TERMS OF ENDEARMENT (****)
By John H. Foote
My wife was very close with her mother. Best friends. They could spend an entire day together, then call each other at night to chat some more. Ellie often went with us to various events, movies, plays, fairs, to hear the folk group Tanglefoot, and of course she and Sherri danced together. I never minded Ellie being around, she is a great lady, honest, straight up, and never interfered with Sherri and I. If we asked her something we knew we were going to get an honest answer. If she had something to say she said it, never with malice, she just said it as she felt.
The love between mother and daughter was evident, but ran deeper I came to realize than I had possibly imagined. As a man, I will will never understand the love a mother has for her children, especially their daughters. Men are wired differently, we cannot possibly begin to understand a mothers love. There is something inherently built in between them, an almost secret language that only they understand. When my daughters were born, I loved them both, but as a father loves his children, to protect, to care for, there was something very different in the love Sherri had for our girls. It was exactly what Ellie had with Sherri.
When Sherri died, I know it dealt Ellie a terrible blow, something far beyond the adage that children are not supposed to die before their parents, she lost her best friend, her dance partner, her social partner, and she lost her baby. They had not always been so close, the teenage years for Sherri were mighty rocky as she strived to find herself. There were arguments, each refusing to yield. Sherri often told me how ashamed she was of how she treated her mom during that time, but also was aware that she had to experience those years to become the loving and warm and exceptionally strong person she became.
Terms of Endearment (1983) is the finest film I have ever seen about the mother-daughter dynamic. It nails it, understands it, well most of it, and beautifully portrays it all with an accuracy that is uncanny. For a few moments, however brief, we are let inside the daughter-mother dynamic and understand it a bit more when the film ends. These are not always the easiest people to like, which makes them human, real, we get them and relate to them because we can say we know someone like that, or we are like that.
Aurora Greenway (Shirley McLaine) is the domineering mother of Emma (Debra Winger) a free spirited romantic which her mother disdains. Aurora is practical, a wealthy widow, she does not care that she is about to be a grandmother when the time comes, she disapproves of her daughters husband so much that she refuses to come to their wedding, yet they talk that night about the gifts as though nothing has happened. Their connection is soul stroking, their love deep, even though they seem to be fighting all the time. Aurora is overbearing, always right (in her mind) and pokes her nose where it does not belong, but when Emma is diagnosed with cancer, the full fury and ferocity of her love for her child is bared. Suddenly she is faced with losing the one person who truly does mean everything to her, and the only person she can discuss it with is her rascal womanizing of a neighbour, portrayed with devilish charm by Jack Nicholson.
Emma has had a great deal to put up with through the years from her husband, a serial cheater with a thing for graduate students. Yet she loves him, and she knows this as clear as anything she has ever known. When she gets sick he begins to fall apart because despite his affairs, he truly loves her, and does not know what he is going to do without her in his life. When Aurora comes to Nebraska to help with her daughters children, and to make sure she is getting proper care, it is like a hurricane has hit town. God help anyone in the way of her fury because she will mow them down without a thought.
She comes to see that despite the failure of their marriage Emma and Flap (Jeff Daniels) really do love one another, they care deeply for each other. But the kids are something of a mess. Tommy is angry that he is losing his mother, angry at her that the word divorce came into their home and angriest that he is too young to comprehend it all. Emma makes the decision that their children will not be raised by Flap, but by her mother, which hurts Flap but he is wise enough to know it is best.
One of the greatest moments in the film comes when Aurora has had a punishing day at the hospital, brutal and all she wants to do is lie down and cry. She comes to the hotel where the kids are swimming, hears a voice, and turns to see Garrett (Nicholson) standing on the steps. She is thunderstruck, going to him for a tight embrace. They sit on the steps and she says to him, “Now who would have expected you to be a nice guy?” and he asks her how she is doing. At that moment the emotions roil up and Aurora fallas apart into his arms, weeping as he holds her, safe and comforted, perhaps for the first time.
When Emma dies, it is Aurora she is looking at silently, and we can see the light, quite literally, go out in her eyes. In a heartbeat she is gone, and Aurora sits back in her chair, letting the full impact of what she has lost wash over her. At first she is silent, but then with Flap beside her she breaks down again, falling into his arms, “there is nothing harder, Oh God, my sweet baby” as Flap, the man she always saw as the enemy holds her tight. United in their love for Emma, a truce is struck, for Emma, for the children.
Terms of Endearment (1983) was the first feature film of James L. Brooks, who made a career on TV long before he was interested in making films. Cheers, Taxi, The SImpsons bear his name, but this was his first foray into movie making. He would direct, write and produce the film and cast who he wanted, not the studio choices, which were ridiculous.
Shirley McLaine gives the performance of her lifetime as Aurora, winning the Academy Award and the New York Film Critics Award for Best Actress. She is a firebrand, a hurricane, but underneath the bluster and arrogance is a woman who adores her daughter and wants what is best for her. Like the rest of us, she wants to be loved, she wants to feel needed, and Emma gave her this. It is a brilliant, towering performance that deserved every single award it won and it won many.
Equally great is Debra Winger as Emma, for a time the greatest young actress of her generation. Her Emma is a down to earth woman, she knows who she is, and is happy with that, she knows what she is and is content with that. All she requires from her husband is the truth, and he fails to give her that for a time, breaking a trust they had, but never the love. Sadly Emma understands Aurora more than Aurora understands herself. Winger was nominated for an Oscar as Best Actress but this was McLaines year.
Nicholson is quietly brilliant comedic relief as the ex-astronaut who uses his fame to get laid, until he meets Aurora and finds himself falling for her, and she him. With Aurora he finds himself suddenly needed, and he likes it, because it allows him to bring our something he does use often, his decency. You just know he will step in as a father figure to the boys, and forever flirt with the little girl Emma leaves behind.
Terms of Endearment (1983) won five Academy Awards including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Screenplay, Best Supporting Actor (Nicholson) and the aforementioned Best Actress. Brooks on his first film won three Academy Awards, and also won the coveted Directors Guild of America Award as Best Director. Incredibly since, he has had Broadcast News (1987) and As Good As It Gets (1997) nominated for Best Picture without a Best Director nomination. It is as if the Academy voting members were jealous of his great success with the first film.
Terms of Endearment (1983) remains for me the single greatest film ever made about mothers and daughters, and love and loss. There is just so much in the film I have witnessed, so much that is familiar and rings true. A critically acclaimed film that was a smash at the box office, it mingles laughter with the tears, but the best kind as you are often smiling through those tears.
John H. Foote is a well-recognized Canadian film critic/historian who has been an active critic for 30 years. His deep love for the movies began at a very young age. He began his career as co-host of the popular TV show Reel to Real where he remained for nine years. While on TV he began dabbling in education, eventually ascending to Director of the Toronto Film School, where he also taught film history. After leaving the college to care for his wife, he returned to teaching at Humber College where he taught both Film History and Method Acting Theory. John has written two books: “Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker” and the upcoming “Spielberg – American Film Visionary”. He is currently working on two books, one about the films of the seventies and another on the films of Martin Scorsese. Through his career he has worked in TV, radio, print and the web. John has interviewed everyone in the industry (more than 300 interviews) except Jack Nicholson, he says sadly. Highlights include Martin Scorsese, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep Robert Duvall, Jane Fonda, Francis Ford Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow.