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{The End Game}

VERY FIRST PERSON

A Lot of Movies Stink. A Lot close with Cinematic Group Hugs. Coincidence?

September 10, 2000|JIM ZARROLI | National Public Radio correspondent Jim Zarroli is based in New York. This is his first story for the magazine

Such squeamishness about death reveals a certain oversimplification of audience psychology. After all, the weeper is a venerable Hollywood tradition. Actresses such as Bette Davis and Susan Hayward used to get Oscar nominations with long, scenery-chewing deathbed scenes, and moviegoers loved them. (Maybe that's why audiences liked "Titanic" so much: They got to cry at the end.)

Audiences of the past had no trouble accepting the deaths of lead characters in movies such as "A Man for All Seasons" and "The Bridge on the River Kwai," because they died in the service of higher ideals, Puttnam notes. Sad as the stories were, they ultimately were uplifting. When you get right down to it, happy endings are in the eye of the beholder. The ending of "Boys Don't Cry," which involves rape and murder, is certainly dark. But producer Christine Vachon says, "I thought the ending was upbeat, but that's me." Despite the hostility and violence they faced, the love between Brandon and Lana endured.

Such nuance too often gets lost today. Could a movie such as "A Man For All Seasons," in which the lead character is beheaded at the end, be made in Hollywood right now? "I don't know," replies Puttnam, who's now an education advisor in England. "That's one of the reasons I'm glad I don't work in movies anymore, so I don't have to ask myself that kind of question."

*

BY NOW YOU'VE PROBABLY CONCLUDED THAT I'm one of those people who believe movies have to be depressing to be good, and that the high point of world cinema was some Ingmar Bergman film with the Grim Reaper walking around. No, I'm as susceptible to Hollywood high spirits as the rest of the world. As I write this I can see the bookcase where I keep my videotapes, the movies I love enough to pay for, and they include "Close Encounters of the Third Kind," "Midnight," "Splash" and "Bandwagon." A pretty sunny bunch.

But I care about movies. To know what a movie's original ending was to be, and to think about how much better it could have been, is a mournful experience.

I can never see the 1941 movie "Suspicion," for instance, without pondering how much better it might have been had director Alfred Hitchcock been allowed to follow his instincts. It's the story of a rich young woman (Joan Fontaine) who begins to suspect her charming husband (Cary Grant) is out to kill her. Hitchcock envisioned a deliciously smart ending that he later described in his interviews with Francois Truffaut:

"The scene . . . was for Cary Grant to bring her a glass of milk that's been poisoned and Joan Fontaine has just finished a letter to her mother: 'Dear Mother, I'm desperately in love with him but I don't want to live because he's a killer. Though I'd rather die, I think society should be protected from him.' Then Cary Grant comes in with the fatal glass and she says, 'Will you mail this letter to mother for me, dear?' She drinks the milk and dies. Fade out and fade in on one short shot: Cary Grant, whistling cheerfully, walks over to the mailbox and pops the letter in."

But Hitchcock ultimately substituted a much less satisfying ending in which the wife confronts her husband and finds out he's innocent. Why the change? Hitchcock knew the film's producers wouldn't let a major star such as Grant play a killer.

A much more significant loss occurred the following year, with RKO's mangling of Welles' "The Magnificent Ambersons." Based on a novel by Booth Tarkington, it's the story of a wealthy Indiana family in late Victorian times, and how it's brought down by pride and shortsightedness. (It's now being redone as a TV miniseries.) Critics have long called the movie one of the best ever made, with some of the greatest acting ever put on film.

But preview audiences disliked the film, and after the financial losses from "Citizen Kane," RKO was reluctant to indulge Welles. So it cut and refilmed scenes, making changes throughout the last third.

In the original's final scene, Eugene (Joseph Cotton) visits his now-impoverished friend Fanny (Agnes Moorehead) at her boarding house to talk about a recent accident involving Fanny's nephew George. Fanny once loved Eugene, but with old age and poverty, she has lost all feeling for him, and as he talks she's indifferent and preoccupied. As Welles told Bogdanovich in "This is Orson Welles," everything is over for her, "her feelings and her world and his world; everything is buried under the parking lots and the cars. That's what it was all about--the deterioration of personality, the way people diminish with age, and particularly with impecunious old age."

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