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.