Ever see a movie where, at the end, you feel cheated? Where you want to rage and yell, “That is NOT how this is supposed to go!” Where you immediately look around for someone to talk it through, to sort out all the feelings?
That’s how I felt after watching “The Wife.”
Warning: Spoilers Ahead
I’d been looking forward to watching “The Wife” ever since I’d seen Glenn Close’s acceptance speech from the Golden Globes. Her words sparked a piece (“How Do You Measure Success?”) and, when I watched the trailer for background research, the scene with Elizabeth McGovern as a world-weary woman writer in an old boys’ club world sealed the deal on seeing the film.
So it was a treat to slip in my earbuds, select my in-flight entertainment, and sit back to sip a gin and tonic and watch “The Wife.” #lifeisgood
Close deserves every award. I’d love to see it again just to track how many minutes of scenes are devoted simply to her facial reactions. I’m 56 (soon to be 57), and this Joan Castleman is so fucking familiar. She’s my mom; she’s me–yes, I could call myself a “king-maker”; my husband is successful because I took care of the home stuff. And I don’t regret that–caring for the kids, maintaining the house, shopping and laundry-ing and managing social obligations–one bit.
But here’s the thing: there’s always “one bit.” When Joan hits her limit on “bits,” it’s visceral. Suddenly, managing the crumbs in the beard, administering medications, and acting as background support at social situations is just too much. That moment when her husband says to a crowd of admirers, “My wife doesn’t write,” I saw–and felt–Joan snap.
Long before Christian Slater’s slightly smarmy journalist, Nathaniel Bone (insert “Beevis and Butthead” chuckle here: Heh heh. Bone) plied Joan with drinks, I knew she was the real writer in the family. What does it say that I found Nathaniel fairly irresistible? Had he and I been sipping cocktails in front of a fireplace, the moment he’d complimented my undiscovered talent, I’ve have spilled my secrets for sure. But perhaps I’m just a bit more desperate for positive recognition.
As the Castlemans navigated the Nobel Prize recognition events in Stockholm, tension–and my rage–built. Emotionally, I was with Joan every step of the way, especially as she listened to Joe’s acceptance speech. Sitting there, knowing the part she’d played in those exceptional books, and hearing her husband’s patronizing words, to be denied her moment of secret celebration, was excruciatingly painful. Because that’s what Joan wanted: to hear Joe’s words as if they were her own. For all those years, he’d been her public face and she needed to put herself in his place. What she got instead was a reminder that no-one, not even Joe, would ever credit her talent.
I was with Joan every step of the way . . . until they got back to the hotel.
How “The Wife” Ended
After fleeing the dinner, Joan reaches the boiling point. As she and Joe return to the hotel in the limousine, big reveal occurs–Joan has actually written the novels; Joe edited. All those years, he cared for the kids and managed the house so she could write full-time. They published under his name; awards and prestige went solely to Joe; as a “team” (Joe’s words, not Joan’s), they’d maintained this fiction for decades.
But it’s over now and Joan is leaving him.
As she packs, Joe sits on the bed. He begins to complain of feeling unwell (now, does he really, or is this just how I remember it?). Joan immediately reverts into her caregiver role: “Remember to breathe, darling.” She calls for an ambulance, stating that Joe is having a heart attack, comforting him until the medical team arrives.
She watches them work; the scene closes as the medics shock Joe.
The final scene is of Joan and her son, on the plane, returning home. We learn Joe has died when the flight attendant offers condolences. In a mirror image of an earlier scene, Nathaniel crouches in the aisle to have a word. Joan tells him that, if he breathes anything of his suspicions, she’ll take him to court. After Nathaniel creeps away, she turns to her son; he’s been listening. She tells him that, when they get home, she will tell him and his sister everything.
When the credits rolled, I ripped out my earbuds and looked around in disbelief.
How I Wish “The Wife” Had Ended
I haven’t read Meg Wolitzer’s novel and I purposefully haven’t done any research, so I don’t know if the film’s ending mirrors the book’s. But Joan’s capitulation just doesn’t work for me. It’s cheap, sentimental, and easy.
Joan is a richly layered character–a brilliant woman who’s finally reached a breaking point. That kind of rage doesn’t go neatly back in a bottle. For so long, she’s lived the 1950s creed of “stand behind your man”; deciding to leave Joe is a huge psychological break. She’s been suffering from Stockholm Syndrome and now sees her captor’s warts. For Christ’s sake, she’s just had a reminder that he’s a manipulative liar (the walnut thing was sooo creepy). No way she immediately reverts to that submissive role.
So, yeah–I had to rework that ending. (Look; I’m an editor–it’s what we do.)
My Alternate Ending for “The Wife”
IN THE HOTEL ROOM
As Joe begins to exhibit signs of physical discomfort, Joan ceases packing, clearly disgusted.
Joan, coldly, frozen, with clothes in hand: “Joe–did you take your medicine? I set your watch; I did everything but put the damn pills in your damn mouth. Or is this a scene? Huh, Joe? Are you playing me, working a tired old line?” She shakes her head with a sneer. “Your plot points were always a bit contrived.”
Joe closes his eyes and rubs at his left arm, a pained expression on his face. Joan glares at him, stomps over to the phone, and calls for help.
Joan, in a flat tone: “Yes. Send a doctor, please; my husband appears to be having a heart attack.”
She hangs up and resumes packing while Joe, still seated on the bed, becomes more distressed and agitated.
Joe, beseechingly: “Joan, I would never–you know how much I love you. You’re my muse, my light. You’ve always been.” He pauses for dramatic effect and reaches out to her. “Without you, I am nothing.”
Joan, bags in hand, walks past his outstretched hand. She opens the hotel room door, then turns.
Joan: “I know, Joe. I know.”
Slow motion, silent but for swelling theme music–in the foreground, Joan walks away from the room and toward the camera; in the background, medics rush from the elevator toward the room she has just left. Expressionless, she does not look back. Fade to black.
ON THE PLANE
Joan sits next to her son, reading and working, when Nathaniel Bone approaches her seat. Crouching, he leans solicitously toward her.
Nathaniel: “I’m so sorry for your loss. The world will miss a talented writer like Joe Castleman.”
The camera closes in until the screen shows only Nathaniel and Joan. Emotions–sadness, a touch of pride, and then a still resoluteness–pass over Joan’s face as Nathaniel intently watches. She gives a wistful and knowing smile before reaching over to grasp Nathaniel’s arm.
Joan: “Thank you, Nathaniel. We’re still in shock. It’s too soon right now . . . I can barely breathe. But the world won’t do without that talent; there are his existing books and, well . . . Joe was working on something.” Meaningful pause; they stare into one another eyes (no eye contact has been broken since their conversation began). “Perhaps I can honor him best by seeing that novel come to light.”
Nathaniel searches her face; his eyes narrow and then he smiles with her. Joan pats his arm dismissively, glances over her shoulder at her son, who has been listening, before turning to Nathaniel once more.
Joan: “A Nobel Prize winner deserves a proper biography. We’ll talk again.”
Nathaniel nods, places his hand on hers, and rises. As Nathaniel walks away, Joan turns to her son.
Joan: “When we get home, I will tell you and your sister everything.”
He raises her hand to his lips and kisses it. Final shot of Joan with a beatific smile slowly lighting her face.