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.
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).