Hollywood gets happy so audiences don't worry

THE BALTIMORE SUN

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."

Maybe. But consider this: Demi Moore has been cast in a new film version of Nathaniel Hawthorne's "The Scarlet Letter." She'll play the Puritan heroine who -- in the novel -- has a forbidden sexual liaison, gives birth to an illegitimate child and ends her days in shame, the wife of an inflexible, cold man of the cloth. Her lover, by the way, dies in ignominy.

In the new film, however, it's the minister husband who dies; Demi will be reunited with her hunky boyfriend. It's so much more audience-friendly.

OK, so we should be used to Hollywood hackdom by now. But even films that are otherwise admirable seem to cop out at the last minute.

Take, for example, "Schindler's List," a film so clear-eyed and clinical about the horrors of the Holocaust that one could hardly believe it was made by master manipulator Steven Spielberg. Even the Spielberg naysayers were amazed -- over the course of three hours, the world's most commercially successful moviemaker absolutely refused to cater to the lowest common denominator of his audience.

And then, at the end, a cop-out. In his last scene, as German industrialist Oskar Schindler bids farewell to the Jews he has saved from the ovens, the character breaks down into blubbering tears.

For three hours Liam Neeson has played Schindler as a fascinating mystery, a man so craftily self-contained that he almost never expresses a deep emotion. Now, in this final scene, Mr. Spielberg seems to have had doubts about his entire approach to the film.

Maybe he feared that audiences would feel cheated if they didn't leave the theater wallowing in super-sappy emotionalism. In any case, he allowed Mr. Neeson to let loose with the waterworks, and the result is an embarrassing scene diametrically opposed to the characterization that has been so masterfully assembled.

And as if that wasn't bad enough, Mr. Spielberg then tacked on an epilogue in which real individuals on Schindler's list, accompanied by the actors who portrayed them, place stones on Oskar Schindler's grave in Israel.

I walked out grousing that an otherwise brilliant film had been so sullied.

More recently we've seen "Forrest Gump," which also exhibits a big case of cop-out-itis. (Warning: If you haven't seen the film and don't want the ending ruined, STOP READING HERE!)

In Winston Groom's original novel, our low-IQ hero visits his beloved Jenny only to find that she is now married and has a little boy. The child, she informs Forrest, is his. And he's real smart.

Forrest processes this information, plays a bit with the kid and then goes back to his Louisiana shrimp business, satisfied in the knowledge that his offspring isn't an "idjit." End of book.

But that must have been considered too equivocal a wrapup for movie audiences. What was needed, apparently, was a big boo-hoo finale. So the filmmakers erased Jenny's husband and gave her a fatal virus instead. Forrest at long last marries her, watches her die and at the end of the movie is seen as a responsible single father to his son. I cried even as I hated this ending.

How about a moratorium on movies in which sticky situations are resolved by fatal ailments? Worse, the film hints that Jenny may have AIDS. This fits nicely into the film's attempts to tap every major cultural and societal development known to baby boomers. But it has a downside, especially if audiences go out wondering if Forrest and the kid now have the disease.

And for a really depressing coda to this episode, consider: Mr. Groom is now writing a new novel, a "Forrest Gump" sequel. Only the word in publishing circles is that it won't be a sequel to his original novel, in which Jenny survives. It will be a sequel to the movie, in which she dies.

If this is how Hollywood treats prestige pictures, imagine the demands for audience affirmation imposed on your basic assembly-line effort from, say, Disney.

Fact is, little significant art has been produced by individuals whose main concern was making customers happy. From Michelangelo to Woody Allen, great artists have struggled to realize their individual visions. It's up to us to try to understand what they're getting at.

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