In all my years of movie watching, and all my subsequent experience as an aspiring writer, one thing I have learned is that a killer ending is hard to come by. There are lots of good writers, a few good writers with good ideas, and even fewer good ideas that turn into great endings. Oh, how many classic TV shows crashed with bad series finales? (“Cheers”, anyone?) Oh how many potentially classic films crashed with lame third acts? (“Blade Runner”) The best-laid plans of mice and men oft go astray...(hey, there's a classic ending!)
With that in mind, here are my “starting five” best film endings of all time. These are the movies that delivered in the clutch, even if the first three quarters were kind of awkward.
(If you come across a movie here that you haven’t seen, skip it. You deserve to get the full experience, so go rent the thing tonight.)
Point Guard: “The Graduate”
A good leader has to come through in the clutch, even if the rest of the game has been pretty shaky. I actually came to identify with “The Graduate” more after finishing grad school than when I finished my bachelor’s, but even back then I knew I’d found a gem of an ending.
Buck Henry’s watershed story follows Dustin Hoffman as he struggles to find his way after college. Everyone seems to have an idea for how he should spend the rest of his life (“Plastics!”), but Hoffman himself feels pretty lost. Somehow he winds up having an affair with—get this—his dad’s best friend’s wife (Anne Bancroft as the immortal “Mrs. Robinson”), and he coasts through the summer in a nihilistic haze. Unfortunately he falls for her daughter in the process, and eventually shakes himself out of his insanity enough to go after her. Needless to say, this doesn’t go over well with most of the parties involved, and Mrs. Robinson tries to marry her daughter off to some rich kid to get her away from Hoffman. When Dusty intercedes, you get one of the great “question mark” endings of all time. All set to Simon and Garfunkel.
(Note: at the present time, no one has uploaded the final scene on YouTube. Just go rent it.)
Shooting Guard: “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid”
Every great team needs a sharpshooter; why not two? “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” just about reinvented the Western, and is packed with enough classic moments for a dozen films. (“Who are those guys?” “Are you crazy? The fall will probably kill you!” “I’m better when I move.” “Bolivia!”)
But all of those classic moments lead up to a signature ending: cornered in some shack in a nameless Bolivian village, Butch and Sundance are waist deep in a shootout with a few local authorities. As they nurse their wounds, they go about their business taking pot shots at each other, continuing the abusive friendship we’ve come to love, never knowing that an entire militia is gathering outside. Finally they suck it up and run outside for one final charge, guns blazing.
Small Forward: “Tootsie”
A great swingman needs versatility, and enough unpredictability to keep the defense guessing. Then when he gets hot, you just don’t know what’s going to happen next.
When you try to explain “Tootsie” to someone who hasn’t seen the movie, you come off looking strange most of the time. Nevertheless, for those willing to take the plunge, Dustin Hoffman’s cross-dressing turn as a soap opera star pays off in one of the all-time great comic finales. Half a dozen crazy subplots spiral out of control—his relationship with his old friend (Terri Garr, who thinks he is gay), his relationship with his director (Dabney Coleman, who thinks he’s a man-hating feminist), his relationship with his male co-star (Punky Brewster’s dad, who thinks he’s playing hard to get), and his relationship with his female co-star (Jessica Lange, who thinks he’s a lesbian) and her dad (Charles Durning, who proposes to him, leading to this exchange with Hoffman’s agent, Sydney Pollack: “What did you say?” “I SAID NO! I went into the bathroom…I nearly pissed in the sink! I’M IN TROUBLE, MAN!”)
Eventually the crap has to hit the fan, and when it does, it’s comic history.
Power Forward: “Planet of the Apes”
Karl Malone was one of the greatest power forwards in NBA history, helped in no small part by a pair of serious guns that brutalized interior defenses. So who else could bring great guns to the table than Charleton Heston?
When Chuck and his interstellar crew crash land on a strange foreign world, they find a bizarre doppleganger planet where the monkeys are the ones in charge. They aren’t too keen on humans that can think for themselves, either. After two hours of classic lines and bizarro situations, Chucky packs up his loincloth and his mute She-Woman and hoofs it out to the “forbidden zone” to start a life far from those nasty apes. What he finds is a twist-ending and a half.
Center: “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”
You’ve got to have an anchor in the middle. Someone strong enough to carry the team when everyone else is having an off night. “Chief” does exactly that in “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”, both on the court (during a classic rec yard basketball sequence) and at the end of the movie.
“Cuckoo’s Nest” is the story of a criminal (Jack Nicholson) who fakes insanity in order to avoid serious jail time. He winds up getting institutionalized with a who’s-who of future Hollywood big shots (Danny DeVito and Christopher Lloyd, for starters), and proceeds to turn the loony bin upside-down. But after two hours of civil disobedience, Jack crosses the line when a fellow inmate commits suicide, and the powers-that-be take drastic measures to make sure he never acts up again. When Jack is returned to bed post-lobotomy, Chief steals over to him, thinking the two of them are finally going to bust out for good. What happens next is the ultimate bittersweet ending of all-time.
Sixth Man: “City of Angels”
I never said these were my favorite movies of all-time, just my favorite endings. For 90 minutes I thought this was the dumbest movie I had ever seen. I figured some big shots were sitting around a table in Hollywood when someone said, “Hey, how about Dennis Franz bodysurfing naked? What kind of movie could we build around that?”
They built “City of Angels”. Nicolas Cage (an angel) lusting after Meg Ryan (a disillusioned surgeon) for two hours until he decides to give up immortality so he can get busy human-style. The morning after they finally get their groove on, she goes for a bike ride and runs into the back of a logging truck and dies, then Nick decides to take up body surfing. Roll credits. It can’t make the starting five, but it deserves notoriety as “greatest unintentionally classic ending of all-time”.
Bench Players: “American Graffiti”, “The Empire Strikes Back”, “The Godfather”, “Easy Rider”, “The Blues Brothers”, “The Great Escape”.