Billy Wilder’s movie The Last Weekend, about the suicide of an alcoholic author, won the 1946 Academy Award for Best Picture. Wilder also garnered that year’s Oscar for Best Director, and Ray Milland won Best Actor, portraying the final days of a binging alcoholic. The film gained a fourth Oscar: Wilder and Charles Bracket won for best screenplay.
There’s a story behind that last award. The movie was based on a semi-autobiographical novel, of the same name, by Charles Jackson. Despite its tragic topic, the book was an unexpected bestseller in 1944. According to Blake Bailey, writing in Vanity Fair, within five years it had sold almost half a million copies in various editions and was translated into fourteen languages. It also received considerable critical acclaim.
Wilder read the novel, rapidly twice, on a train ride to Los Angeles and immediately knew that he wanted to bring the story to the screen. The hitch was the Hayes Commission, Hollywood’s decency watch dog. Wilder didn’t think a movie about a brilliant author succumbing to alcoholism would be accepted. So, in the first screenplay, which he and Bracket produced, the author is saved from alcoholism when his girlfriend talks him out of suicide and gets him to believe in himself as a writer.
Charles Jackson was furious. "Talk about neat, pat, cheap endings" he wrote a friend, "but also talk about betrayal." Ironically, Jackson had almost drunk himself to death before his own success as a writer, but that wasn’t the book he had written. He had told a story — one repeated all too many times in real life — in which no angel of grace appeared. Jackson’s novel ended in the writer’s suicide, not redemption through the love of a good woman.
Billy Wilder thought Hollywood demanded a neat, nicely packaged salvation story, though that wasn’t the novel the author had written. Eventually, Jackson’s version won out. Audiences watched the then popular Ray Milland drink himself to death. The somber story effectively ended his career. The sheer quality of Milland’s acting had rattled America.
Whether endings need to be happy raises an interesting question about the nature of belief. Human beings can’t help but to search for meaning, which is why believers and non-believers have more in common than one might think. For me, only someone who argues that the universe, human history, and his or her own story are all absolutely meaningless truly earns the title "atheist." If one believes that our stories have meaning, one is a believer, whether or not one is comfortable using the word God. There’s something self-contradictory in the very act of atheism. Certainly, one can assert the absence of any possible answer to the human question, but can one really follow through by abandoning the search for meaning?
If the would-be atheist is too prone to ignore his or her own questions, confessed believers can be so terrified of a meaningless world that they settle, all too willingly, for quick answers and ready-made meanings, what Jackson called, neat, pat, cheap endings.
In their own, divergent ways atheists and believers are both uncomfortable with uncertainty. They both are tempted to abandon the search, the existential quest for answers: one says, there are none; the other is willing to accept anything plausible as God’s truth writ large.
The scriptures remind us that, on this side of the grave, we never do more than glimpse God. In a trance, Abraham is enveloped in darkness, and he sees God pass through the remnants of his sacrifice like "a smoking fire pot and flaming torch" (Gen 15:17).
The first disciples, trying to make sense of the death and resurrection of Jesus, retrieved an experience of transfiguration from Peter, John, and James, one that we cannot hope to unravel or gainsay. For a moment, but only for a moment, they saw the glory of the Lord. Whatever that experience was, it sustained them in the years that followed, when so many new questions and uncertainties visited.
To be human is ever to grow. That’s why our personal understanding of God shouldn’t stop evolving, but the temptation is ever to settle for neat, pat, cheap endings. If to be an atheist is to deny the existence of God, of an ultimately satisfying answer to the mystery of human life, that’s probably a step too far for most human beings, who can’t help but to search. But, if being a believer means thinking that there are no mysteries left, that you have all the answers, then the believer has just as effectively squelched what it means to be human.
In the end we are all agnostic, literally from the Greek, those who don’t know. Believers don’t know that there is a God in the same way that they know there is a President of the United States. What brings an "agnostic-believer" to kneel in church is a fleeting glimpse of God’s glory, a flame that flashed in darkness and then vanished.
Charles Jackson hated the idea that art had to be emotionally palatable. That didn’t do justice to the suffering, the misery that suffuses human life. Blake Bailey writes:
Alas, over time the movie became such a classic that even literate people tended to forget that it had been based on an acclaimed best-seller of the same name. "I have become so used to having people say ‘We loved your movie’ instead of ‘We read your book,’" wrote Jackson, "that now I merely say ‘Thanks.’"
He went on to publish five more books, but found it harder and harder to write without the stimulus of pills and alcohol, and finally died in 1968 of a Seconal overdose at the Chelsea Hotel, where he had been living for three years.
What does that mean? What sort of a note is that to end upon? I don’t know what it means. God does. And in saying "God does," I do no more than assert my belief, my boomerang hope, that our history has an answer worthy of it.
Genesis 15: 5-12, 17-18 Philippians 3: 17- 4:1 Luke 9: 28b-36