Rediscovering “The Happy Ending,” a Movie About the Dreams and Delusions of Marriage (and the Movies) – The New Yorker
The shudderingly impassioned, history-jangled, cinema-centric drama “The Happy Ending,” from 1969, reflects vast changes in Hollywood and in American society, and even nudges them ahead. What’s more, it does so aesthetically, with startlingly expressive images and performances that fuse with the action to reflect on—and advance—the state of movies themselves. Written and directed by Richard Brooks, the film (which is streaming on Amazon Prime and YouTube) tells the story of a miserable marriage and stars Jean Simmons, to whom Brooks was married at the time. It’s a coup of casting (and not the only one) that stokes the movie’s emotional temperature past the boiling point, even when the onscreen behavior appears deceptively chilled.
The very title of “The Happy Ending” boldly declares that the subject of the movie is the world of movies—specifically, it’s about a woman who ardently watches them and a society that believes their fictions. The story spans sixteen years in the life of a couple, beginning with the courtship of Mary Spencer (Simmons) and Fred Wilson (John Forsythe), in 1953. They go on a date at a drive-in movie, and she’s swept away in the romanticism of its happy ending. Mary drops out of college and they quickly get married; at their wedding, she’s lost in fantasies of images from romantic Hollywood movies.
The action then leaps ahead to the morning of January 22, 1969. The television is broadcasting news of Richard Nixon’s first days in the White House, while Fred and Mary, who have a teen-age daughter (Kathy Fields), are finalizing plans for their sixteenth-anniversary party that night. The drama soon reveals the planned festivities to be a cruel sham and the marriage to be a fragile façade. Those revelations come largely in the form of an intricate series of flashbacks—some of nearly subliminal brevity, others of teeming and extended drama, centered on their blowout celebration the previous year, in the company of business acquaintances, where the couple’s conflicts surged bitterly to the surface. Mary has long been drinking heavily and clandestinely, hiding a vodka bottle in a boot and sneaking off to a bar where the friendly bartender lies to Fred about not having seen her in months. Her increasingly self-destructive behavior has led to several near-catastrophes, yet Fred still won’t allow her to see a psychiatrist. On a visit to a hair salon, to prepare for the sixteenth-anniversary party, Mary takes impulsive and drastic action: in the middle of the day, she heads for the Denver airport and flies to Nassau, where a series of chance encounters prompts her to retake control of her life.
With the movie’s elaborate time structure, Brooks burrows deeply into Mary’s harrowing experience of marriage. It’s a perspective that’s informed—or, rather, deformed—by the media messaging and the propagandizing, in public and in private, that she has endured throughout her life. Brooks fills the movie with the ephemera of media: the workout show that Mary watches on her kitchen TV; news reports of war, sports, and protests; actual commercials that aired then (their soundtracks are heard and their slogans woven into the dialogue); and actual magazines (including the February 17, 1968, issue of The New Yorker). The action is anchored in a particular moment of history: a moment when the verities of bourgeois respectability that were long perpetuated in mass media and enforced in public life were beginning to shatter under the force of the “new freedoms,” and when the norms of Hollywood itself—the Hays Code and its ironclad strictures—were being burst (as, indeed, they are in the course of this very movie).
Brooks, who’s best known for “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” and “In Cold Blood,” launched his career as a writer and director in the mid-nineteen-forties, during Hollywood’s classic age. The studio system was perhaps the era’s most powerful source of archetypes, fantasies, and illusions, and, as Brooks shows, their collective effect was to groom women to defer to men, to please men, to submit to men. One recurring trope of “The Happy Ending” involves the beauty industry: the salons and the spas, the cosmetics and the fashions, even the plastic surgery. (Mary had a face-lift.) Moreover, women’s inculcated notions of what they must do to their faces and bodies to attract and keep a man are linked to another of the film’s key themes: the economic dependence of women on men. Upper-middle-class women who don’t work use their days to primp, shop, and work out, while being deprived of professional activity and achievements, and of stimulation beyond one another’s mutually reinforcing desperation. The control of money is central to Fred and Mary’s ongoing battle, and the movie’s acerbic, lacerating dialogue includes a brilliant riff—delivered by a big-time businessman—about the essential role played by marriage and the mythology of romance in the modern economy.
Though “The Happy Ending” includes clips from “Casablanca” and other romantic movies, the crucial embodiment of classic Hollywood that Brooks embeds in his movie is its remarkable cast. It includes Shirley Jones (as Mary’s unmarried college friend Flo), Lloyd Bridges (as Flo’s married lover), Teresa Wright (as Mary’s mother), Nanette Fabray (as Agnes, Mary’s devoted housekeeper), Dick Shawn (as George’s friendly dissolute client), and Tina Louise (as the client’s friendly, miserable wife), as well as a latter-day star, Bobby Darin (as a candidate for a Latin lover). What these actors from Hollywood’s age of brass bring to the action, beside the sheer force of their personalities and the aura of their presence, is stillness: the hieratic poise and sculptural power of their fixed gazes and precise gestures, which are the key behavioral traits of acting in studio-system Hollywood.
In Brooks’s view, these rigid manners—and the rigid mores and romantic archetypes of the Hollywood movies that they embody and embellish—come off as obsolete vestiges of times that, though recent, are already on the far side of a historical divide. In “The Happy Ending,” these deeply internalized formalities nonetheless silently shriek with long-stifled frustration and emotion. Moreover, the movie’s extraordinary wide-screen cinematography (by Conrad L. Hall) does more than just display the actors and their powerful performances—it goes further into monumental stillness and composed precision, heightening the media-mad unreality of modern life with a sense of highly inflected yet frozen artifice. Inner and outer life converge in these images—and the décor, the locations, the characters’ hair styling and makeup, and their clothing all play crucial parts in this fusion of action and appearance.
So, for that matter, does light itself, and its absence. Hall submerges the characters in sepulchral shadows torn by streaks of light, bathes them in an uncanny brightness of relentless exposure and homogenizing uniformity. Many of the movie’s distinctive shots render Mary’s sense of desperate solitude as intensely dramatic—even simple scenes of walking and sitting are transformed into passages of grand moment. In this regard, the strongest influence on Brooks’s directorial strategies appears to be the films of Michelangelo Antonioni, whose career-long theme was the mind control exerted by media and public life over all, and who devised a style of images and acting to convey it. It’s an influence that Brooks wears lightly; avoiding homage, he crafts a style that conveys a sense of immediate experience and personal observation.
“The Happy Ending,” though written and directed by a member of the studio system’s old guard, is both part and proof of the rise of the New Hollywood; Brooks here pushes studio filmmaking into a modernity far ahead of most of its younger luminaries. I won’t spoil the delicious irony that Brooks folds into the events that inspire Mary to take action and change her life. It involves a deft resolution of conflicting desires and dreams, an imagining of new possibilities that don’t entirely reject her former illusions. Like Brooks, Mary doesn’t exactly spurn grand cinematic romanticism; rather, she questions it and refashions it to serve her purposes.
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