By John H. Foote
5. TERMS OF ENDEARMENT (1983)
The greatest film ever about the relationships between mothers and daughters. Directed, produced and written by first time feature film director James L. Brooks, the film is as close to perfection as a film can be. No stranger to creating, Brooks had been responsible for the creation of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Cheers, Taxi, Rhoda and most famously, The Simpsons, to name a few of the popular TV shows he created. Brooks had started his career long before producing those iconic programs writing for others, including That Girl with Marlo Thomas.
My wife had a very close relationship with her mother, though her teenage years had been contentious. I had not known Sherri then, but when we began dating she asked if her mom, a fellow movie nut ,could go to a movie with us. I liked Ellie and she became our frequent companion at the movies. They did many things together, including dancing. Forming a twosome to dance in front of audiences after our kids were born. They could spend the day together, and still call each other for a few minutes at night, they never tired of speaking to one another. And you know Ellie was great, never interfered in our marriage, offered advice only we asked. I came to love Ellie very much, still do. When Sherri died, it left a gap in her mother’s life that has never been filled. Suddenly her best friend was gone. During the 25 years I had with Sherri I was permitted to watch one of the closest relationships I had ever seen, something true, something beautiful. A mother and daughter who had been at war sometimes, but now had a love for each other that was undeniable and power, unbreakable.
Guys do not understand it, we never will. It is best we sit back and enjoy the love they share with us, that they include us in their world. I have come to love Ellie very much; she makes me smile.
In the screen adaptation of Larry McMurtry’s novel Terms of Endearment, which Brooks wrote, we are introduced to Aurora (Shirley MacLaine) and Emma (Debra Winger) Greenway, mother and daughter who are at war since nearly birth. Not hearing sound from the baby’s room, Aurora all but climbs into the crib to wake the sleeping baby, then satisfied it is not crib death, climbs out, leaving Emma wailing. As she grows, Emma is a natural rebel to her hyper critical mother, who barely bats an eye when her husband dies, leaving her wealthy.
When Emma marries Flap (Jeff Daniels) against her wishes she boycotts the wedding, but cannot stop calling her daughter all day long to ask about the ceremony and the gifts she received. This more or less defines their relationship, they fight, then talk as though nothing has happened, they go to war, and then seconds later are embracing one another. Aurora dislikes Flap because she does not believe he has ambition; he is ordinary and she believes Emma could be exceptional. She has no idea how right she will be. Despite suitors and gentlemen who enjoy her company, Aurora has no interest in being married again, though the rascally astronaut next door, Garrett (Jack Nicholson), has piqued her interest because he is nothing like the others who want her. He makes it clear he prefers younger women and is not beyond making a fool of himself chasing them, even when humiliated.
The years pass, and Emma and Flap have children, quickly and just years apart. They move far from Aurora, but the telephone lines are constantly burning with their chatter. When Emma finds out Flap has cheated on her, she packs the kids up and goes back to Texas to visit her mother. By now Aurora is dating the astronaut, the sex is unbelievable (“fan-fucking-tastic”) she tells her daughter, much to her shock, and seems genuinely happy. Emma and Flap reconcile, and he moves the family to Nebraska, aggravating Aurora further, but Emma, as always adapts and sticks with him.
Aurora and Garrett end their relationship with her saying to him, “You have no idea how much you are going to miss me” hoping to speak to the adult Garrett she knows is in there with the little boy he pretends to be.
Back in Nebraska, Emma makes a shocking discovery when she encounters the young woman Flap had previously had an affair with, living right in Nebraska. Realizing he moved the family to be with her, she is left reeling in shock. But it becomes suddenly less important when the doctor discovers a lump under her arm is cancerous, and she is suddenly in deep trouble. Aurora flies to Nebraska to be with her daughter, which alarms Flap, having her around, but who else will look after the kids? Emma fights, hard, but knows the cancer is winning, and has her children brought to her to speak with them and let them know what is going on. Her mother meanwhile speaks to Flap privately and offers to take the kids to raise, telling him he cannot chase women and raise children. She tells him clearly that his greatest gift has always been to recognize his limitations, the only praise she has ever given him. He is not special enough. Aurora has learned that Emma’s greatest strength has always been her resolve, her lust for life, to be happy in the little moments, such as loving that Flap wears the tie she once bought him as they discuss the children going with Aurora. As devastated as he is, he accepts they will go with Aurora, though he will remain a huge part of their lives. During this very blunt conversation he asks her “do you realize how much I am going to miss you?” and she answers yes, they have always managed to be at least friends.
Aurora remains at the hospital as the cancer worsens and after a terrible day, during which she melted down over Emma not getting her pain medication (iconic), she returns to her hotel to find the kids playing in the pool. A voice calls to her, and there on the steps is Garrett. She goes to him, bravely climbing the stairs to fall into his embrace. She says to him “Who would have expected you to be a nice guy?” and promptly falls apart in his arms, sobbing the sobs she has long held back.
Aurora and Flap are sitting in Emma’s room, quiet and peaceful. Emma locks eyes with her mother and they linger on each other, the love clear, the admiration for each other never more apparent. And then the light in Emma’s eyes, the light she always had goes out in a second, as she dies. Aurora looks away, in great unspoken pain. The nurse comes in and checks her pulse, waking Flap to tell her she is gone at which point Aurora again falls apart, falling crazily into Flap’s arms, her sobs erupting from the bottom of her soul.
The final scene is the funeral reception, back at Aurora’s home where Garrett moves about making everyone comfortable. Focusing on Tommy, the oldest and angriest of the kids, they begin a conversation, and the start of a friendship begins. The final shot is of Aurora, who seems at peace with the events, and looks to her grandchildren in hope. The hope a great part of their very special mother has rubbed off on them. For Emma, love was always enough, and she has taught her mother that.
Terms of Endearment was not only a monster hit at the box office, it earned rave reviews from the North American film critics who held in high regard the stunning performances of the entire cast, though Shirley MacLaine was specifically singled out. The veteran actress had never won an Oscar, and it seemed this would be her year. She gave the best performance of her career as Aurora, a fiercely independent widow who does not need a man to define her. Only when she meets Garrett does she find a man she wants. The question is raised, why him? Why Garrett? For one he will not be bullied by her, he takes none of her attitude, but he is also brutally honest to her which no man had ever been, making him instantly attractive. Their relationship is one of beauty, a deep love forged by honesty, and when he comes to her at the hotel at the lowest point in her life, she knows he did it because she needed him, and above all, he wanted too. MacLaine dominates the film with a ferocious performance as a devoted mother who often crosses the line but does so out of love.
Debra Winger was, as she was in her early performances, a revelation as Emma. Earthy, real, with a what you see is what you get attitude she is magnificent, equal to MacLaine in every way. Her mother never expects her daughter will have the strength to survive a bad marriage, but she never expects that not only can she survive it, she will rise above it and soar. Her compassion towards everyone, her love for everyone who loves her, her fierce love of Flap teaches Aurora so much about life; we know the older woman will march through life altered in some manner for having known her daughter. Emma loves deeply, overlooks flaws because she believes love is about that. What astounds me about this performance is her death scene, I mean you can actually see the light in her eyes go out. No CGI, not in 1983, but somehow Winger, or the lighting man actually allowed for Emma’s life force to go out.
It was no secret MacLaine and Winger fought throughout the making of the film, but came away friends, or at the very least developed mutual respect for one another.
Nicholson is sublime as Garrett Breedlove (that name?) who becomes the love of Aurora’s life, her best friend (except Emma) and the shoulder she clings to when she needs one. Yes he is a rascal, yes he has an appetite for younger women, and yes he drinks too much, but he is there when it counts. He cares enough about Aurora to drop his guard and talk about his life as an astronaut, the fact NASA never gathered all the men who had been to the moon and just talked about the experience. Only a very few of the people on earth have stood on the lunar surface and looked back at earth, and Garrett mourns they could not all just talk about it. Though fun loving, he is a decent man as he proves with Aurora before and after the death of Emma. We leave the film suspecting he will be a surrogate father to the kids.
As Flap, Jeff Daniels has a tough job. He portrays the guy who cheats on Emma, who moves his family across the country to be with the “other woman”, flips out at Aurora in the hospital cafeteria when she mentions SHE should get the kids after Emma dies, because he cannot handle it, yet not once did I ever believe he no longer loved Emma. They grew apart, she became about the family, he chased other women. It is a fine performance in a very tricky role because he could have come across as a complete cad. Rising star John Lithgow is wonderful as Sam, the gentle banker who falls in love with Emma during their affair, sweetness and goodness is poor Sam.
Terms of Endearment was nominated for 11 Academy Awards including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actress (Both MacLaine and Winger), Best Supporting Actor (both Nicholson and Lithgow), Best Screenplay, Best Musical Score, Best Production Design, Best Sound and Film Editing. Come Oscar night it was a foregone conclusion Best Actress would go Shirley MacLaine, and it did. In addition, Brooks won three individual awards – Best Director, Best Screenplay and as producer, Best Picture, while Jack Nicholson was a popular winner as Supporting Actor. The film won the same awards, save Best Director, from the Hollywood Foreign Press and their Golden Globe Awards, the exact same five from the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, and from the New York Film Critics Circle it won Best Film, Best Actress (MacLaine) and Supporting Actor for Nicholson. For his directing debut Brooks took home the DGA Award as Best Director, but sadly has never been nominated for an Academy Award as Best Director again, despite two Best Picture nominees in Broadcast News (1987) and As Good as It Gets (1997), which won Nicholson another Oscar, this time his second as Best Actor. Why was Brooks never up again for Best Director? Seems perhaps the only answer is jealousy within the Directors Guild.
The film spoke to families about the power of love, which provides the power to forgive, to overlook weaknesses, and to be able to recognize that people do the best they can with what they have. At the end of the film, Aurora repeats an action she did with Emma as a child, patting her hip asking the child to move closer. She does the same with Emma’s baby girl, about two, perhaps three, at the reception after Emma’ funeral. She taps her hip whispering “closer … closer” as the little girl edges over to her. Except this time I suspect Aurora has learned a great deal from her daughter and will love without judgement. I watched the film again in preparation to write this piece and found that even after nine years after my wife’s passing, it hit me very hard. Brooks beautifully captures life, the highs and lows, the ups and downs and in every way this astonishing film ennobles the art of cinema.
How much did the film mean to Sherri and me?
Our oldest daughter is named Aurora.
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.