Format: Turner Classic Movies on rockin’ flatscreen.
Not that long ago, I watched Shirley Valentine, a film in which a housewife decides she wants more out of life, leaves her husband for Greece, has an affair, and discovers herself. I enjoyed the hell out of it. I found it surprising, heartfelt, and entertaining. Today I watched The Happy Ending, a film in which a housewife decides she wants more out of life, leaves her husband for the Bahamas, has an affair, and discovers herself. And it’s one of the most cynical, hateful movie experiences I’ve had this decade.
Here’s the quick and dirty: A young woman named Mary (Jean Simmons) leaves college a semester before graduating to marry Fred Wilson (John Forsythe). After 15 or so years of marriage, the two have a daughter (Kathy Fields) and Mary has developed a problem with booze and pills. Based on no real evidence she is convinced her husband is having a series of affairs (later confirmed at least in the singular). After all, a number of the clients for his tax business are attractive divorcees. After a possible suicide attempt and hidden bottles of vodka, Mary decides that she wants out. So, on their anniversary, she pawns a bunch of her jewelry and heads off to the Bahamas.
En route she meets Flo Harrigan (Shirley Jones), whom she knew in college. Flo is also on her way to the Bahamas. She’s going with Sam (Lloyd Bridges), the fourth man with whom she has been the “other woman.” Flo considers herself more or less a professional mistress, living on whatever she can get from the man she is seeing at the time.
We get a lot of flashbacks to Mary’s past. We see her suicide attempt. We see her go on an $11,000 clothing spree, which causes Fred to cut off her credit, a sin for which the women at her health club find her justified in any of her behavior. She attempts to have an affair with a guy (Bobby Darin) in the Bahamas she thinks is Italian but is actually a hustler, who dumps her the minute he finds out she isn’t rich. Mary also has a maid named Agnes (Nanette Fabray) who puts on a show of doing what Fred wants but is actually an enabler for all of Mary’s bad behavior.
So what is the result of all of this? I’m not sure. Where Shirley Valentine turned out to be enjoyable and entertaining, The Happy Ending is a cynical, mean-spirited downer. I think a great deal of that—almost all of it, in fact—stem directly from the main character. Shirley Valentine was a person on whom everyone seemed to depend on for whom no one was grateful. We sympathize with her because she’s far more capable than anyone gives her credit, and when she goes off to discover herself, it feels like she deserves it. She’s also a working-class woman who has worked her whole life and, aside from talking to herself, has dealt with life’s ups and downs as they come to her. Shirley wants to embrace life but has never had the opportunity, so she takes the chance when she can.
Mary is the opposite. This is a woman who is allegedly a housewife, but who appears to do nothing but drink and spend her day rotating through a tray of pills. I think we’re supposed to feel bad for her when her husband reacts to her massive shopping spree (and remember, that was $11,000 in 1969 money) and wants her to take all of her extravagant things back. Mary attempts not to find herself, but to lose herself in clothing, vodka, pills, and the health club. This is a woman who is terrified of embracing life. She has every opportunity to do something other than feel sorry for herself, and even when she’s allegedly trying to break free, all she does is feel sorry for herself even more.
Beyond that, The Happy Ending is simply depressing and ugly. The central message of the film isn’t about a quest to find meaning and happiness but a confirmation of the idea that everyone is selfish and everyone is a cheat, so everyone should simply be a selfish cheat.
In a nutshell, Shirley Valentine abandons her life and her husband because she has realized that no one appreciates her and she wants something for herself. Mary Wilson abandons her husband and daughter because she’s decided that her life is boring. In the first case, Shirley’s husband realizes that he’s taken her for granted and goes to fight for her. That’s respectable. In the second case, Mary’s husband just throws himself into his work and figures that eventually she’ll come back to him. That’s despicable. There’s not a single interesting or sympathetic character in the entire film. Everyone is a selfish jerkoff and none of them deserve a minute of our time or an ounce of our compassion.
In fact, this entire affair is depressing and oily. I couldn’t erase The Happy Ending from my DVR fast enough.
Why to watch The Happy Ending: Hell of a cast.
Why not to watch: It’s the most cynical movie you’ll see whatever year you see it.