Hollywood gets happy so audiences don't worry

September 09, 1994|By Robert W. Butler | Robert W. Butler,Kansas City Star

Don't you just love the upbeat ending of "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest"?

You know -- where Jack Nicholson, as the irrepressible mental patient McMurphy, is rescued on his way to be lobotomized by his big Indian buddy, Chief Bromden (Will Sampson)? They go on a hilarious rampage through the mental ward, publicly humiliating cranky old Nurse Ratched (Louise Fletcher), tossing a bathroom fixture through a window and helping all of the other patients to escape.

You say you don't recall "Cuckoo's Nest" ending that way? That in the version you saw McMurphy emerged from his lobotomy a drooling vegetable and that the Chief smothered his friend with a pillow rather than watch him live as an empty shell?

Oh, well, you're talking about the old "Cuckoo's Nest." I'm talking about how the movie would end if it were made today.

Face it -- moviegoers in the '90s can hardly tolerate a film that doesn't send them out of the theater on a big fluffy cloud of feel-good.

Realism? Who needs it?

Artistic integrity? What's that?

Used to be a film could end ambivalently or even on a downbeat note and still be popular. Today, however, John Wayne would beat the Mexicans, Bette Davis would get Paul Heinreid and Shane would come back.

"When you deal with producers, they're always talking about the 'right' ending," said Mitch Brian, a Kansas City-based screenwriter who is completing work on a screenplay about Kansas abolitionist John Brown. "Now I understand the need to find the right ending for a film. With 'Casablanca,' they found the right ending only after four or five tries. What's distressing is that by the 'right' ending, producers mean an ending with absolutely no loose ends.

"There's a book out on how to sell a screenplay, and in it a producer is quoted as saying that you should never end a picture with the hero staring out into space with a lost look. Well, by that rule they'd have to find another end for 'The Graduate.' There's a fear of giving the audience a bit too much to chew on."

Hollywood seems determined that, no matter how grim the yarn, audiences are sent home laughing or, better yet, smiling through tears.

This is hardly a new phenomenon. Back in '39, producer Sam Goldwyn reacted to disappointing sneak screenings of "Wuthering Heights" by adding an epilogue in which Laurence Olivier and Merle Oberon are reunited in heaven. Needless to say, that scene is not to be found in Emily Bronte's famous novel, but it resulted in a big hit.

But back then, Tinseltown wasn't of the opinion that a good movie had to be sugarcoated before the public would bite. Had that been the case, we'd never have seen "I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang" or "The Grapes of Wrath" or "'Spartacus" or "The Sand Pebbles" or "Dr. Strangelove" or any number of popular entertainments that denied audiences pat, rosy endings. The Golden Age of Hollywood may not be remembered for its commitment to realism, but at least every now and then, a studio-backed filmmaker could adapt a classic or offer an original story of some gravity without worrying that it might not meet the approval of a 14-year-old in Raytown.

No more.

The most famous example of this is the two endings of "Fatal Attraction." In the original cut of the film, the neurotic woman played by Glenn Close commits suicide to a recording of "Madame Butterfly," deliberately using a knife on which are the fingerprints of her one-weekend stand, Michael Douglas. The movie ends with husband and father Douglas being arrested for her murder.

Screening audiences hated it. Hey, Michael Douglas is a good guy, right? Nobody wants to see him in that situation.

Which is how we ended up with the version of the film we're all familiar with. The kidnapping of Douglas' daughter, the pet rabbit in the stew pot and that whole cliched scene in which the knife-wielding Ms. Close emerges from the bathtub to be shot by wife Anne Archer -- all of that was added because audiences wanted to see the nuclear family remain intact at the end of the picture and that homewrecking Glenn Close get what she deserves.

Hollywood paid lots of attention to that message, especially after "Fatal Attraction" went on to become one of the year's biggest moneymakers.

A big problem with many films today, according to Mitch Brian, is that "most Hollywood executives don't understand the notion of theme." A film's theme dictates how the movie ends, he noted, but producers with no appreciation of theme will try to stick on an upbeat ending that just doesn't fit.

"But with these big budget investments in even modest films, they're trying to hedge their bets," he said. "I think audiences are smarter than the studios will give them credit for. Every now and then they'll be hoodwinked by a clever film, but usually they know when they're being fed a cheap trick."

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