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toronto film festival 2013

Toronto: Should August: Osage County Change Its Ending?

There’s a game I like to play at the Toronto Film Festival parties as I make my way to the bar: I weave past two people who are passionately talking about a movie they loved (or didn’t), I listen for scraps of their conversation, and I try to guess the film in question from those out-of-context clues. Sometimes, you just know. If they’re struggling to form the words, they just saw 12 Years a Slave. If someone asks in a leading way, “What did you think about about the script, though?” then they’re probably vocalizing the sole rap against the visually dazzling Gravity. But when I hear someone say emphatically, “That ending!” then they could be talking about two different films: either the Jake Gyllenhaal flick Enemy, which boasts a final shot that’s unnerving, startling, and impossible, or the star-packed film adaptation of August: Osage County, which has a notably different final sequence than the Pulitzer Prize–winning play penned by Tracy Letts.

[Warning: Spoilers will follow for both versions August: Osage County, although I’m hardly revealing state secrets here.]

First, a primer: August: Osage County follows the contentious Weston clan, headed by bilious matriarch Violet (played by Meryl Streep in the film), who summons her kin back to their childhood home when paterfamilias Beverly (Sam Shephard) goes missing. Pill-popping Violet then seizes the opportunity to verbally demolish each and every one of her relatives, though not everyone decides to take that abuse lying down, least of all her strong-willed eldest daughter, Barbara (Julia Roberts).

So, the ending. Onstage, August finishes with Violet all alone in her house: She’s systematically driven away every single one of her family members, and now she’s forced to endure the loneliness she probably deserves. It’s a bleak denouement, but a fitting one. The movie version of August almost ends that way ... until it chickens out. 

This time, Violet is still left to her own devices by her fed-up family, and the procession of frustrated relatives culminates with the exit of Barbara, who has realized she can endure her mother’s misery no longer. As she decamps, Violet puts on some music and tries to dance, but the self-denial can only last so long: She’s left calling out for the family that’s abandoned her. And juuuust as you think the movie is going to end with Violet all alone, the movie cuts back to Barbara, who’s driving away with a “You know what, I’m gonna be okay!” smile on her face. The dark, near-chiaroscuro setting of the Weston family home is gone, and we get a minute and a half of the honey-dappled plains and Roberts looking happy. Score that last bit with an upbeat pop song and it could have come from a romantic comedy Julia Roberts had made in her prime.

For people who saw August onstage, the ending is practically blasphemy, but even an unversed viewer will detect a tonal disconnect. And apparently, that forced happy ending is a contentious creative choice: Director John Wells told the Los Angeles Times that he’s against that extra little bit, but test audiences — and producer Harvey Weinstein — prevailed upon him to end the movie with something less downbeat.

The real wrinkle here is that Wells is still fighting to trim the epilogue before the movie’s Christmas Day release. "I'm not sure I’m OK with doing it that way," he told the Times. "I don't want to say there's anything wrong with the current ending, because there isn't. But it's something we’re still talking about. We don’t open for three months, and it’s possible you’ll see something different."

It’s a dilemma, and it will be interesting to see how it shakes out. On the one hand, Wells may keep the current ending, which will rub discerning moviegoers the wrong way but could help goose the box office by including one last, hopeful scene to leaven the two previous hours of cruelty. The other option would be to cut the final Barbara sequence, which will restore some respect for a movie that’s gotten mixed critical notices, but may leave general audiences cold. Then again, this is Harvey Weinstein we’re talking about; it wouldn’t surprise me if the canny marketer puts out the trimmed cut at first, then, upon week three of release, advertises an “extended cut” that preserves the happy ending. In any case, it should make for an unusual surprise come Christmas morning.

Photo: Jean Doumanian Productions