Happy Ending, The (Blu-ray Review)15 Feb, 2016 By: Mike Clark
Available via ScreenArchives.com
Stars Jean Simmons, John Forsythe, Shirley Jones, Lloyd Bridges.
Writer-director Richard Brooks was never a favorite of mine due to his frequently windy scripts and just as frequent inclination (Andrew Sarris nailed him on this) to gravitate toward projects that he knew he’d have to compromise due to censorship reasons or to the unwieldy heft of the pedigreed literary properties that seemed to attract him. Which is not to say that I don’t like some of his movies for their individual merits or even in spite of themselves, which would include this end-of-the-’60s marital drama that he produced and directed. The Happy Ending resulted from Brooks’ first original script since 1952’s Deadline U.S.A. (a much revered newspaper movie by those in the trade, though I’ve always been lukewarm), and not a whole lot of people liked it at the time. Though I’m almost certain that Rex Reed picked it as 1969’s best film when he also had The Wild Bunch and Alice’s Restaurant on his 10-worst list.
And yet with advancing age, I’ve come to appreciate Ending a lot more than I did in my early 20s — due to life experience and the fact (to quote Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf) that there’s been a lot of romantic blood under the bridge. Even so, there’s not much question that lead Jean Simmons holds it together — a great unheralded performance despite the fact that she did get a most deserved Oscar nomination. Career-wise, there’s a certain fascination here: Brooks began the ’60s by directing Simmons in Elmer Gantry, which also won a supporting Oscar for Shirley Jones in some blatantly anti-Rodgers-&-Hammerstein casting as Sinclair Lewis’s prostitute. He ended it by fashioning this apparently personal project for Simmons (whom he’d married immediately post-Gantry) and casting Jones as something akin to a professional married man’s mistress and a character who admits to having put herself through college by hooking. (Had this been a backstory in “The Partridge Family” as well, the music might have had more depth.)
A la the recent Charlotte Rampling-Tom Courtenay drama 45 Years, a key story element here is a wedding anniversary celebration that proves significantly less joyous than intended. Though in this case, the principals are a successful Denver tax lawyer (John Forsythe) and a movie-ruined wife who quit college to marry him in the sunnier ’50s (the picture gets off to a rocky start by casting its aging leads in youthful flashbacks). Simmons hasn’t just been ruined by any old movies but the super-romantic ones like Father of the Bride and Casablanca (not that many would call the latter’s ending a particularly happy one). These are in stark contrast to what her own life has become: hiding Smirnoff bottles in her bedroom toilet tank and spraying their vodka content into her mouth from a perfume spritzer (not the most advisable thing to do when you’re driving). From here, it’s not too many steps to an ER stomach pump for a harrowing scene; though Conrad Hall’s cinematography is immaculate and some of the casting a little gonzo, the movie is surprisingly tough at times. Again, Simmons puts it over (later in life, she was up-front about her own real-life battles with alcohol).
None of the supporting players deliver performances less than respectable, though you may have to adjust your mental antenna at first. Nanette Fabray plays an offbeat kind of family maid, an enabler to the drinking even though the Forsythe character keeps imploring Fabray to call him if the Mrs. locks herself in her booze-fortressed bedroom or goes out to some destination that might be a bar. Dick Shawn, with lots of hairspray, plays one of Forsythe’s unhappily married clients — the ones who make up the exclusive guest list at every Forsythe-Simmons party so that the former can justify his own tax write-offs. And as a wormy but not altogether unsympathetic Nassau-based gigolo, we get Robert Darin — way, way down in the cast in billing to elicit a “what-the-hell?” response on double levels. Robert would turn out to be the old Bobby, and it wasn’t long before he was Bobby once more; could the Hollywood backlash to a great singer’s brash cockiness have been all that pronounced just five years after Darin’s Oscar nomination for Captain Newman, M.D.? (Well, making Gunfight in Abilene didn’t help.) More conventionally cast are Lloyd Bridges as Jones’s sugar daddy, Teresa Wright as Simmons’ mother and Tina Louise as the Shawn spouse who can’t resist shoving her best features into Forsythe’s face.
Aside from one evening of straying, Forsythe isn’t a terrible husband as these things go — and I, at least, can’t blame him for cutting off his wife’s credit cards after she spends 11 thou on clothes in a single day — but here he is sleeping in his own twin bed long after the Production Code even demanded this of screen couples who were, say, celebrating their 75th anniversary. Simmons doesn’t like it, nor does she like all those on-the-make tax write-offs in her home nor does she like her own lack of self-esteem nor the fact that no one goes out of the way to talk to her. So in this way, the movie was ahead of its time; though inferior to An Unmarried Woman, it did predate it by nine years (an eternity in screen terms during those socially turbulent times).
Though the Blu-ray looks to have been taken from a master in need of an update, Hall’s photography is tops — maybe even nomination-worthy had he not already been winning the Oscar that year for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (this kind of shows you his versatility right there). The film’s other non-Simmons nomination — definitely major — was for “What Are You Doing for the Rest of Your Life,” a future pop standard and one of the last really worth-a-damn songs to reward its Academy consideration. Even then, it was a little past the point when the category was still relevant and not an automatic signal to go run screaming for another beer whenever some Bobby Goldsboro equivalent was dragged on to drone some DOA nominee on the Oscarcast. The year’s award, though, went to “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head,” which had about as much to do with Butch and Sundance as the same year’s "She Came in Through the Bathroom Window" would have.