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Happy Ending, The
The Happy Ending is an incisive drama that could've only emerged from the malaise of the late '60s - it stars Jean Simmons (Guys and Dolls; Elmer Gantry) as a restless, beautiful upper middle class housewife caught in a funk after 16 uneventful years of marriage. Here's another acclaimed-in-its day movie that has since fallen to the wayside, although it's fascinating to speculate how much of this story came from the real-life marriage of Simmons and producer-writer-director Richard Brooks (The Professionals; In Cold Blood). Though overlong and fraught with flaws, the project spurred Brooks and Simmons to coax out the best in each other.
The Happy Ending doesn't pussyfoot around. It's to Brooks' and Simmons' credit that they make the lead character, Mary Wilson, a complex, not especially sympathetic person. Through flashbacks and impressionistic interludes, the movie shows Mary as a determined yet weak-willed woman, forever trapped in the idea of what a "proper" wife and mother should be. Along with her stolid, successful tax attorney husband, Fred (John Forsythe), Mary has established her Denver home as the picture-perfect image of comfy domesticity, complete with a poised teenage daughter, Marge (Kathy Fields), and an alert housekeeper, Agnes (Nanette Fabray, in a wry performance). Although Fred and Mary's marriage appears happy on the surface, Fred's long absences at the office leave Mary alone far too long to nurse her drinking habit. Meanwhile, Fred secretly urges Agnes to keep a strict eye on curbing Mary's addictions (including pills), although in the end Agnes encourages Mary's regular trips to the local bar. In the spirit of that Mad Men era, Mary's alcoholism is implicitly known by the Wilsons' social circle and dismissed as a cute, harmless thing. Awash in pills and booze, Mary's world view becomes more distorted when she constantly sizes herself against the soft-focus imagery of the old movies she cherishes, the seemingly upright marriage of her late father and stern yet loving mother, Mrs. Spencer (Teresa Wright), even the fairy tales she reads to her child (in a flashback).
In showing the chaotic swirl of John and Mary's lives (together and apart), The Happy Ending becomes as acidic as Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, and nearly as bitchy as Valley of the Dolls. It's all something of a freak show, anchored by Simmons' nuanced portrayal. The film generates some much-needed focus once Mary impulsively decides to take off on a jet flight to Nassau - just as the Wilsons are about to celebrate their 16th anniversary (and on Richard Nixon's inauguration day to boot!). Fortuitously, Mary encounters an old college friend on the flight, Flo Harrigan (fantastic Shirley Jones, forming a mini-Elmer Gantry reunion with Simmons and Brooks). The confident, gorgeous Flo has lived the life Mary longed for, yet couldn't achieve - but she's the mistress of a married man (for the fourth time) and a bit philosophical that a stable relationship like Mary's may never be in the cards for her. Upon landing, Flo takes Mary under her wing, introducing her to Flo's longtime partner, Sam (Lloyd Bridges), even encouraging her to have a fling with a greasy Lothario (Bobby Darin). In the Bahamas, Mary has horrific flashbacks to a pill overdose that hospitalized her, although returning to Denver leaves her with her priorities realigned. Is she a feminist, or a kook?
The Happy Ending becomes a draggy, indulgent slog in the final third, although there's enough bite in Brooks' script to partially redeem it. The dialogue is trenchant, if a bit overly stylized (typical line: Fabray's "If sex were the only thing that mattered, the whole world would be run by rabbits."). Conrad Hall's cinematography evocatively visualizes Mary's funhouse mirror of a worldview, set amongst a snowy, desolate downtown Denver which may remind some of the Minneapolis from the earlier seasons of The Mary Tyler Moore Show.
Aside from the actors already mentioned, The Happy Ending boasts some great work from Dick Shawn and Tina Louise as, respectively, John's smarmy ad executive client and his sardonic, acid-tongued wife. The film received a deserved Academy Award nomination for Simmons' lead performance, along with a nod for "What Are You Doing the Rest of Your Life," the lush Michel Legrand/Alan and Marilyn Bergman tune ably recorded by Barbra Streisand, Dusty Springfield and many others.
Done in a limited edition of 3,000 copies, the Twilight Time Blu-Ray edition of The Happy Ending sports a solid, quite clean transfer in letterboxed 2.35:1 aspect ratio. The grainy film stock is sharpened somewhat, although it's pleasantly balanced with rich dark shades and a satisfying amount of detail. A few bits of dirt and white specks show up here and there, although for the most part it's a stable, handsome-looking picture. Conrad Hall's evocative photography has a more muted palette consistent with other late '60s-era films, an aesthetic which gets well-preserved on this Blu-ray.
The film's original 1.0 mono soundtrack is also cleanly showcased on this disc. The dialogue has a bit of hiss, especially when the actors pronounce an "s" sound, although mostly it's a nice-sounding track. The music score is often mixed in a strident, jarring way, which was likely intentional. English SDH subtitles are also provided.
As with other Twilight Time releases, the disc includes an Isolated Score with Michel Legrand's music, minus dialogue. His soundtrack mixes muted cocktail jazz, bombastic, Max Steiner-esque "old movie" cues, faux-reggae and (of course) the moony title song - it's pretty neat to hear it isolated. The only other extras on the disc are the film's Theatrical Trailer and a self-congratulatory MGM 90th Anniversary Promo. The package's 8-page booklet contains film stills, credits, and an observant essay by critic Julie Kirgo.
Jean Simmons rants, raves, and stares blankly into her glass of vodka as a restless and narcissistic housewife in 1969's The Happy Ending. It's a fantastic performance, in what must have been a cathartic experience for her and then-husband Richard Brooks (who scripted and directed). A sprawling, messy, über-'60s pity-fest, worth checking out for the curious and a good addition to Twilight Time's catalog. Recommended.
Matt Hinrichs is a designer, artist, film critic and jack-of-all-trades in Phoenix, Arizona. Since 2000, he has been blogging at Scrubbles.net. 4 Color Cowboy is his repository of Western-kitsch imagery, while other films he's experienced are logged at Letterboxd. He also welcomes friends on Twitter @4colorcowboy.