About six months ago, I wrote a piece about a collective false memory many of us had about the Nora Ephron movie, You’ve Got Mail. A brief recap: I recently rewatched the film and was befuddled because the edit that I watched did not end as I remembered it, namely with Meg Ryan’s character, Kathleen, reading a children’s book in a nook in the bookstore of Tom Hanks’ character, Joe Fox. I was absolutely certain that the movie had ended that way. I took to the Internet to commiserate, only to discover that many other people had a similar recollection. There were theories that different edits were made for television or cable that included a scene before the credits in which Meg Ryan’s character was reading a children’s book.
After I wrote the piece, I saw in our comments section that a number of other people had a similar recollection. Here’s a random sampling of three comments.
I also took a Twitter poll, and a full 35 percent of people had the exact same recollection.
Question (and a follow-up to my 'You've Got Mail' post). How do you remember 'You've Got Mail' ending? With Joe and Kathleen in the park? Or with Kathleen reading to children in a nook of Fox Books? (Update to follow).— pajiba (@pajiba) March 1, 2021
Stumped by this, I reached out to the assistant editor of You’ve Got Mail, Shelly Westerman, to see if she could provide some clarity. Alas, before Shelly Westerman got back to me, Maria over on LaineyGossip — who had a similar recollection — brilliantly scooped me on my own story, reaching out to Nora Ephron’s sister, Delia Ephron, who wrote back: “The movie always ended in Riverside Park. And no one has messed with the movie since it was released.”
For the record, Shelly Westerman also responded and confirmed that there was no other ending. “I have no recollection of any other ending other than what exists,” she wrote. “I asked one of my co-workers and got the same answer. It was always Joe and Kathleen in the park. The theatrical version was always Nora’s director’s cut - we didn’t do alternate versions or endings. Our beloved editor, Richard Marks, passed away two years ago, but I’m certain that one of us from the editorial crew would have remembered such a thing.”
Separately, a few months ago, I also watched a few of my favorite ’80s movies with my kids back-to-back-to-back: Karate Kid, Brewster’s Millions, and Planes, Trains, and Automobiles. I mentioned this on the Podjiba podcast at one point, but I couldn’t get over the fact that those movies end very abruptly. Movies always used to end abruptly. When the plot ended, so did the movie. One of my favorite writers, Mike Ryan — who has likewise been watching a lot of old movies, of late — wrote about this phenomenon last week. It’s a great piece. He asked a lot of screenwriters who divulged to him anonymously the various reasons movies no longer just end, and it mostly has to do with the need to set up sequels and also because test audiences like everything to be nicely wrapped up for them. Here’s a passage germane to this piece:
“Well, I think it has a lot to do with CinemaScore and the testing process,” says a screenwriter. “Movies are looking for that little boost at the end to get that final impression up a bit right as people leave the theater. That’s why post-credit sequences work. You can see that movies that end ambiguously score lower in testing and on CinemaScore. So the longer endings remove all ambiguity.”
He continues, “There is a screenwriter guru person. She says people don’t care about victories; they respond to people celebrating the victories. That’s what makes audiences happy. Hence the medal scene at the end of Star Wars. That’s what gives people joy, not the Death Star exploding. I think maybe we’ve overlearned that lesson.”
Reading that, I realized exactly why so many people recalled You’ve Got Mail the way we did. Movies have longer endings now to remove all ambiguity. In the ’80s and ’90s, however, it wasn’t the movies that erased that ambiguity, it was our brains. We removed the ambiguity ourselves in our minds with our imaginations after the movie ended, and for whatever reason, at least 35 percent of us thought that Kathleen reading in Joe’s bookstore was the happy ending we wanted. In fact, there were two versions of that imagined ending I’ve seen: One in which Joe had devoted a children’s corner in his bookstore to Kathleen, and another in which Kathleen was reading her own children’s book in that corner.
After watching Planes, Trains, and Automobiles again, I realized that I’d created something of a false memory about the ending of that film, too. The actual film itself has a perfect conclusion — Neal and Del (Steven Martin and John Candy, respectively) arrive back at Neal’s house in time for Thanksgiving dinner, the family is waiting for them, and Neal introduces his wife to Del before Neal kisses her. Del stands and watches, which is both very sweet (because he’s thinking about his late wife) and a little awkward. In my brain, however, I had also envisioned another scene of the entire family eating over the Thanksgiving dinner table as the credits rolls. I don’t know why my brain needed that, but I was surprised it didn’t exist in the movie.
My brain recalled Karate Kid differently, as well. I was taken aback by how quickly that ended about 10 seconds after Daniel was declared the winner. They held up his arm, the camera flashed to Miyagi smiling, and the credits rolled. That was it. The end. That’s not how I remembered it. I remember Miyagi kicking the crap out of John Kreese in the parking lot after the match. Of course, that’s the opening of Karate Kid II, but what’s strange is how clearly I remember it at the end of the first movie. I have seen Karate Kid seven or eight times in my life. I have seen Karate Kid II once. I don’t remember any other scene in the sequel except the opening, which my brain transferred onto the end of Karate Kid.
The point is this: It is true that our brains crave having all those ambiguities resolved, and that we do like to see celebrations, but studios don’t need to spend an extra 10-15 minutes resolving all the ambiguities or providing the celebrations we desire to see. Our minds will do it for us, and they will do it better than any screenwriter, mostly because a screenwriter can only give us her ending. Our brains, however, can give us whatever ending we want. Some of us are fine with Kathleen and Joe kissing in the park. Some of us, though, want to see Kathleen co-opt a corner of Joe’s store for her own, while others prefer to see Kathleen as a successful children’s author. Those short endings allow us to choose our own ending, and the power of our imaginations allows those endings to stick.
(Hat Tip: Mike Ryan)
Header Image Source: Warner Brothers