No. 2: Terms of Endearment

Note: Back to the Movies is a special feature on the FilmNerds blog in which Matt Scalici will be watching the Top 50 highest-grossing movies of 1983 in order from 50 to 1.

There are a lot of things about Terms Of Endearment that make it a unique Best Picture winner and indeed unique in the history of American film but I think fearlessness is the trait that sticks out the most. Cynicism and emotional distance are pretty much the norm when it comes to mainstream American film in the last 30 years in particular. To make a film so unafraid of talking about the parts of life that are the most difficult to think about takes a certain amount of fearlessness and James L. Brooks takes on each of these difficult emotional minefields with no fear of coming off as sappy or manipulative.

For audiences, there was no controversy or divided opinions. It was a runaway hit, the likes of which have rarely been seen for any film that bears any resemblance to Terms of Endearment. After opening nationally on November 25, Terms of Endearment kept on chugging at the box office, grabbing the No. 1 spot at the box office in seven different weekends (not all consecutive either). It remained in the top five at the box office all the way until March 16th of 1984, by which time it made over $88 million. The film eventually topped out at $102 million domestically and with a production budget of $8 million, it remains one of the most profitable films ever made.

To some critics in 1983, however, the sappy and manipulative labels were used to help them explain the seemingly inexplicable runaway success of Terms of Endearment. Brooks at one point felt the need to defend the film from such criticism, despite his movie’s overwhelming success with both audiences and most other critics, with a passionate yet reasonable explanation of what it truly means to be “manipulative” in your filmmaking:

“Okay, so what’s manipulative? This woman gets ill. That’s a manipulation? No, because we don’t ask anybody to feel the things you usually ask an audience to feel by virtue of that. We don’t ask them to feel sorry for anybody. We don’t jerk tears. And it’s not sugar-coated either. I think we serve truth, and I think we serve comedy. Truth first, comedy second. If you talk to five people about this picture, they end up talking about themselves; that’s how unmanipulated they are, there’s room for them to put their own lives and their own history in it. I don’t respect the thought process that comes up with an easy word like manipulation. There are shots to take at this picture. Not that one, though.”

Brooks is, of course, correct in his portrayal of his film as both deeply emotional but not sugar-coated. The emotions displayed by the characters in Terms of Endearment are unpredictable yet understandable, just like real emotions. You never quite know how you are going to feel about a given situation until you are living through it yourself and how these characters react to things like age, infidelity and death are not quite the reactions that you see in most movies, but neither are the reactions of most real human beings to similar situations.

Our two leading ladies are Aurora and Emma, a mother and daughter pair played by Shirley MacLaine and Debra Winger respectively. From the opening shots of the film it’s made clear that they have a bit of an unusual relationship as far as mothers and daughters go but it only seems unusual to us because the characters themselves are a bit odd. Brooks has become known over the years for making his characters a tad overly quirky but I think while Emma and certainly Aurora could be accurately described as eccentric, neither of them are too over the the top in their quirkiness.

The film spans a pretty considerable period of time, at least ten years, in the lives of these two women and shows us their individual struggles as well as the development of their relationship with one another. Emma runs off to marry a dopey English professor named Flap (Jeff Daniels) and soon has a gaggle of children with him while the widow Aurora attempts to find love and happiness in her advanced years. Without question the Aurora storyline is the more light-hearted and comedic half of the film, thanks in large part to the Oscar-winning performance of Jack Nicholson as Garrett Breedlove, Aurora’s amorous ex-astronaut neighbor.

As a 2011 viewer, Nicholson’s performance feels like a lot of other Nicholson performances. It’s Jack being Jack, the slightly drunken cad who does and says as he pleases even if it’s shocking to others. That said, this may be a case of a film establishing an idea that later became a trope and we certainly can’t fault a film for being endlessly copied later. At this point in Nicholson’s career he was one of the most respected dramatic actors in the business, just a few years removed from a terrifyingly intense performance in The Shining. Seeing Nicholson’s confidence and arrogance incorporated into a comedic character was a relatively new idea (he did it in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest but that’s not an entirely comedic performance and he was a much younger actor). I believe Terms of Endearment may have been the very first instance of Nicholson becoming the persona that he is today: the sunglass wearing, hard-partying, sharp-tongued playboy we’d come to see in many of Nicholson’s later roles, including Brooks’ As Good As It Gets.

Nicholson gets to play all his scenes opposite the film’s other Academy Award winner, Shirley MacLaine who is absolutely exploding with emotion in nearly every scene. She plays an irrational woman but a woman who simply embraces her intense emotions and runs with them.

And while MacLaine brought home the gold, her co-star and competitor in the Best Actress race in 1983 Debra Winger packs no less of an emotional punch as a woman who faces everything from poverty to homesickness to a cheating husband and eventually cancer and does it all without losing her sense of humor or her appetite for life. Winger’s Emma is an enormously complex woman but not complex in a dark way. She is in no way a perfect person, particularly as a mother. She takes care of her kids but doesn’t seem overly concerned with their emotional or psychological well-being. It’s almost as if she’s dragging them along with her through her life, another challenge to be overcome with her boundless optimism.

That said it’s hard to dislike anyone with as positive an outlook as Emma. Even when things are at their most dire, such as the heart-wrenching scene in which she tells her two older sons goodbye for the last time from her hospital bed, she never seems as though the troubles of her life have gotten the best of her.

There are later scenes during the portion of the movie focused around Emma’s illness that quickly switch between deeply sad and lighthearted, even funny. That shift in tone is what makes Terms of Endearment feel so much more like real life than most films of its ilk. People react in many different ways to difficult times, including using humor or trying to change the tone in the room. Brooks allows his character to experience their emotions but like any of us would want to in that situation, he shows them doing their best to maintain their dignity and composure.

There are a few supporting performances worth noting here as well, particularly the Oscar-nominated performance of John Lithgow as Emma’s kind-hearted and downtrodden Midwestern lover. His sad predicament is almost darkly funny though we certainly aren’t meant to feel anything but sympathy for him. Danny DeVito is also brilliant as a strange little character named Vernon, one of a group of older men who seem to hang around Aurora hoping to win her affection.

Terms of Endearment felt special and even revolutionary to audiences in 1983 because, like many of the greatest films ever made, it seemed to re-create life in a way other films hadn’t before. That’s a quest that filmmakers have always been on and continue to strive towards today but not all of them are able to achieve it while still maintaining their entertainment value. Terms of Endearment is the rare film that both entertains us and touches on something truly authentic.


DOWNLOAD: Back to the Movies Podcast – Terms of Endearment (with guest Ben Flanagan)


Next Up: We end our Back to the Movies journey by partying with the Ewoks! It’s Return of the Jedi.