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A 'Brief' Flap Over Surprise Endings : Movies: After two publications reported on a late-hour change to the conclusion of 'The Pelican Brief,' the perennial question of whether to reveal the endings resurfaces.

January 06, 1994|TERRY PRISTIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

It was the kind of story destined to make a studio publicist squawk.

Just as Warner Bros.' "The Pelican Brief" was about to open in mid-December, both Newsday and Entertainment Weekly reported on an 11th-hour decision to change the film's ending. Both publications provided details about the thriller's closing scene, thereby infuriating Warners.

Attacking the stories as "bad journalism," Warners spokesman Robert G. Friedman said they could spoil moviegoers' experience of the film based on the best-selling John Grisham novel.

"To people who are unfamiliar with the book or don't remember it, the stories they wrote potentially diminish the suspense of the plot," he said last week. But some critics say the studio is making too much out of what is really just a coda to the film.

Although giving away an ending or major plot twist is almost certain to irritate readers, such disclosures are not at all rare--and, according to some people, may be turning up with increasing frequency because of the heightened competition for entertainment news.

Reviewers, reporters and editors say they think twice before discussing endings and surprise developments, and would almost always refrain from doing so if writing about a plot-driven thriller. But some maintain it is sometimes impossible to intelligently analyze a film without fully telling what it's about.

Still, as the experience with "The Crying Game" demonstrates, critics and journalists occasionally go to great lengths to remain mum for the sake of audiences' enjoyment. Egged on by Miramax Films, the movie's distributor, many news outlets kept Jaye Davidson's sex a secret until after he was nominated for a supporting actor Oscar.

Some critics find the studios' bellyaching disingenuous, given how much is revealed these days in trailers. "I wonder now why anybody complains, when the coming attractions give you all the dramatic scenes from beginning to end," said Andrew Sarris, film critic for the New York Observer.

The trailer for the current movie "Shadowlands," however, gives no hint to the fate of poet Joy Gresham (Debra Winger). Reviewers say this is just the type of secret they are not obliged to keep. The late-in-life romance of Gresham and writer C. S. Lewis was first dramatized as a BBC television production and then became a Broadway play.

Time magazine critic Richard Corliss draws a distinction between "Shadowlands" and "Terms of Endearment" (1983), in which "a big dramatic shift comes 90 minutes into the movie," he said. "You don't want to deprive people of surprises."

Sarris, then the critic for the Village Voice, got into hot water with readers when he became one of the few reviewers to divulge that particular plot twist. But the veteran critic, who was not among that Oscar-winning film's many fans, said talking about plot developments is frequently unavoidable.

"I, for one, think plots are very important," Sarris said. "When a film doesn't work, often it is because the plot goes wrong, and you have to describe how it goes wrong." But sometimes, he added, it is also necessary to provide plot details to show just why a movie succeeds, as he did in his rave review of the recent "Flesh and Bone," whose story hinges on several coincidences.

"To describe what it's about I cannot get around talking about the coincidences," Sarris said. Readers were warned not to read further if they had not seen the film. Such a warning is a device publications often use when giving away endings or surprises is unavoidable.

Time critic Richard Schickel never thought he was giving anything away when he disclosed in his review of "Presumed Innocent" (1990) that the protagonist, prosecutor Rusty Sabitch (Harrison Ford), was not the murderer. Like "The Pelican Brief," that film was based on a best-selling novel and was directed by Alan Pakula.

Sabitch "is set up from the start as a put-upon hero who we emotionally feel is falsely accused," Schickel said. The movie was intended as a dramatic work with complex characters, and not just a routine whodunit, he added.

Nevertheless, Warner Bros., which had urged critics in a memo to keep the film's ending hush-hush, "made a fuss," as Schickel recalls. Unmollified four years later, studio spokesman Friedman said recently: "I see no purpose in giving away that information."

That type of information often crops up in reviews for more literary publications. Stanley Kauffmann, movie critic for the New Republic, frequently describes movie endings and plot points, as he did recently when writing about "The Remains of the Day."

Kauffmann could not be reached. But commenting on the review of "The Remains of the Day," Columbia Pictures spokesman Mark Gill said: "The only good thing about that is that it came out four weeks after the movie opened. It's still bad; it's just not as bad."

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