Up till the sixties, movies were required to have happy endings. If they didn’t you, could get your money back. You’d just say,
“I’m going home sad.”
And they’d give you a refund.
That’s not true. Although movies acted like it was. Moviemakers knew it was in their best interest to satisfy the emotional requirements of its audience; otherwise they’d just sit home and wait for them to invent television. With this in mind, the studios kept feeding moviegoers what the box office grosses said they wanted to see.
In cowboy pictures, the good guy always won out in the end, the bad guy inevitably getting gunned down, or, in the tamer westerns, shot in the hand. That’s how it was. “Good triumphs over evil.” That’s what the audience demanded. And that’s what they got.
Then came the sixties.
During the sixties, it seemed like some national hero or other was getting assassinated every couple of weeks. You know the names: JFK, RFK, Martin Luther King. With America’s good guys dropping like flies, the public turned against the myth of “Everything turns out fine in the end”, and being in the habit of thinking in extremes, Americans traded one myth in for its opposite, that being:
“Nothing turns out fine in the end.” Did you hear me? Nothing. I’ll say it again. Nothing!
The sixties are remembered as a mellow time, where blissed-out hippies slipped daisies into policemen’s gun barrels. But that’s not the whole story. The era also had its darker side. And the movie business, if it wanted to remain current, had no choice but to go along.
Now artists need to have a point of view. Without it, they’re a writer sitting in front of a computer screen going,
The thing was, if you happened to be an artist in the sixties, and your point of view was,
“I really believe in happy endings.”
The entertainment business told you,
“Come back when it’s the fifties.”
The upbeat ending was no longer fashionable. It was wide ties in an era of no ties. In the sixties, the moviegoing audience would only patronize movies, where, in the end, the heroes – like their heroes in real life – lay lifeless and bleeding from various orifices.
Easy Rider – dead.
Bonnie and Clyde – dead.
McCabe and Mrs. Miller – dead.
Cool Hand Luke – dead.
Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid – dead.
The Godfather – everybody’s dead except Al Pacino, and in Godfather III, they kill his daughter. Nice touch, for the end of an era.
Moviegoers raised in the fifties, used to their heroes being alive at the end of the picture, found this turnaround totally agonizing. The heroes were getting wiped out in every single picture. You knew it was coming. It was inevitable. You just sat there in the dark until the good guy stopped breathing. It was extremely upsetting.
Sixties Man: “But that’s how it is, man. The good guy always gets it in the end.”
Fifties Man: “But I’m used to the bad guys always getting it in the end.”
Sixties Man: “That isn’t real, man.”
Fifties Man: “Neither is this. It’s a movie.”
For all those years, the movies, for me, was an excruciating ordeal. With popcorn, but my God!, who could eat? Throughout the sixties, and spilling into the seventies, I sat captive in the theater, until the character I’d been identifying with for two or more hours was lifted into an ambulance with a sheet over his face.
But that was the fashion. That was the rule.
The good guy had to die
Did I complain when every movie used to end happily? Honestly, I did not. Firstly, I expected an upbeat ending, because that’s all I’d ever experienced. Also, being pessimistic by nature, I could always use a lift.
I don’t think movies should be required to end a certain way, depending on the decade. I also don’t believe there are only two types of endings – “And they lived happily ever after” and “Take him to the morgue.”
The most appropriate movie ending is the one that most naturally fits the story being told. Though I do have a personal favorite movie ending.
Which I’ll enlighten you about tomorrow.