After writing for a variety of television shows through most of the 1990s, screenwriter Charlie Kaufman broke out on the big screen in a massive way when he teamed up with director Spike Jonze to make Being John Malkovich. While not exactly a box office phenomenon, never getting more than a limited release, it became an instant favorite among cinephiles who fully embraced its imagination and wonkiness. Kaufman has since gone on to make a number of equally incredible films as both a writer and a director, including Adaptation., Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind, Synecdoche, New York, and I’m Thinking Of Ending Things, but fans will never forget the film that served as his big break out.
Part of what makes Charlie Kaufman’s films so fun for fans is the fact that they demand analysis, and his feature debut is no exception – hence what we’re here to discuss today. Being John Malkovich’s ending is a wild one, and in this feature we’re going to break down both what unfolds, and what it means. In case it’s been a minute since you’ve last seen the film, let’s begin with the former…
What Happens At The End Of Being John Malkovich
Picking up eight months after “John” (really John Cusack’s Craig) tells his agent that he wants to transition his career from acting to puppetry, the third act begins as a pregnant Maxine (Catherine Keener) sets up a nursery and “John” settles in to watch a television special about his work. It’s revealed that Malkovich’s clout has successfully elevated the art form in notoriety, and that he’s earned great fame and accolade for his contributions to the field – but the documentary also highlights that his relationship with Maxine has been on a steep decline following the announcement of her pregnancy… which is only further highlighted by the fact that “John” is watching television all by himself while his wife is in the other room.
His special over, “John” makes his way to the Metropolitan Opera House for a performance of his latest performance piece, which has a human-sized puppet elegantly dancing with a ballet company.
When “John” makes his way home, a massive birthday cake in hand, he realizes that Maxine is gone and that the apartment has been raided. Hearing the phone ringing, he finds it and answers it. On the other line is Dr. Lester (Orson Bean), calling from the seventh-and-a-half floor of the Mertin-Flemmer building, and he explains that he and his group have kidnapped Maxine, and that they will kill her if Craig doesn’t leave Malkovich’s body immediately.
Hanging up on them, “John” sits in contemplation. Dr. Lester informs the members of his group, including Lotte (Cameron Diaz) that Craig has called their bluff. While they do indeed have Maxine, and she is tied up, they have no intention of actually hurting her. Knowing that the group must enter Malkovich before the end of his 44th birthday, Lotte asks why the group can’t just enter the actor-turned-puppeteer’s mind, but Lester notes that doing so with Craig in control would merely get them pushed down into Malkovich’s subconscious.
Upset and still feeling scorned, Lotte decides that she is going to personally execute the threat made to “John,” and she pulls a gun out of her purse to shoot Maxine – saying, “If I can’t have you, no one can.” Dr. Lester exclaims that Maxine can’t be killed, and the manipulative business woman uses the temporary distraction to dive into the Malkovich door for the first time. Lotte follows her, but as Lester predicted, Craig’s influence leads them to be shoved into Malkovich’s subconscious. A chase ensues through the actor’s memories until they both find themselves dropped on to the side of the New Jersey Turnpike in a torrential downpour.
With Maxine scrambling and successfully grabbing Lotte’s gun, the two women have an emotional reckoning. Lotte remains incredibly hurt by Maxine’s betrayal, but Maxine explains that she really did love her in her own way… and that the baby she is carrying came from a time when Lotte was controlling Malkovich, not Craig.
Craig's Change Of Heart
Meanwhile, “John” gets drunk in a bar, and winds up getting in a fight when a fellow patron recognizes him. Getting a glimpse of himself in a bar mirror, “John” calls Lester to tell him not to hurt Maxine, and that he will leave Malkovich. Craig makes good on his promise, dropping a few feet away from where Lotte and Maxine are, and the real John Malkovich returns to control of his body for the first time in months. It’s a short-lived experience, though, as Lester and his group file into the Malkovich door.
Lotte and Maxine successfully hail down a car, and Craig runs up to them arguing that his willingness to sacrifice being John Malkovich proves his love for his former business partner. He is promptly told to “fuck off,” and the car drives away. He screams that he is going to go back to the Malkovich door, kick Lester out, and continue to demonstrate his love… but this by itself shows his ignorance about how the door really works.
A Jump To The Future
Seven years later, a balding Charlie Sheen arrives at “John Malkovich’s” house. Malkovich has taken on Lester’s look in both hair and clothing style, and has married Lester’s former assistant, Floris (Mary Kay Place). “John” takes Charlie upstairs and begins recruiting him to be a part of the new group that will enter the next vessel.
Said next vessel is Emily (Kelly Teacher), who is then shown having a pool day with her two moms, Maxine and Lotte. As the three are shown to be having a wonderful day, it’s revealed that Craig went through with his threat to try and reenter the Malkovich door and is powerlessly trapped inside Emily’s mind – miserable at his inability to get Maxine to love him.
It’s a wild ending, and one that we’re excited to dig into – starting with an explanation of exactly what the hell is happening as characters filter in and out of John Malkovich’s brain.
What Happens To Craig, Maxine And Lotte In Being John Malkovich
Being John Malkovich is ultimately about a truly strange love triangle formed between Craig, Lotte, and Maxine, and as strange as their relationship is from the get-go – with Craig being married to Lotte and then falling in love with Maxine, only to then learn that Lotte is in love with Maxine as well – things end in an even more bizarre place.
As explained during the second act of the movie, Dr. Lester and his group need to enter the Malkovich door before midnight on his 44th birthday, with the given reason being that entering the door after that point in time would result in the collective being diverted to a “larval vessel” and getting absorbed. Lotte knows this, and it’s possible that Maxine is informed of what’s going on during her kidnapping, but Craig doesn’t.
Craig winds up making good on his shouted promise to try and return to Malkovich so that he can win Maxine’s heart, but doing so diverts him to the aforementioned larval vessel – who happens to be Emily, Lotte and Maxine’s daughter. Assuming that Craig didn’t wait a few days/weeks before trying the door again, this means that he experienced the birth of Emily as a passenger in the newborn’s mind, and he will presumably be trapped there forever, viewing the world through her eyes with absolutely zero control. And making it hurt all the more is that he simultaneously has to watch the loving relationship between his ex-wives.
Odd? Certainly. But the truth is that Being John Malkovich was originally going to end on an infinitely more bizarre note…
The Original Being John Malkovich Ending
Those who have followed Charlie Kaufman’s work know that his movies have only gotten stranger in the years since Being John Malkovich – but it feels necessary to note that his particular penchant for weird didn’t exactly manifest out of nothing. The truth is that as wild as the end of the 1999 film is, the end as it was originally scripted was far more over the top.
The original ending of Being John Malkovich was unearthed by Badass Digest in 2014, and it’s ridiculous just how much the third act changed over the course of development. The differences between the early versions and the final cut of the film are many, starting with the fact that the plan wasn’t always to have Malkovich change careers from acting to puppeteering. Instead, the early version of the script saw Malkovich become famous as a puppet, with Craig letting everyone in the world know that he is pulling the metaphorical strings.
Craig takes his show to Vegas, where he has Malkovich perform scenes from On The Waterfront and juggle chainsaws – but his dominance in the puppeteering market is eventually challenged. Derek Mantini a.k.a. The Great Mantini (who is referenced in a news broadcast at the start of the film for having operated a giant Emily Dickenson puppet) challenges Craig to a duel of sorts: the Malkovich puppet and a Mantini-controlled Harry S. Truman are to co-star in a performance of the play Equus, and then fans would choose which one of the puppeteers would be banned from the art.
Meanwhile, it’s revealed that Dr. Lester and his group aren’t quite as innocent as they seem, as the reality is that they are being led by the literal Devil, who goes by the alias Mr. Flemmer (in turn revealing that the Mertin-Flemmer building was co-founded by Satan). During the second act of the Equus performance, Flemmer teleports in and livens up the show by “possessing” the Truman puppet. The audience is wowed as the Truman puppet juggles bowling pins before transforming into a giant swan and exploding. From the remains emerges the real Harry Truman, who urges the audience to vote for Mantini – which they do in overwhelming numbers.
Defeated, Craig leaves Malkovich’s body, which gives the opening for Mr. Flemmer, Dr. Lester, and the rest of the group to enter the door. Malkovich becomes a godlike being, transforming most of the world into black-and-white, and he flies into midtown Manhattan to organize a massive choreographed number that finds people dance until they die.
During all of this, Lotte winds up falling in love with her chimpanzee, Elijah, and together they organize a resistance group to try and stop Flemmer. The last resort is to try and plant a bomb behind the Malkovich door, but Lotte is interrupted when she runs into Craig at the Mertin-Flemmer building. They make peace, and Lotte invites Craig back to where she lives – and as they walk we see a wire extending from Craig’s arm. Panning up, we see that he is being controlled by The Great Mantini, but then it’s revealed that Mantini has wires as well, and is being controlled by Flemmer. The final shot was originally meant to dive into the Devil’s mouth, with the inside looking similar to the Malkovich tunnel.
Between the extra money that would have been required to pull all of this off, and the absolute nuttiness of it, it’s not entirely surprising that this isn’t the conclusion of Being John Malkovich, but we can certainly always appreciate the brilliant madness of Charlie Kaufman’s vision.
What are your thoughts on the ending of Being John Malkovich? Would you have preferred to see the original ending? Hit the comments section with all of your thoughts, feelings, and opinions on the matter, and stay tuned here on CinemaBlend for more of our regular Ending Explained features.