The ending of a movie is supposed to be the best part, where everything ties together into an emotionally satisfying conclusion that sends audiences out of the theater feeling content. These classic movies with bad endings prove that you can mess that up and still emerge a fan-favorite.
It's an interesting phenomenon. Some films are so good that viewers are mostly willing to look past the fact that they bungle things at the end. For this to happen, literally everything else about the picture has to operate at peak level. If that occurs, people are likely to overlook a wrap-up that's too bleak, or that leaves a lot of questions unanswered, or that inadvertently sends the wrong message.
If we're being honest, this sort of cinematic forgiveness is probably healthy. There's no such thing as a perfect movie, so if we can't overlook a flaw or two, we'll never enjoy anything. The following films work so phenomenally that you probably don't mind their faulty finales.
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The Film: Clean-cut Sandy (Olivia Newton-John) has an on-again/off-again relationship with cool dude Danny (John Travolta). Their friends offer varying degrees of disapproval.
The Ending: Sandy reveals an edgier side, Danny shows that he can clean himself up, and the entire cast sings "We Go Together." Danny and Sandy hop into a car that flies into the air, leaving everyone else behind.
Why It Doesn't Hold Up: Musicals are inherently unrealistic. In real life, people don't spontaneously burst into song or synchronized dance moves. Nonetheless, it's essential for any movie to adhere to its own logic. Grease breaks that with its inexplicable flying car. Nothing else in the film has this level of fantasy, so it stands out like a sore thumb.
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The Film: Jack (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Rose (Kate Winslet) fall in love on the ill-fated boat. When it hits an iceberg, they struggle to stay alive.
The Ending: Jack puts Rose on a door to stay afloat, but he passes of hypothermia from the cold water. Jumping back to the present day, the aged Rose lets the Heart of the Ocean diamond fall into the water.
Why It Doesn't Hold Up: As Titanic fans have been saying for years, Jack didn't need to go. That was a pretty big door he had Rose board. He presumably could have climbed up there with her, which would have saved his life and allowed their romance to continue. His end feels like a cheat to make the movie into a tearjerker. Writer/director James Cameron even admitted he wanted Jack to perish because it would be powerful.
There's also something off-putting about Rose tossing the diamond. We're told it once belonged to Louis XVI and has a value of millions of dollars. Why would anyone casually throw away something with so much historical and financial value?
The Film: Tony Manero (John Travolta) works in a hardware store by day. At night, he's the king of the disco dance floor. He eventually finds a dance partner named Stephanie and falls in love.
The Ending: After getting dumped and then seeing one of his best friends lose their life in a freak accident, Tony goes to Stephanie's apartment to apologize for being a jerk. She agrees to be friends with him. The movie ends on a freeze frame of Stephanie holding him in her arms as the Bee Gees "How Deep Is Your Love" plays on the soundtrack.
Why It Doesn't Hold Up: Tony puts Stephanie through a lot in Saturday Night Fever, including giving away the dance trophy they win. The reason she breaks up with him, though, is because he attempts to force himself on her. When he shows up sad later, she conveniently forgets all about this. By letting him off the hook, the film implies these behaviors are no big deal.
The Film: Married man Dan (Michael Douglas) cheats on his wife, Beth (Anne Archer), only to have his mistress, Alex (Glenn Close), turn on him when he tries to end things.
The Ending: Alex comes at Beth with a knife in the bathroom. Dan rushes in and shoves Alex into a tub full of water, where she seemingly perishes. As he sits on the edge and catches his breath, she springs back up with a scream and goes after him with the knife. Beth then fires at her and stops her for good.
Why It Doesn't Hold Up: It took quite a few years for people to realize how disappointing Fatal Attraction's ending is. At the time, audiences got caught up in the excitement and drama of it. Time and repeat viewings exposed the finale's weakness, though.
For starters, it employs the age-old "psycho's last grab" cliché, in which the villain appears to be finished, only to come back for one last "gotcha" moment. This device was common in '80s horror fare, like the Friday the 13th movies. Using it in an otherwise sophisticated drama was a cheap trick.
The disappointment factor was laid even barer when the original ending was made available as a bonus feature on the DVD. In it, Alex off herself using a knife that has Dan's fingerprints on it, thereby framing him. This finale is far more in line with the story's overall tone. Incidentally, Glenn Close, Anne Archer, and director Adrian Lyne all hated the theatrically released ending.