Moving Pictures
Jul 02, 2018, 06:29AM

The Purple Prose of The Happy Ending

Richard Brooks’ 1969 film, featuring Teresa Wright, is an overwritten curio.

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This is the second in a series of articles about the work of actress Teresa Wright (1918-2005). The first, on Don Siegel’s Count the Hours (1953), can be found here.

The Happy Ending is a muddled mess. It was written and directed by Richard Brooks, best known for his adaptations of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and In Cold Blood. Released in 1969, The Happy Ending is likely one of the earliest mainstream films to address depression not as an easily identifiable and histrionic state of dysfunction and anhedonia, but an ebbing, vague, and multi-faceted condition whose cause and cure remain so often so elusive. Jean Simmons plays Mary Spencer, wife of Fred (John Forsythe).

The beginning of the film shows their courtship in overdrive, from first date to wedding in less than five minutes. The wedding sequence has the film’s first obtrusive stylistic gesture by Brooks, in which Simmons’ face is covered by an oval inlay showing a succession of famous movie weddings. Ingrid Bergman appears here first, and again later on as Simmons’ quiet desperation after 16 years of “dull-dreary” marriage have led her to uppers, downers, and vodka hidden in boots and toilets. She watches Casablanca endlessly, finding more life in the recorded work of dead people than her husband, daughter, or mother.

The Happy Ending isn’t particularly depressing though, despite the subject matter, because Brooks’ script is so purple you would’ve thought it came straight from Paisley Park. This script makes Diablo Cody read like Raymond Carver—every other line of dialogue sounds like an attempt to nail one Billy Wilder’s famous endings, and as I was watching, my mind kept going back to a movie called Demolition starring Jake Gyllenhaal that came out a couple of years ago. My brother put it perfectly at the time—“This is an Iowa Writers’ Workshop thesis submission”—and I was shocked to learn how late in his career Brooks wrote and directed The Happy Ending.

It all comes off as a twentysomething cinephile’s first movie hodgepodge of references, witty rejoinders when silence would’ve sufficed, all featuring great actors who still sounded stilted reciting the most unnatural exchanges and retorts you could imagine. As if a Tarantino wannabe in 1995 went back in time to write a staid social drama about prescription pills and emotional impotence. In other words, a disaster. When Simmons’ character attempts suicide, the doctor pumping her stomach quips, “Seconal and vodka: marriage on the rocks.” Give me a break.

The one time this exaggerated style works is during one of Simmons and Forsythe’s many arguments, when Simmons storms out of bed to go watch Casablanca somewhere else:

“Where are you going?”

“Back to Casablanca. Back to Humphrey Bogart, Peter Lorre, and Claude Rains.”

“Dead, dead, dead!”

“Dead and buried, they’re more alive than we are!”

As she says this, her face fills the right sight of the screen, while the left side isn’t lit at all, throwing the film’s Technicolor treatment into glorious, grainy disarray, and as soon as Simmons spits that last line out, the screen cross dissolves to a shot of Simmons on an airplane looking out the window, her face now fully occupying the opposite of the screen. But the pull out and dissolve never end, they continue into the black of night as the Pan Am jet lands somewhere in Florida. It’s a stunning transition, one that temporarily expands the picture out into the Z axis, achieving a level of depth and a type of movement that’s so rare in all of cinema.

(The whole exchange, and the transition, can be viewed here at 47:43)

I haven’t mentioned Teresa Wright yet, but here again she’s the most compelling player in an otherwise mediocre movie. There’s a scene early on, beginning at 20:20 in the link above, where Simmons meets Wright in the lobby of a hotel. She’s eager to see her daughter, pausing at first to reminisce about the time she spent with her late husband there many years ago. She pushes Simmons along, until accidentally revealing that Forsythe had advised Wright that Simmons would be asking for money, that she was drinking too much, edgy.

The look on Wright’s face as she realizes that she’s outed herself is heartbreaking and shows a depth of skill and conveying emotion far beyond any of her co-stars. After disappointing her mother, she unsuccessfully tries to sell a watch and her wedding ring to a pawn shop. The clerk: “No wedding rings. Who wants to buy someone else’s heartbreak?” The Happy Ending is full of this shit, stuff that even Woody Allen would be too embarrassed to deploy in one of his new movies (remember “the heart has its own hieroglyphics”?).

Everyone but Wright succumbs to Brooks’ flowery and aggressively artificial dialogue—they’re equally stilted and frequently trip over lines. At one point it’s clear that Shirley Jones is reading her climactic monologue off of cue cards, not only by the movement of her eyes but her flat, emotionless delivery. Though Wright does have to close a scene with, “My mother came all the way from Ireland—alone. All she had was hope.”

At the film’s end, once Simmons has decided to divorce Forsythe, Wright grills her: “Why? What did he do? Kill someone?” Simmons insists she just wasn’t happy, unlike her mother and her late father: “You and papa were perfect together. Perfect, until the day he died. Like a storybook.” Wright sighs and replies, “That’s where marriage is perfect: in a storybook. Your father was far from perfect. And I wasn’t half as good.” Simmons: “I never heard an angry word.” Wright: “A game we played. For your benefit.” That’s the last we see of Wright, and Simmons is off to night school and one last encounter with her now ex-husband.

The Happy Ending feels very much of its time, addressing many of the same topics that Valley of the Dolls did two years earlier, and shot in glorious widescreen Technicolor (the look of it—the color palette, the color treatment, the sound—really reminded me of The Long Goodbye, released four years later) and some very rude talk and behavior for its time. But it’s a slog, even at 112 minutes, though worth watching if you want to learn what not to do as a screenwriter. In that way, it’s more valuable than most of the movies I see.

—Follow Nicky Smith on Twitter: @nickyotissmith


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