Anyone who has a mother will be able to relate to Terms of Endearment (1983), director James L. Brooks’ poignant ode to the mother of all mothers; acerbic Aurora Greenway. Coming to terms with Terms of Endearment is like revisiting a slice of memory from our collective childhoods. From the moment Shirley MacLaine’s caustic matriarch – part invigorating confidant/part meddlesome yenta – unapologetically stirs her infant daughter in the crib just to hear her cry (so she knows she’s still alive) Terms of Endearment cuts like a knife into our recollections of mama. The message is pointedly clear. Moms are great, but they can also be a royal pain in parts south of the equator. As offspring we’re grateful they care. We just wish they could do a little less of it when we want them to butt out of our lives.
Based on Larry McMurtry’s novel, Terms of Endearment is a cornucopia of love, laughter and heartbreak; the generation gap between this mother and daughter made all the more poignant by the advent of a medical tragedy looming large on the horizon. And MacLaine and co-star Debra Winger get to the emotional center of their characters from the very beginning; their often strained ‘friendship’ unpretentiously played out, their laughter through tears even more so. Terms of Endearment comes at the tail end of a decade-long infatuation in American movies to tell introspective stories about middle-class suburbia. It isn’t all rose bushes and picket fences, unless of course one counts the thorns and splinters.
There’s certainly plenty of each in the sharp-tongued Aurora Greenway, a gal who has no compunction about making both her presence and intentions known. This forthright no-nonsense attitude clashes with her daughter, Emma’s (Debra Winger) more laissez faire outlook on life. Emma sees everything through rose-colored glasses, or at least the halcyon afterglow of a good toke. Aurora is defined by a more ambiguous cynicism; perhaps martyred as the widow raising a child on her own while pursued by many middle-aged bachelors. Emma just wants to be let alone; the one thing Aurora will never do - even if her life depended on it. It just might.
Apart from its central narrative, following the panged separation of a mother expected – but unable – to let go after her only child marries the one man mom deems unworthy of her little princess, Terms of Endearment is a nourishing tale about this indestructible tie between parent and child. The movie is nothing without its mother/daughter sparring; MacLaine and Winger coming dangerously close to the edge of sentimentality only to pull back the aching heartstrings and dreadful tears, making every moment psychologically enriching and emotionally real. It would be hard to appreciate Terms of Endearment as anything better than a chick flick except that James L. Brooks’ screenplay never goes the easy route of relying on estrogen and chemistry to propel his narrative ahead.
To this end there remains a juicy part for bad boy Jack Nicholson, doing a variation on his generic ‘slick bastard’ public persona, herein reconstituted as has-been astronaut Garrett Breedlove; a man who has traded his fame and mystique in to gain access into the boudoirs of some very sexy ladies. It was all good a decade or so earlier…maybe. But now the paunchy, balding and middle-aged flyboy just seems like a dirty old man; his slovenly drunkenness more crude than charming; his inability to face the inevitability of growing old robbing Garrett of a more meaningful lifestyle. This would be a rather flashy part for Nicholson, except that Jack plays Garrett right down the middle as a guy past his prime; a rather pathetic shell of the proverbial lady’s man who needs a quart of gin just to work up enough gumption to make a complete ass of himself. It’s a startling bit of sustained acting and it works brilliantly; a stand-out without trying to be one.
Aurora is both fascinated yet repulsed by her new next door neighbor. How could there ever be anything between them except air? The unexpected ‘relationship’ that blossoms and steadily grows inward from something outwardly superficial helps the middle act of Terms of Endearment click; a particularly uneven stretch in the movie’s structure; Brooks dividing his time between Aurora and Garrett getting on, and Emma and her husband, Flap (Jeff Daniels) – having moved away to Des Moines for his work - presently suffering through the heartaches and hardships of a marriage already on the rocks; buffeted by infidelities on both sides and Emma’s realization that mom was right all along. Flap Horton wasn’t Mr. Right after all; just Mr. Right Now. It’s a bitter pill for Emma to swallow. In fact, she does her damnedest to hold the family together, and not just for the sake of their children; Melanie (Megan Morris), Tommy (played at intervals by Shane Serwin and Troy Bishop) and Teddy (Huckleberry Fox), who increasingly come to resent her for trying.
The middle act of Terms of Endearment is a series of vignettes; some more replete with something meaningful to say than others. One recalls, as example, the benevolent ‘cute meet’ between Emma and Sam Burns (John Lithgow), the latter offering to pay the difference on Emma’s grocery tab after she comes up short at the checkout. Dealing with three hungry children, the embarrassment of being poor, and, a cashier (Judith A. Dickerson) intent on making Emma feel even more like a social outcast than she already is, Lithgow’s unlikely, gooney-looking knight in shining armor is exactly what Emma needs just then; a friendly gesture capped off by Sam’s classic admonishment of the cashier. “You’re a very rude young woman,” he tells her. “I don’t think I was being rude,” the woman begrudgingly replies. “Then you must be from New York!” he reiterates for the laugh.
Terms of Endearment endures because it doesn’t really stoop to convention for the proverbial ‘feel good’. We do come away from the movie feeling good as it were, but for the unlikeliest of reasons, and, at the most unexpected moments. After Emma is diagnosed with terminal cancer one might expect the immaculately put together Aurora Greenway to shift into mother tiger overdrive. Instead, Brooks’ screenplay and Shirley MacLaine’s performance counterbalance Aurora’s outward ‘take charge’ attitude with a spiraling inner fragility, almost rhythmically coming to a crescendo in the scene where Aurora bursts from her daughter’s hospital room, frantically racing around the nurse’s station and demanding that someone give Emma an injection of morphine to momentarily arrest her severe pains. MacLaine whips herself into a fevered frenzy; spouting her lines with a manic intensity until she finally screams in abject determination, “Give her the shot!” The terrorized nurse’s compliance with this request is met by a split second transformation into the old Aurora, MacLaine instantly composed as she very politely but directly adds, “Thank you.”
In every screening of Terms of Endearment I have attended this scene always gets the hearty laugh. And yet the moment is fraught with unreserved anguish. It’s a curious and brilliantly played moment; MacLaine going after the truth of a mother’s hopelessness with bold impatience miraculously reshaped into magnanimity in the blink of an eye. Blink and you will miss it. But clear-eyed – if you can be, realizing, as Aurora must, that the time between she and her very best friend is prematurely drawing to a close, one is empathetically teleported from tears into the very essence of joy in this mother/daughter relationship about to expire. And MacLaine, more than Winger, makes us feel the loss on an intuitive level; unafraid to look haggard and careworn and utterly defeated as she greets Garrett on the steps of the motel she has moved into to be nearer her dying child. Acting as good as this is very rare. Its ilk has all but vanished from our present-day movie-going experience.
We begin, then, with Aurora (Shirley MacLaine) and Emma Greenway (Debra Winger). Each is searching for the love of their respective lives; as yet unthinking that it just might be the one they share together. James L. Brooks fast tracks through Emma’s childhood. It isn’t really what interests him. The love-hate mother/daughter relationship that evolves as Emma enters her twenties is far more fascinating and complex; becoming friends with affluent Patsy Clark (Lisa Hart Caroll), whom Aurora detests – not so much because Patsy is a bad influence; rather because she divides Emma’s time spent away from her – and a burgeoning romance with Flap Horton (Jeff Daniels), ultimately leading to marriage (definitely the kiss of death for Aurora’s monopolization of Emma’s time and love). This leaves the middle-aged widow despondent. Since the death of Emma’s father, Aurora has, in fact, filled her days – though arguably not her heart – with managing Emma’s life and entertaining romantic offers from a gaggle of superficially attractive suitors.
Emma elects to marry Flap instead of going off to college in New York like Patsy and in short order gives birth to two children; Tommy (Troy Bishop) and Teddy (Huckleberry Fox). A third, Melanie (Megan Morris) will follow after Flap announces he’s moving his family to Des Moines, thereby separating Aurora from Emma for the foreseeable future. The mutual contempt between Aurora and Flap is stirred. In point of fact, Aurora sees right through him. He isn’t the guy for Emma. He’s just the one occupying a small corner of her heart. Once in Des Moines, Flap begins having numerous affairs with women from the college; mysterious phone calls to the house causing Emma to clue in to his infidelities. Feeling alone and friendless, Emma telephones home to ask her mother for some money. Unable to deduce from the phone call that Emma is already seven months pregnant with Melanie, Aurora encourages her daughter to consider getting an abortion. Distraught, Emma politely terminates the call before bursting into tears. The strain of her situation is temporarily quelled by an unlikely kindness that blossoms into an affair with married middle-aged banker, Sam Burns (John Lithgow).
In the meantime, Aurora finds herself developing an curious attraction toward retired astronaut, Garrett Breedlove (Jack Nicholson): the newly moved in next door neighbor whose penchant for booze and broads she, at first, finds disgusting. Garrett astutely assesses that Aurora is sexually frigid, uptight and commitment shy. He makes several attempts to break Aurora of this frigidity; copping a feel and taking her for a perilous ride along the windswept beaches in his speeding convertible. Garrett could, in fact, go for Aurora. If only Emma hadn’t come home with her three kids just then, having discovered Flap in the arms of Janice (Kate Charleson); a perky grad student. This isn’t exactly the ‘happy family’ Garrett – a confirmed ‘old’ bachelor – had in mind. He gets cold feet and breaks up with Aurora, leaving her feeling betrayed and humiliated.
Emma terminates her relationship with Sam after Flap informs the family of his new teaching position in Kearney, Nebraska. It sounds like a fresh start – except that Emma soon discovers Janice has enrolled at the university too and Flap has actually followed her there to continue their affair. Things go from bad to worse when, while taking Melanie to the doctor for her flu shot, the attending physician takes notice of two large lumps under Emma’s armpit. Biopsies confirm that Emma has cancer. To cheer her up, Patsy invites Emma for a Manhattan getaway. Since moving to New York Patsy has become quite the debutante; a successful career woman with chichi wardrobe and trust fund friends who cannot understand why any woman – given half the option - would want to be saddled with motherhood. Emma feels decidedly out of place amongst this ‘go-getter’ sect. So to break the ice Patsy tells everyone that Emma has cancer, leading to a moment of faux compassion – misguided and misplaced - that Emma finds quite hilarious.
Returning home to start her treatments, Emma is devastated when doctors inform her nothing has changed. In fact, her cancer is advancing at an alarming rate. Emma will not survive it. As it is now quite clear that life-altering decisions have to be made, Emma confides in Aurora the perilous state of her condition and elects, with Flap’s reluctant consent, that after she is gone Aurora will be put in charge of rearing their three children. While Flap divides his time between his career and the hospital, Aurora never leaves her daughter’s side. Garrett unexpectedly flies to Nebraska to comfort Aurora who, for the very first time, shows distinct signs that her usual iron-cast resolve has eroded. In a moment of weakness, Aurora confides in Garrett that she loves him and he replies with his stock answer, “I love you too, kid.”
As Emma’s condition worsens Tommy becomes resentful; even blaming his ailing mother for their circumstances and separation from their father. Later that afternoon Aurora blasts Tommy for his misperceptions, reminding him of the sacrifices Emma has made on all of their behalves. In response Tommy confides his own worst fears of losing a parent, breaks down and cries on Aurora’s shoulder as Emma quietly dies, knowing at least that she has done the right thing by placing her children’s future in her mother’s care. At the post-funeral gathering in Aurora’s backyard, Garrett bonds with Tommy. Patsy and Aurora reach a tenuous understanding. Both women will be actively involved in Emma’s children’s lives. The scene concludes with Aurora quietly sitting next to Melanie; a renewal of this (grand)mother/daughter bond beginning all over again.
Terms of Endearment is a template for the Hollywood melodrama. It attains some deeper understanding of the importance of family and friends and solidifies, with exceptional clarity, the tenuousness of life; ultimately translated into life-affirming cinema magic. MacLaine, Winger and Nicholson are at the top of their game; pros who sincerely believe in and enrich the material. An old Hollywood adage suggests that if you have a good script you’re half way home. This is, of course, true. But the other half is undeniably dedicated to the pluperfect performer, and herein, Terms of Endearment is immeasurably blessed. Shirley MacLaine has arguably never been better. Her Aurora Greenway is so authentic and unapologetically frank it’s easy to find her a royal pain in the ass. Yet, she’s so right about everything that it’s either very spooky or just plain annoying. A little of each, as far as Winger’s Emma is concerned. But there’s a fascinating counter-lever at play. As Emma’s attitude grows more serious with her situation, MacLaine’s matriarch becomes more whimsical. Life is a gift. So is a child. Aurora lets down her hair. She also lets her daughter go with the understanding that neither has wasted their time in this relationship. It is this rewarding message audiences have taken away from the movie ever since and almost immediately after the houselights have come up. No matter how the outside world views you, you’re always loved at home. These are the real terms of familial endearment.
Get ready to laugh, cry and fall in love with Terms of Endearment all over again. Warner Home Video’s distribution deal with Paramount Home Video has yielded another fine Blu-ray. Colors are gorgeous. Cinematographer, Andrzej Bartkowiak’s establishing shots in soft focus look resplendent; the rest of the visuals throughout exhibiting razor sharp clarity, solid contrast and a good solid smattering of grain looking very film-like. There is an ever so slight amount of edge enhancement plaguing the main title font, but otherwise this is a stunning 1080p transfer that will surely NOT disappoint. The ‘wow’ factor is evident here. The 5.1 DTS audio is another reason to rejoice. Michael Gore’s iconic theme sounds fresh and revitalized. Dialogue is very natural. Bottom line: fantastic! Enough said. Extras: we get the same tired audio commentary from James L. Brooks recorded for the DVD some years ago, plus the original trailer. That’s it. Disappointing. Still, given how wonderful Terms of Endearment looks and sounds we’ll forgive the oversight. This disc comes very highly recommended! A must have.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)