Terms of Endearment

Dir: James L. Brooks, 1983. Starring: Shirley MacLaine, Debra Winger, Jack Nicholson, Jeff Daniels. Drama.
Terms of Endearment
Sometimes films about women are unfairly called “chick flicks,” or more recently, if it involves illness, it can be written off as a Lifetime flick or disease-of-the-week TV movie. Terms of Endearment is neither, though it’s sometimes too elegantly clean in its look; in its heart it’s a big, complicated story with multi- dimensional characters that works perfectly as both a smart comedy and a moving drama. Following mother and daughter, Aurora (Shirley MacLaine) and Emma (Debra Winger) over decades, their tricky relationship to each other and others, like a ‘70s-style flick, sometimes it’s hard to like these women or fully understand their motives, just like real people, not movie creations. Besides MacLaine and Winger giving the performances of their careers, the film is loaded with pedigree behind it. Making his directing debut is the legendary TV writer and creator, James L. Brooks (The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Lou Grant,Taxi) and it has his now familiar fingerprints on every frame. Brooks also wrote the script, based on a book by the great novelist Larry McMurtry (Hud, The Last Picture Show, Lonesome Dove). It was shot by the respected Polish cinematographer Andrzej Bartkowiak (Prince of the City, The Verdict), the crisp look now the standard for these kinds of movies. The great Polly Platt (Paper Moon) designed it, Richard Marks (The Godfather Part II) was the editor, and Michael Gore (Fame) provides the dainty score. Oh, and in a big supporting performance Jack Nicholson wanders in and devours the screen, brilliantly.

The wealthy widow Aurora is a deeply caring but overly needy mother to her only daughter, Emma. She doesn’t approve of Emma’s choice of husband, the skirt-chasing college professor Flap Horton (Jeff Daniels) who drags Emma from one sleepy Midwest college town after another and, over the course of several years, they have three kids together. While a half-assed father, he usually also has an attractive young coed on the side. Everything Emma does doesn’t seem to meet Aurora’s high expectations; out of desperation and loneliness in her lousy marriage she even has a brief affair with a nerdy married banker (John Lithgow, who had become a major character actor after a bravura performance in The World According to Garp). 

Meanwhile, back in her immaculate suburban Houston home, Aurora toys with her many would-be suitors, including Danny Devito. But the man who is most curious to her is her longtime bachelor neighbor, Garrett Breedlove (Nicholson), a wolfish lout, ex-astronaut, his bulging belly and drunken antics reveal he’s past his prime, but he’s unable to face it. His zest for life and overt lust help to break the shell of ice that Aurora has covered herself in; their relationship is so fascinating and entertaining that it turns a good movie into a classic.

As Emma’s relationship devolves and her sons grow into early adolescence, she deals with her own class issues (her best friend from childhood is living the high life in NY) and financial struggles. But her relationship with her mother grows and improves as the two women come to terms with the expectations they put on each other and learn to accept who they are in relation to each other  until tragedy steps in and changes the course of life for everyone involved.

Going all the way back to her quirky film debut film in Alfred Hitchcock’s The Trouble with Harry, MacLaine always was one of the more original actresses of her generation; for over 50 years her filmography is loaded with interesting titles and admirable performances (The Apartment, Some Came Running, Two Mules for Sister Sara, Being There) but Terms of Endearment may be the culmination of all that talent. Besides her always obviously sharp wit, she infuses Aurora with so many layers, creating a deep sense of reality; it may be the greatest work from an all-time great actress. And in an almost competitive way, Winger is equally on her game, losing the blue-collar sexiness that established her career in Urban Cowboy and An Officer and a Gentleman; she gives Emma a sympathetic, utterly believable warmth and earthy charm. Famously, Terms of Endearment was an act-off between two of their generation’s most uncompromising and unique actresses.

Terms of Endearment really made Brooks a hot commodity; his ability to craft both deserved pathos and earned laughs with so much skill was impeccable. In some ways a less hip Cameron Crowe, he was able to let scenes run their natural course without worrying about commercial pacing (not shocking: Brooks produced Crowe’s dramedy Jerry Maguire). Since Terms of Endearment won Brooks a couple Oscars, he’s had his hand all over Hollywood, using his clout to produce The Simpsons and helping Wes Anderson get his first movie, Bottle Rocket, made. Unfortunately, though, as a brand name writer/ director, with the exception of the admirable Broadcast News, he mostly made mush (As Good as it Gets, Spanglish, etc.), making himself into the male Nancy Meyers. Brooks could’ve just suffered from the Oscar-hype curse. After MacLaine deservedly won her first Oscar here (edging out co-star Winger), Hollywood and the world were at her feet. What was her follow-up? Cannonball Run II. Every movie, unfortunately, can’t beTerms of Endearment.
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Terms of Endearment won 5 Oscars including Best Picture, Best Director (James L. Brooks), Best Actress (Shirley Maclaine), Best Supporting Actor (Jack Nicholson), and Best Adapted Screenplay (James L. Brooks).
Posted by:
Sean Sweeney
Jun 11, 2012 7:31pm
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