Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Pity Party

Film: The Happy Ending
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.


  1. I didn't love this by any means but didn't dislike it as much as you. It's been a while since I've seen it but as I recall Mary was a product of her culture and she drifted because no one really wanted her. Her husband made noises occasionally like he seemed to think he was supposed to but if he ever loved her he'd forgotten about it long ago and now she was something to be endured and didn't hide the fact from her. Her mother was no help and her maid was the worst kind of enabler so she had no compass. When she tried to find it herself no wonder she drifted for a while, as I recall she did right her ship towards the end which of course then made her husband want her back. I also recall liking the end of the film where he asked her if she knew everything she knew now would she marry him again and rather than spelling it out Brooks just closed on a shot of Jean Simmons with a look of uncertainty on her face. Of course she's have been crazy to say yes but he left it to the audience to decide.

    The back-story of the film is that director Richard Brooks, Simmons husband at the time, was concerned about Jean's alcoholism, she was a blackout drunk for many years, and designed the picture as a wakeup call for her. While it didn't work too well at the time, her alcoholism played a significant part in the collapse of their marriage, she was eventually able to conquer her problem. This is a showcase for her great talent, though I've preferred her work elsewhere more, and she did earn an Oscar nomination but I don't think I'd ever watch the film again.

    1. You're a lot kinder than I was to this. It came across as pure cynicism to me, and while I don't mind some cynical ideas, I do like it tempered with something else. Mary as a character felt like a woman who was drifting (I agree completely) but that her drifting was entirely based on her own selfishness. She wanted something more, but didn't want to actually do anything for it. The sequence with Bobby Darin just cements the idea that everyone in her world is a cynic. Even the Shirley Jones character announcing her marriage near the end comes off as cynical. She's breaking up a home to get married, and her reaction to it is more or less, "Well, I might as well try this." There's no real hope of any extended happiness or contentment for anyone--just an attempt to find temporary relief from the crushing boredom of life.

      I don't have a great deal of sympathy for that outlook.

      I didn't know the backstory. That does change the perspective a bit, but not the outcome.