Some films come to a conclusion in such a perfect manner that it is impossible to even imagine their ending any other way. Other movies seem to end in a way calculatedly designed to bring about a specific emotional response, regardless of whether appropriate or not. The fun can often lie in trying to figure out which movies end in an organic way determined by scripted circumstances and which movies arrive at their finale courtesy of focus groups gathered by spineless studio executives.
The ending you see in “Fatal Attraction” fits nicely into the Aristotelian concept of providing the audience viewing a tragedy with an emotional catharsis. The murder of the crazed one night stand turned stalker of Michael Douglas’ character sends audiences away with the feeling that bad girls get their due. The original ending was either more or less melodramatic depending on perspective. The stalker kills herself in a way that points such guilt at Douglas that he is arrested for murder. For some reason, audiences prefer the bloodbath that seems to wipe away the adulterous male’s complicity in a redemptive scene of atonement rather than the ending that gives both characters a certain amount of what’s coming to them.
The Hollywood fairy tale romantic comedy to end them all. A millionaire winds up with only cheap streetwalker in America who looks like her face should be gracing a glossy magazine cover rather than a mug shot. “Pretty Woman” didn’t start out as the empty rom-com it became and that darker vision of a more realistic world ended with Richard Gere’s character kicking Julia Roberts’ character to the curb after she had done the job she was hired for. Realistic and in keeping in with the hollow sense of morality at the core of both characters. But such penetration into the ugliness of those characters simply would not do.
Few movies have as controversial a story related to the ending that movies audiences originally saw than “Brazil.” American moviegoers by the dozens headed to movie theaters to catch it on first release and left with the knowledge that good triumphed over totalitarian evil as always. That ending was not the one that director Terry Gilliam intended. “Brazil” is a state of mind for the main character and so it is fitting that the his triumph over the Ministry of Information would be revealed as nothing more nor less than a city in that state. The point of contention here is actually twofold: the happy ending seems contradictory to the point of the movie, yet who really wants a cinematic work praised for its originality (despite the extreme debt owed to “1984”) to end with “and it was all a dream!” “Brazil” is the iconic case where neither the focus group ending nor the organic ending is particularly satisfying.
For more from Timothy Sexton, check out:
The Poetics and Aristotle’s Prescription for Tragedy
Aristotelian Tragedy in Classic and Contemporary Drama
Five of the Best Movie Endings of All Time