You had to be a mean son-of-a-bitch to cast your alcoholic wife in a movie about an alcoholic wife. The title of Douglass K. Daniel’s biography of director Richard Brooks, Tough As Nails, did not specifically refer to The Happy Ending but it might as well have. But on top of what you might from the outside consider a somewhat callous attitude, you would also have to reflect on the movie’s message: that a man might be implicit in the woman turning towards the bottle and that a woman can break free of a stultifying marriage.
Marriage to Brooks in 1960 meant Jean Simmons, until then a huge star, leading lady to opposite Marlon Brando (Desiree, 1954), Frank Sinatra (Guys and Dolls, 1956), Gregory Peck (The Big Country, 1958), Burt Lancaster (Elmer Gantry, 1960) and Kirk Douglas (Spartacus, 1960), dialled back on her career, opting instead for wifedom and motherhood. Six movies in eight years, compared to 14 pictures in the previous comparable period, spelled the extent of her commitment.
Both had been riding high at the time of their marriage. Despite the setback of Lord Jim (1965), Brooks regained favor through the commercial and critical success of The Professionals (1966) and In Cold Blood (1967). But Simmons tumbled down the pecking order with little compensation on the marital side. As single-minded a director as Brooks spent far more time on his movies than his marriage. The long separations caused by his work took their toll. Like the middle-aged character she played in The Happy Ending, “I started sitting around,” Simmons told her husband’s biographer, “looking in the mirror, feeling sorry for myself a lot. I was slugging down a lot more than anyone should. Sometimes it would bring out the ugly side – when you want to hurt people. And who do you want to hurt? Why, it’s always the one who is closest to you.”
Recognizing she was an alcoholic Simmons began a battle against the disease. Her husband came up with an unusual way of helping, one that would, in some senses, help bridge the gap between them, by writing a movie in which she would star and he would direct. I doubt if she was so far down the pecking order by that stage that if a director of Brooks’ commercial caliber had decided to cast her in a more commercial project, his heist picture $ (1971) for example, I would be surprised if he did not get his way.
However, he had set his mind on a more personal project. Though he was writer-director to trade, had tended to adapt other people’s novels or plays, he hadn’t come up with an original screenplay in nearly two decades, since Deadline U.S.A (1952). So it was odd in some respects that it was his wife’s alcoholism that fired up his creative juices.
“He was trying to help me understand alcoholics,” explained Simmons. “and he would go to (AA) meetings, too, just to find out what people talk about and what people do and didn’t do.” Even so, it was a hard part to envisage. There was too much of herself in the script, Brooks using words she had spoken in real life. “It suddenly hit me as more personal – and it hurt quite a bit to feel so exposed. It was too close to home.”
But the movie proved an original piece of therapy. “He pulled me out of it, made me straighten up, so to speak.” And it was certainly a courageous role to play, knowing that this was something you had experienced yourself and that audiences, should her alcoholism become public knowledge, might judge her as they judged the character.
Brooks softened the potential risk for a major studio by keeping the budget low – incredibly low, in fact, just $1.7 million in the end. The movie was made mostly on location in Denver and the Bahamas, deliberately steering clear of Hollywood back lots. The cast was solid rather than costly – John Forsythe still best known for Hitchcock’s The Trouble with Harry (1955), Shirley Jones (Two Rode Together, 1961) another fading star, Teresa Wright (Shadow of a Doubt, 1943) in only her second movie in a decade, television star Lloyd Bridges in only his fourth movie in 11 years, comedian Dick Shawn, out-of-favor Bobby Darin (Pressure Point, 1962) and Tina Louise (The Warrior Empress, 1960).
Simmons had to endure worse than she had suffered as an actual alcoholic – Brooks filmed her going through having her stomach pumped. The director employed a trick to get a reaction from Forsythe at the movie’s end. He has Simmons ask Forsythe an unexpected question and his response, in character, was just right.
Brooks saw the movie as a critique of marriage rather than a rallying call for feminism. “All I wanted to say was that marriage was not for everybody and, by itself, certainly isn’t a solution to anything,” said Brooks, clearly unaware of the impact the harm that putting such a point-of-view on screen might do to his wife.
By and large critics murdered the movie, it was cited as one of the ten worst of the year by the New York Times. Only Charles Champlin in the Los Angeles Times and Rex Reed were its only champions. Even though the Academy members recognized the strength of Simmons’ performance to give an Oscar nod, the movie, despite the meagre budget, still proved a flop.
Astonishingly, even today it is routinely ignored, only a handful of review for example on Imdb and a 33 per cent score on Rotten Tomatoes.
SOURCES: Douglas K. Daniels, Tough As Nails( University of Wisconsin Press, 2011) p187-190