As the director Adrian Lyne knows. The video re-release of his Fatal Attraction, complete with original ending, provides a rare opportunity to assess the pressures that keep the happy ending alive and sickening. Here is the way his Fatal Attraction was supposed to wrap: Michael Douglas has survived a big confrontation scene with Glenn Close in the latter's kitchen. The morning after, Douglas, wife Anne Archer and adorable child are sweeping up leaves. The police arrive. Douglas is taken aside and told Alex Forrest is dead.
'You think I did it,' he says.
Indeed they do. Clever Alex has cut her throat with a butcher's knife. Douglas's fingerprints are all over the handle like a bad rash. Off he's driven, presumably to fry. It would have been interesting to see how feminist critics, angered by the notorious alternative ending - lunatic interloper Alex is despatched and the nuclear unit reconstituted - would have reacted to this even-handed yet ambiguous finale.
Test audiences - and Paramount Studios - hated it. Both parties loathed the next ending even more; Archer discovers Alex Forrest's threatening audio tape inside her husband's Filofax. She plays the tape - and damned if Alex doesn't broadcast her intention to commit suicide. 'Thank God,' gasps Archer. 'Oh hell' moaned the masses.
Lyne favoured scriptwriter James Dearden's first impressions. But, as in the case the end-changing writer played by Richard E Grant in Robert Altman's The Player, self-preservation carried the day. 'When I read Dearden's script I thought, this is wonderful. This is black. It's Hitchcockian. But I think if you spend two hours getting an audience to sympathise with and enjoy a family, to then abandon that family at the end of the movie and say 'That's it', it just doesn't work . . . I think the ending that we went with in the end was the best way of going. It was the most satisfying dramatically for the movie.' As Grant explains in The Player, justifying the elimination of 'reality' from his wannabe blockbuster thriller: 'What about the way the ending tested in Kanoga Park? They hated it. We re-shot it. Now everybody loves it. That's reality.'
Lyne is not the first director to bow to the inevitable. Hollywood history is littered with examples of re-edited endings, from the earliest flirtations with preview cards to the present-day dominance of the marketing departments. As far back as the Thirties, MGM's Irving Thalberg could declaim, 'Movies are not made. Movies are re-made.' The movies were re-made in the image of the Russian-Jewish immigrant moguls who ruled the studio system. The ex-furriers, junkmen and shoemakers who made it big, as the author Neal Gabler records in An Empire of Their Own, 'created an image of their adopted country out of their own idealism, a vision that proved so powerful that it shaped the myths, values, traditions and archetypes of America itself'.
Such wishful thinking, harnessed to the Draconian strictures of the Motion Picture Production Code - 'the sanctity of the institution of marriage and the home shall be upheld' - soon trained consumers worldwide to believe that the best invariably happens.
Even for Frankenstein. Universal's original conclusion had the Baron burnt alive along with his creation. Too downbeat. The new ending, calculated to spread a little sunshine, had the mad scientist's father toasting the rescue of his heir: 'Here's to a son to the House of Frankenstein]' Continuity, like sequel- potential, counts. Not even genius was spared trite moralising. Orson Welles's masterpiece, The Magnificent Ambersons, the sombre story of a wealthy family losing its fortune and influence, was re-cut by RKO so the clan accepted its fall from grace and extracted a life-lesson from ruin.
RKO was 'protecting' its investment. It was likewise 'protecting' Cary Grant's image when it wooed the star back for re-takes on Hitchcock's Suspicion. Eager to portray a cold-blooded killer, Grant had agreed to poison Joan Fontaine and then, whistling cheerfully, to post her last letter, unaware that it names him as her murderer. Exhibitors' protests dictated otherwise. Turns out Joan's been imagining that her co-star's a sociopath. He's loved her all along, the big goose.
And then there's self-censorship: no one protested about Billy Wilder's big Double Indemnity pay-off - except Billy Wilder. Having spent dollars 150,000 of Paramount's money building a replica of Folsom prison's gas chamber to asphyxiate Fred MacMurray, Wilder decided the scene was 'too strong'. MacMurray would instead stagger from Edward G Robinson's office, bleeding to death. Not exactly happy, true, but at least MacMurray didn't actually croak on screen. 'I don't think audiences would have stood for it,' Wilder said. 'That sort of thing wasn't acceptable until the Sixties.'
Vietnam, political assassination, the Permissive Society and Watergate brought the temporary triumph of the crappy ending. Bonnie and Clyde went down in a hail of bullets and blood. So did The Wild Bunch and Easy Rider's counter-culture heroes. The American Dream as American Nightmare.
But old habits - and cultural imperatives - die hard. By the dawn of Reagan's New Morning in America, the happy ending was back, cinema devoting itself once again to Entertainment, with High Priest Steven Spielberg presiding at the altar. Come 1982 the sci-fi sentimentality of ET held sway, one reason why Ridley Scott's chilly Blade Runner, released the same year, flopped. Test audiences detested Scott's first ending: Harrison Ford realises he too is an artificial life form, doomed to perish in four years, like his beloved Sean Young. Suddenly, this: Ford, a 'replicant' no longer, relates that Young is - wait for it - the latest replicant model, complete with normal life-span (something the creatures' creator has already said is impossible). 'I should think our alternative ending will be accepted,' Scott predicted. Wrong.
And a decade later? The recession echoes the mood of the Great Depression, the hey-day of twinkling Shirley Temple. Despite of, or maybe because of, Aids, race conflict and a rocketing divorce rate, the US's appetite for Happy Endings has never been more voracious. In fact, even if the movie is called Dying Young, audiences are sure to complain that it's about, gee, dying young. Which is why Julia Roberts assented to a 'fresh' ending to her first 'adult' romance, research having revealed that ticket-buyers didn't want Julia leaving her leukemia-stricken boyfriend for a healthier suitor. So Roberts staggered back and stood by her man.
No matter. Dying Young was Julia Roberts' first box-office failure. Variety reported that she was 'not happy'.
'Fatal Attraction', with original ending, was released on CIC Video on Tuesday. 'Blade Runner', with original ending, will be shown at the National Film Theatre on 22 November as part of the London Film Festival (071-928 3232)