“Clichés, in particular, have always baffled me. You’d think it’d be as simple as, ‘Don’t use clichés,’ but it isn’t. I’ve fallen in love with plenty of great movies that others have insisted were riddled with clichés. Many times I have to admit they’re correct, and yet I still love the movie. The ending of Die Hard has Bruce Willis limping up to the bad guy with a gun, who’s holding his wife hostage. It’s the most cliché of cliché situations. And yet I’m riveted. I am riveted by a classic cliché. This implies that there are actually plenty of instances where you want to use clichés.”
ScriptShadow Article — A Cliché Article
Warning: A couple of spoilers today since I talking about movie endings.
Writer, director, actor Charlie Chaplin once said The Gold Rush was “the picture that I want to be remembered by.” It not only has a happy ending, it has two of them. One version of the film has Chaplin as the Tramp and a saloon girl he’s fallen in love with by an old house and the other is the above ending where they kiss. Anytime the guy and girl end up together there are plenty of people crying “Cliché!”
“I’m not afraid of doing a cliché, if it’s right. We don’t wade through our existence with any sort of originality. We all live and die and eat three meals a day, and fall in and out of love, and the rest of it. So people say, that’s been done before.
“So what? In avoiding clichés I think one can become dull—it’s like Shaw. I love Shaw, but he’s afraid of the clichés. For instance, Pygmalion. Shaw in his afterward goes to a lot of trouble to explain the fact that Liza did not fall in love with the professor. It seems that Shaw has gone out of his way to avoid it, which makes the ending false. I don’t believe it. I believe the girl would finish up as his mistress. Instead, after this man has created her, she falls in love with this cluck who doesn’t mean much at all.
“Your story begins—once upon a time—and then you can’t escape. It either finishes happily or tragically. And there you have the clichés. And if you’re going to leave it unsaid, then it isn’t perfectly written. Leaving it up in the air—that’s become very clichés now—is to have no curtain to a story. I get so bored with that.”
Charlie Chaplin Interviews edited by Kevin Hayes
The first time I remember seeing a film hammered by critics for having a clichéd ending was An Officer and a Gentleman (1982) written by Douglas Day Stewart. But I wasn’t a jaded film critic when I first saw the film, I was a 20-year-old working for a factory one summer between my sophomore and junior years of film school. I worked along side people who had spent ten, twenty, even thirty years of their lives in the factory making boat windshields in Central Florida. My boss told me if he didn’t take quaaludes he wouldn’t make it through the day. I worked with a grandmother who was only 32-years-old and an attractive young woman who first explained to me what a sugardaddy was as she told about her experiences living at the Roosevelt Hotel in Hollywood—her expenses paid for by a married guy from Long Beach.
Work in a factory can be boring, but the people are usually interesting. I’m sure that experience shaded my perspective watching the the movie. At the end of the movie when Richard Gere struts into the factory and sweeps Debra Winger off her feet it was exhilarating. I only worked in the factory for three months but I could relate to the Winger character and more than I’d like to admit I connected to the Richard Gere character.
I was at a point in my life where the film just resonated with me in emotional ways that I couldn’t explain until many years later. When VHS players came out it was the first tape I bought. And it was also many years later that I appreciated what director Taylor Hackford pulled off on a limited budget. I felt, to borrow filmmaker Edward Burns’ phrase about It’s a Wonderful Life, that Hackford and Stewart earned their ending.
Time has been good to An Officer and a Gentleman and actually critic Roger Ebert was an early champion of the film.
“An Officer and a Gentleman is the best movie about love that I’ve seen in a long time…This is a wonderful movie precisely because it’s so willing to deal with matters of the heart. Love stories are among the rarest of movies these days (and when we finally get one, it’s likely to involve an extra-terrestrial). Maybe they’re rare because writers and filmmakers no longer believe they understand what goes on between modern men and women. An Officer and a Gentleman takes chances, takes the time to know and develop its characters, and by the time this movie’s wonderful last scene comes along, we know exactly what’s happening, and why, and it makes us very happy.”
Roger Ebert review of An Officer and a Gentleman
You can end your screenplay with a happy ending, a sad ending, an ambiguous ending, or an ironic ending—that’s all the choices you have. Take those options and do the best you can to come up with an Insanley Great Ending.
So I think my take away from all of this is partly, “There’s nothing new under the sun” mixed with the fact that good writing engages you in a story and you don’t care what techniques are being used, while bad writing or less effective storytelling makes it easier for audiences and critics to point out the flaws of the movie. Cliché belongs on the same shelf as voice-overs and flashbacks—screenwriting books and teachers are always saying to not use them, but you don’t watch the Citizen Kane, Casablanca—or more recently Moneyball— and say “Wow, those would have been better films with out those nagging flashbacks.” Nor do you watch Sunset Boulevard, The Shawshank Redemption—or more recently Moonrise Kingdom— and say, “Those filmmakers really missed the boat using voice-overs.”
P.S. I like to believe that Zack and Paula from An Officer and a Gentleman lived happily ever after in a nice house on Whidbey Island overlooking Puget Sound. (If you know otherwise—I don’t want to know about it.)
Update 1/4/13: Found this interview where Richard Gere thought while shooting Officer that it had the “dopiest ending” and it would never work, but later when he saw the edit with the right music said he got chills on the back of his neck.
Movie Clonning (Avoding Clichés)
Writing & Rewritng “Pretty Woman” (Part 2) “It is true that I look for the Cinderella aspect when I am making a film. Most good stories are Cinderella. Audiences like to watch characters whose lives change for the better.“—Director Garry Marshall