Tina Louise

The Happy Ending (1969, Richard Brooks)

Jean Simmons doesn’t smile until over halfway through The Happy Ending. The movie runs almost two hours and has a present action of like eighteen years. The first eight minutes are a mostly wordless summary of John Forsythe courting Jean Simmons in the early fifties. The time period’s not important–even though the film taking place in 1969 is brought up multiple times in the present–because it’s a storybook (for the early fifties) romance where college girl Simmons falls in love with tax lawyer Forsythe. Eventually we find out Simmons dropped out to marry Forsythe.

The present action is at least sixteen years later because daughter Kathy Fields (in the film’s greatest botched role, both in Fields’s performance but mostly in director Brooks’s weird script–more on that later, obviously) is sixteen. The film opens on Simmons and Forsythe’s wedding anniversary party. Simmons wants to run off for the night, just she and Forsythe. He doesn’t want to cancel the party because it’d embarrass them in front of their friends. More on the friends later too.

So after Forsythe tells housekeeper Nanette Fabray–they’re not rich enough for Fabray to live with them, just to have her do the daily housework and hang out until after midnight when needed–to inform on Simmons’s behavior. See, Simmons’s drinks. Forsythe found her stashed booze. But it’s not open, because Simmons is recovering and being good. Through the course of the film, flashbacks reveal what she’s recovering from while also showing how she finally has to deal with it.

Simmons runs off to the Bahamas. Instead of doing the anniversary party thing, which makes sense as it’s later revealed Forsythe and Simmons don’t have any real friends, their social life solely consists of Forsythe’s clients. But we’ve already met some of the clients’ wives–they get together and get wasted and play cards in the health club locker room while berating one another for their affairs (Tina Louise has a small role as the ringleader; it’s a weird role, given Brooks’s narrative distance to it, but she does all right; the script gets her in the end). Because what the first half of The Happy Ending is about is how hard it is for women to get old and loose their looks. Brooks’s script has… sympathy, I guess, but no insight. It’s also completely unaware of the ingrained misogyny or… I don’t know what it’s called, patriarchal reinforcement. Like, the only two guys in the movie with any honest characterization are Bobby Darin as a gigolo and Lloyd Bridges as an adulterer running around the Bahamas with Shirley Jones, a friend of Simmons’s from college.

It’s a good thing they run into each other on the way too because Forsythe doesn’t let Simmons have any money since she got drunk and went clothes shopping a little while after she survived a suicide attempt, which she attempted after finding Forsythe was cheating on her with a client and–if the somewhat confusing flashback timeline does indeed progress linearly (and it seems too, Brooks’s numerous narrative devices are all way too obvious)–it’s not the first time. Forsythe goes with divorcing clients to Reno and then shakes up with them in their moments of weakness. No one ever says it because it’s not clear Brooks even recognizes it because Brooks breaks the script to coddle Forsythe. On one hand it works he never wakes up and gets it–the audience perception of Forsythe changes a lot throughout and a tad too gradually since it just gives Forsythe and Fields more screen time than they deserve, performance and character-wise. The reason it’s important it takes so long until Simmons cracks a smile in the present action, delayed by all those flashbacks? Because she’s been the subject of her own movie until then. Brooks does everything he can to avoid developing her character, particularly in the flashbacks. Because then he can’t keep Forsythe from ever seeming like a dick, which is the goal of the film. Right up until the very end.

Oh, right–Nanette Fabray’s housekeeper. Turns out she’s Simmons’s only friend, because even though her house is used for wife-swapping, Simmons herself has never participated. Because all of the other women have either slept with Forsythe or tried. Brooks is downright misanthropic in his depiction of upper middle class America but he never embraces it. Simmons is at least a dreamer; we learn right away she cries at all romantic endings, happy or sad.

Hence the title. At the wedding scene, Forsythe’s face is replaced with clips of happy endings from old Hollywood movies. Like, Brooks gives Simmons a very definite character and then avoids letting her develop the character for about half the movie. It’s not until she meets up with Darin’s gigolo where Simmons gets to do anything. Until then it’s mostly being functionally drunk and pissed off at Forsythe’s utter lack of self-awareness. And to get betrayed by mother Teresa Wright (who apparently had Simmons at age ten) and ignored by super-annoying daughter Fields.

Oh, right, and for Forsythe to track her by phone to make sure she’s all right since she’s a suicidal drunk and all. Like, he calls all the places she goes. The only place she gets any privacy is her bar, where her uncredited bartender doesn’t snitch on her to Forsythe.

And Brooks discreetly establishing Simmons’s situation is fine. It would even be efficient if it didn’t get so confused with flashbacks. There’s nothing but melodrama in the flashbacks as Simmons keeps getting into trouble and whatnot.

It’s such a relief when Jones and Bridges show up. Jones’s life philosophy as a professional mistress is a little… messed up. Like Brooks has good instincts for what kind of exposition the film needs, he just doesn’t write it well. Or direct it well. He’s got these walking and talking scenes where he cuts from location to location as the conversation continues. He doesn’t have a reason for the gimmick other than it maybe stretches the film’s verisimilitude to allow for these unlikely conversations and whatnot. But it’s not like the film has a different style first half to second, once the dumps become more frequent, it’s always the same dialogue tempo, with Michel Legrand’s music not booming but pressing, and Conrad L. Hall’s way too soft lights. Happy Ending really ought to look better. Like, it’s fine, but it ought to look a lot better. Brooks’s direction is tediously competent and always really safe. He never goes big, he never goes small; he avoids them equally. And it does the film no favors.

Simmons is really good when she’s got material of her own, which is maybe a quarter of her scenes. Brooks abjectly surrenders on trying to write her with Fields, which is incredible. Forsythe’s not good. He could be a lot worse. But he couldn’t be any blander. Somehow Forsythe’s bland performance doesn’t inform the bland character.

Jones is great. Bridges is better than any of the other male performances. Darin’s not good but at least he’s trying something, which is more than Forsythe does. Or Fields. Or Wright, who’s utterly pointless except for a late stage revelation which does nothing for the film but instead absolves fathers of responsibility.

Fabry’s good as the confidant, but she’s got zilch to do on her own. She’s literally the help in story and script.

There’s probably a lot you could pick apart in Brooks’s script and film, but it’s not really worth looking at in those terms. There’s gristle but so what. It’s not distinct gristle.

The film does give Simmons a potentially great role and then denies it to her. She’s still able to give a rather good performance. If the material had met her, however, it’d be a better one. Brooks is just too afraid to let her be the protagonist. It’s mildly then significantly disappointing, because he never improves and it’s almost two hours long.

Plus, Legrand’s music and (especially) the original songs grate.

And the Hall cinematography is wasted.

Happy Ending is a mess of missed opportunity and bad choices.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Produced, written, and directed by Richard Brooks; director of photography, Conrad L. Hall; edited by George Grenville; music by Michel Legrand; released by United Artists.

Starring Jean Simmons (Mary Wilson), John Forsythe (Fred Wilson), Teresa Wright (Mrs. Spencer), Kathy Fields (Marge Wilson), Shirley Jones (Flo Harrigan), Nanette Fabray (Agnes), Lloyd Bridges (Sam), Bobby Darin (Franco), Dick Shawn (Harry Bricker), and Tina Louise (Helen Bricker).


The Stepford Wives (1975, Bryan Forbes)

The Stepford Wives puts in for a major suspension of disbelief request in the second scene–what is Katharine Ross doing married to Peter Masterson. They’ve gone from being a somewhat posh New York couple to a New York couple with kids and so they’re moving to Connecticut. Lawyer Masterson is going to take the train in to town while aspiring photographer Ross hangs around in the country, ostensibly taking care of the kids.

Ostensibly because they disappear for the most part, even though they ought to be around all the time, yet aren’t. Not keeping track of the kids, except when they need to be around for emphasis or plot contrivance, is one of director Forbes and screenwriter William Goldman’s fails. It’s one of their joint fails. Both have their own personal fails. It’s not even one of their major joint fails. It’s one of the “oh, yeah, they forgot about this subplot” fails. There are many.

Ross is bored in the small town. She doesn’t have anything in common with the other wives, who seem solely interested in keeping a tidy houses for their hard-working men. And, right away, Masterson joins the town’s men’s club and starts spending every night with the boys. In their big scary restored mansion (more in it in a bit).

Luckily, Ross soon finds the other new “Stepford Wives”, starting with Paula Prentiss. They’re fast friends who, after consulting with another new-to-town wife, Tina Louise, decide to start a women’s group. Except it turns out all the other women have to complain about is not having enough time to clean their houses, which Ross, Prentiss, and presumably Louise (who gets one of the lousier roles in a movie with an endless supply) all find peculiar.

Meanwhile, at home, Masterson is drinking all the time but loving hanging out with the boys. The boys–Josef Sommer, Franklin Cover, and George Coe–are a bunch of bores. Creepy silver fox Patrick O’Neal runs the club. He used to work at Disney. The other guys all work in cutting edge technology. William Prince, playing a retired pin-up artist, is the only one with any social skills. Masterson only drinks to excess in private, like he’s got something to hide from Ross.

Not to entirely spoil the movie, but it’s because he and his friends are plotting to murder Ross. It’s not like Stepford isn’t in the dictionary. The “twist” is a whole other thing I don’t even want to talk about. It’s not undercooked, it’s raw; there’s a lot of undercooked material in Stepford, but the twist hasn’t even been in the oven. Not the way Forbes and Goldman want to do it. Apparently they disagreed on the ending and Forbes got his way, but even if Goldman had it his way, it wouldn’t make up for the awful character development throughout the film informing it.

Masterson’s kind of mean to Ross. There aren’t any good men in Stepford, which is fine and accurate, but Masterson’s still too much of a jerk right off the bat. He’s such a trollish jerk, it’s hard to believe he’s a lawyer. He’s not a jerk in the right ways. It’s also hard to believe he and Ross ever had chemistry. In the first act, before the murder plot, he thinks he’s piggishly charming, even though Ross never positively responds to him. Goldman entirely slacks off on Masterson’s character establishment and development.

Masterson doesn’t transcend the material. It’s also not entirely the material’s fault. Maybe it’s just the casting director’s fault. Or just Forbes’s fault. Forbes has a shockingly bad handle on the material.

There’s satire and commentary about commercialism–at times–in Stepford Wives. Goldman usually comes up with adequate material and then Forbes utterly flops on it when directing the scene and the actors’ performances. You can see where the joke ought to be in Stepford, but instead of getting there, you watch Forbes repeatedly miss it.

The only excellent performance in the film is Ross. She’s outstanding. She’s got a crappy, underdeveloped character who can’t keep track of her kids, doesn’t have a believable “art” arc in her photography, and is inexplicably married to a jackass, but Ross is outstanding. The one thing Forbes does right is let Ross be alone. It’s no good once Forbes is trying generate scares–in that aforementioned scary mansion–but when it’s just Ross existing in a moment, it’s great. Ross is acting in a far better film than Stepford Wives. She’s just doing it in Stepford Wives.

Prentiss is likable but not good. She’s funny and seems to have a better handle on how to do the satire scenes than Forbes; she’s the only one who doesn’t look lost. But who knows because Forbes is hesitant to let the Wives act against one another too much in the same shot. He avoids those shots, preferring two Wives at a time in close-ups.

Paula Trueman is also fun. She apparently runs the town newspaper, or at least writes for it. She’s got a lousy part as it turns out. It’s like Goldman adapted the source novel without reading it. He never establishes continuity of behavior in the supporting cast. Trueman’s character doesn’t even get a name, even though the character–and actor–are a couple of the film’s stronger assets.

Otherwise the performances are basically just adequate. Even Louise, who gets a crap part, is just adequate. She just has more wasted potential than some of the other Wives, principally Nanette Newman. Newman is Ross’s neighbor who Ross never gets to meet without Prentiss being along because Newman has nooners with her husband. Is it for sure her husband? It’s worse if it is Sommer than if it isn’t, actually. There’s an extreme (and unexplored) connotation if it’s the latter, but if it’s the former… well, it’d be another of those major joint fails for Forbes and Goldman. Because even though the movie’s supposed to be satirical, Forbes doesn’t do metaphor. Even if it’s in the script. Forbes skips it.

I’m going a little longer than Wives deserves–unless one’s talking at length about Ross’s performance–but I do need to get to the finale. It’s like they ran out of money and decided to do a haunted house sequence. Because haunted houses always get scares. Except Owen Roizman doesn’t shoot Stepford like a thriller, he shoots it like a seventies drama. Michael Small’s score is for a seventies drama; mostly. When it’s trying for the horror, it’s for a bad horror movie. The music goes from one of the film’s pluses to minuses real fast.

So Forbes stumbles through the finale, which has Ross running from her fate. There’s no closure for Ross’s character arcs, not even the hint the character arcs have occurred. In fact, the finale gives one of the bad guys a monologue describing Ross to her. It’d be nice the monologue, which seems to greatly affect her, actually matched her character she’d been playing for the previous 110 minutes.

But it’s also a badly directed finale in a constrained set. It’s a bad, boring set and Forbes has no ideas for it. The movie deserves better. Ross deserves much better. She keeps Stepford afloat all by herself. Even as Forbes and Goldman try to sink it from under her.

The Stepford Wives is a peculiar, if predictable, fail.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by Bryan Forbes; screenplay by William Goldman, based on the novel by Ira Levin; director of photography, Owen Roizman; edited by Timothy Gee; music by Michael Small; production designer, Gene Callahan; produced by Edgar J. Scherick; released by Columbia Pictures.

Starring Katharine Ross (Joanna Eberhart), Peter Masterson (Walter Eberhart), Paula Prentiss (Bobbie Markowe), Patrick O’Neal (Dale Coba), Tina Louise (Charmaine Wimpiris), Nanette Newman (Carol Van Sant), Paula Trueman (Welcome Wagon Lady), George Coe (Claude Axhelm), Josef Sommer (Ted Van Sant), Franklin Cover (Ed Wimpiris), Neil Brooks Cunningham (Dave Markowe), Carol Eve Rossen (Dr. Fancher), William Prince (Ike Mazzard), and Robert Fields (Raymond Chandler).


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