting exercises for housewives.

Mary and Fred are celebrating their anniversary that evening with their annual party. Fred knows that Mary is an alcoholic and a pill-popper; in fact, Mary chirps sarcastically that pills make people young, slender and satisfied. She asks Fred to forget the party and begs him to take her to a sleazy hotel, check in under false names and just have some fun.

Fred ignores her and says, “Tonight we’ll show them why an anniversary is called happy.” He tells her that if she feels like drinking, just call him or go see a movie –think happy thoughts.

As he’s pulling out of his driveway, Fred encounters housekeeper Agnes (Nanette Fabray) as she arrives at the house. He asks to keep tabs on Mary and her problem, something it’s clear he’s done before. “The FBI never sleeps,” she replies.

However, unbeknown to Fred, Agnes fully understands how Mary feels and allows her to drink. Mary then visits the beauty parlor to prepare for the party, and the scene is brutal and telling as women are sent jumping through hoops to be attractive, from unsightly hair removal to exercise routines to perfect makeup application.

Desperately wanting to avoid the party, Mary decides to fly to the Bahamas. She takes her jewelry to a pawn shop to get the money for the airfare and plots with a sympathetic Agnes. Still, it’s clear everyone’s aware of Fred’s “problem” wife – his secretary, Mary’s mother, and the bartender at Mary’s favorite bar. While everyone feels sorry for the ever-patient Fred, whose wife has gone missing, at least the bartender feels for Mary, who slips in for a quick one before the trip.

Interspersed throughout “The Happy Ending” are flashbacks to various points in Fred and Mary’s relationship. Yet the first half hour or so of the film addresses – with numbing repetitiveness – the “happily ever after” motif. There’s even a shot of Mary in flashback reading “Snow White” to her young daughter (a pre-“Happy Days” Erin Moran) who says something about everyone living happily ever after.

Meanwhile, Fred’s business partner is a womanizer, while his beautiful wife Helen (Tina Louise of “Gilligan’s Island” fame) is cynical and lonely, trying to remain attractive for her husband while he confesses that her beauty may be classic but she’s not classy. “Love is professed by poets but sex is what we do,” he says about his behavior.

Sadly, when Mary goes to Nassau, we’re treated to perhaps the worst dialogue of the movie. On the plane she runs into Flo (Shirley Jones, above right), who initially comes across as a breath of fresh air. She’s smart, confident and immediately gets what Mary is experiencing. Then Flo announces she’s on her way to meet a married man (Lloyd Bridges, who doesn’t have much to do) – her fourth affair with a married man, she says with a mixture of pride and resignation. Flo says “baby” a lot and is stuck with dialogue like “I graduated with a master’s degree – in men.”

Cue the groans.

While in the Bahamas, Mary is wooed by a mustachioed Franco (Bobby Darin, billed as “Robert Darin”). I wanted to laugh but was mortified that Mary would actually be attracted to this buffoon.

“The Happy Ending” is depressing because no one has answers – the characters or the filmmakers. The only reality is the obsession with youth and beauty. Otherwise, the message is rather bleak for women: you get married, you have children, you age, you try to retain your youthful appeal but it’s a losing battle, and you die.

It’s a futility that does ring true for women of that era. My mother was one of them, and I’ve often said that if she had been born 20 years later, she would have attended college and started a career rather than marry and have children right out of high school.

In the film, I like one scene in which Mary suggests a marriage counselor to Fred. In response, he urges Mary to find a hobby! Considering the rise in both marriage counseling and divorce rates during the 1970s, it’s a telling scene. One interesting twist is that Fred doesn’t appear to be a philanderer. In a flashback to a previous anniversary party, all of the other married couples carry on like it’s a swinging singles get-together except for Fred and Mary. Yet Fred’s love for his wife is stifling; he sees that she’s not happy and yet seems oblivious to her emotion state. He’s as trapped by the “happily ever after” as she is.

I give Brooks credit for creating a number of effective scenes like this. One of the most powerful comes toward the end when Mary is arrested for an accident and the police administer a sobriety test, which is filmed for possible use in court. While Fred watches disapprovingly, Mary breaks down in humiliation. Why it works is because there’s no dialogue and no preaching. The emotions come through without anyone opening their mouths, and Simmons is heartbreaking.

I also like one fight in which Fred is upset by Mary’s insistence to watch “Casablanca” yet again on TV.

“Before we were married, you never stopped talking,” she cries out. “Now you only talk to clients. The only people who ever talk to me are the television and Agnes. They (the movies) are more alive than we are!”

Still, these scenes are interspersed with too many others that either generalize or sink with clichés. “All of us girls over 35 have the same trouble,” Agnes says in all seriousness that demonstrates Brooks’ own failure to fully grasp this situation.

You also get such clichéd dialogue from Mary like “I can’t live with him but can’t live without him. What’s the matter with me?” “All I ever wanted was to love and be loved.”

So what’s to recommend? Simmons is impressive playing a woman who’s crying out for help in so many different ways. It’s a pitch-perfect performance that never wavers or wildly swings from emotion to emotion.

In a way, Simmons reminded me of Elizabeth Taylor in “Butterfield 8.” Although their characters by definition are different, both are searching for something that’s missing in their lives. And both actresses are giving strong performances in mediocre movies that are glossy and melodramatic. The films bookend a decade filled with dramatic changes in society and filmmaking, yet neither one is able to effectively deal with women’s issues.

As for the rest of the cast, I really liked Fabray as the one true friend Mary has. Jones is terrific but is saddled with the film’s worst dialogue. And while it’s always wonderful to see the lovely Teresa Wright, who plays Mary’s mother, her character doesn’t do much, and her one big confrontation scene needed to be fleshed out to have maximum impact.

The ending also works and is thought-provoking for intended and unintended reasons. Without spoiling it, Mary is outside standing on some steps, as if on the edge of something bigger. At that point, no one would know how the women’s movement would play out during the next few years, and in reality there was no answer to Mary’s disillusionment.

I only wish Brooks had ironed out the melodrama. Too bad he couldn’t take a cue from the deserving Oscar-nominated theme song, “What Are You Doing the Rest of Your Life?” by Michel Legrand, Alan and Marilyn Bergman. In two minutes the haunting song captures the struggles of its characters more effectively than the two-hour film.

“The Happy Ending” isn’t a terrible movie by any means, and it certainly showcases Simmons. She and Brooks remained married well into the 1970s before divorcing, and she worked for most of the rest of her life, passing away in 2010. If there’s anything happy to take away from the film, it’s the knowledge that this performance is a tribute to her talent.

9 comments:

  1. Classicfilmboy, The film, "The Happy Ending", sounds like a very interesting movie. Does it have two parallel story lines?

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  2. One of your best articles, and one which cut me to the quick in some ways, as I suspect it will do for many of your female readers, particularly those of a certain age. I couldn't possibly discuss in a comment all of the experiences and depth of feeling the character of Mary brought out in me. Suffice it to say that I grew up in the world of Mary's time, but came to womanhood and marriage just at the tail end of that era and the beginning of feminism and complete cultural turn-around. It was not a good time, for me or other young women with my personality type, to be making life-changing decisions about love and marriage.

    I never bothered to watch this movie because the title "The Happy Ending" sounded like just another adult comedic story about relationships, and I wasn't interested enough to check it out. In 1969 I was 17 years old, immersed in old movies and their messages, too young to have understood this movie anyway.

    I must say Simmons' husband might have had good intentions, but what a lousy way to hope his wife gets the subliminal messsage! The movie may seem disjointed partly because you can never be objective enough about someone you love to make a truly straightforward and honest story. It's kind of like trying to be a trained psychologist analyzing your own mother...it just isn't going to work.

    I must make it a point to see this movie now that I know what it really is. I have a pretty good idea what could have happened to Mary after she stood on the steps, at least the real-life scenarios that were likely.

    Classicfilmboy, you have written a piece that describes not just one movie, but is an insightful portrait of the time in which it was made. It's the only review I've ever read that brought tears to my eyes. (That is a compliment, not a rebuke!)

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  3. Hi Dawn: The film has one storyline with multiple flashbacks. When the film is in the present, it stays with Mary, even when she goes to the Bahamas. You do see Fred a little at this time, but Mary's the main focus.

    Becky: Wow ... that is the highest compliment, and I thank you for that. When I first saw the movie, I was sometimes bored by it. Upon reading my notes, I realize that Brooks managed to hit upon so many issues; he just didn't create a strong whole. What got to me was seeing my mother in this; she was nearly the same age -- within two years -- as Jean Simmons. When my mom took a job in the early '70s, that was almost akin to treason. It's crazy to think society was once that way.

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  4. Cfb,
    I had not heard of this film but since I'm a fan of Jean I will keep my eye out for it. I agree with Becky on this being such a great review! Colorful and beautifully written but I won't discuss how it hits home. (A girl needs her secrets). HA HA

    You have dedication in searching for these great films. I have about 12 old films on my DVR that I keep putting off watching for the first time or revisiting. Every year when TCM has so many great films during Oscar month it puts me way behind once again.

    Happy hunting! I'll be looking forward to the next lost gem.
    Page

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  5. I've seen this film only once and what stood out most for me was Jean Simmons's performance. She portrayed a lost loveliness that was, for me, haunting - and honest. Forsythe was fine as the husband, but the part could've been better cast.
    "Happy Ending" reflects the last of the generation of women who stayed home. My mother's generation. I saw in my own mother's life the limits of fulfillment as a "housewife."
    My generation did not stay home. While independence and productivity and the opportunity to develop a career and creative interests is freeing and, I think, healthier...my experience is that aging presents a particular challenge to women (maybe, hopefully, less so to the next generation)...
    From a very young age women are bombarded with the message that we must be physically attractive, that regardless of our many other gifts and accomplishments it is important to be attractive...as we age, physical attractiveness as we've known it begins to fade...as Joan Collins (of all people) puts it, "being born beautiful is like being born rich and getting poorer." Which I think is hilarious but true.
    I have to respect Brooks for trying, he must've loved Jean Simmons very much. Perhaps he was too close to the forest to see the trees in terms of the husband's role. How many of us are really able to clearly see the role we play in another person's dilemma?
    A very insightful post, Classicfilmboy, and my apologies for rambling.

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  6. Hi Page: I know what you mean -- too many movies, too little time.

    Hi Eve: Not rambling at all. I was much more reflective on this movie than I expected to be. What really shocks me is that the best actress race that year was between high-profile performances by Jane Fonda and Liza Minnelli, with Maggie Smith the dark horse and eventual winner, and Genevieve Bujold (I hope I spelled that right) as the bright newcomer. Jean Simmons and "The Happy Ending" is mentioned almost as an afterthought, so my expectations weren't too high. But your description -- "She portrayed a lost loveliness that was haunting and honest" -- is right on the mark. She was that good and should be more than a mention in Oscar books. BTW, the Joan Collins quote is funny but very very true.

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  7. An overlooked film deserving of your thoughtful discourse. "The Happy Ending" was indeed viewed as therapy of sorts for Jean Simmons, at least by her husband, Richard Brooks. I talked to Ms. Simmons about this when I was writing my just-released bio of her ex-husband, "Tough as Nails: The Life and Films of Richard Brooks." She later found the character to hit a little too close to home. I don't know that she didn't realize she had a drinking problem (perhaps she was in denial) but she certainly saw a lot of herself in the character.

    Brooks, for his part, saw the film as saying marriage wasn't for everybody. I guess he would know: Jean Simmons was wife No. 4.

    Shirley Jones told me that the usually volatile Mr. Brooks was on his best behavior during the shoot, not as loud and not nasty as he had been on "Elmer Gantry."

    “He was easier, he wasn’t fighting as hard with the crew and everybody else," Jones told me. "I think this was sort of his valentine to Jean and he wanted it to be an easy, nice film to work on. ... He was very attentive to Jean but was wonderful to me."

    Jones also said that Brooks didn't talk much about her character and how to play it: “His writing was so good. I mean, you almost didn’t need to be directed if you had a script by Richard Brooks, as far as I was concerned. His writing was superb and the characters were so vivid.”

    Remember the ending, when Fred asks Mary to come back to him and she says, If you were free, would you marry me again? And Fred pauses, not sure what to say. The film ends with Mary's knowing smile ... well, Brooks didn't tell actor John Forsythe that the line was coming, and he indeed didn't know what to say.

    One last thing: Brooks was offered the chance to have Barbra Streisand record the song “What Are You Doing the Rest of Your Life?” for the film. He declined. Why? He believed that hearing Streisand would have taken away from the scene. Instead of being focused on Mary, people would have thought, hey, that's Barbra Streisand! It didn't matter to Brooks if that cost him at the box office; he wouldn't allow anything to take away from the story. He did the same thing for "Looking for Mr. Goodbar," passing up on a Streisand song for the closing credits (given the ending of "Goodbar," how could you have a song?).

    Richard Brooks was a complicated man, and a complicated filmmaker.

    --Douglass K. Daniel, author "Tough as Nails: The Life and Films of Richard Brooks"

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  8. Thank you Douglass for your insightful thoughts! I appreciate you stopping by to provide them. I saw your book was being released and put it on my book list.

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  9. I like "The Happy Ending" a lot, even if it has a lot of flaws. It's one of those movies that you appreciate for TRYING, even if it isn't entirely successful.

    You neglected to mention Tina Louise's self-aware performance in summing up the actresses in it. Among the circle of wives, she's the only one other than Simmons who knows how dead-end their lives are, and she beautifully sums it up in the scene at the gym where all the wives are playing cards and she acerbically comments that they're all "zombies killing time, so we can go home and kill more time!" It's one of her best performances. I think she's better than Shirley Jones in the movie, frankly.

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