DVD Pick: Terms of Endearment
Tagline: "Come to Laugh, Come to Cry, Come to Care, Come to Terms."
Length: 132 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG for language
The release on DVD of Terms of Endearment gives us the opportunity to take another look at this heartwarming story of an unusual mother-daughter relationship. Based on the bestselling novel by Larry McMurtry, the quirky film starts out as a laugh-out-loud comedy with lots of offbeat romance thrown in, then turns into a tearjerker. One of the charms of this character-driven movie is its somewhat ornery refusal to conform to viewer expectations.
Producer-director-writer James L. Brooks was the creative force behind Terms of Endearment, and at the 1983 Academy Awards he personally took home an astounding three Oscars when the film won Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Adapted Screenplay. The movie was nominated for a total of eleven Academy Awards and won five, including the three just mentioned. Both Shirley MacLaine and Debra Winger were nominated for Best Actress, and the Oscar went to MacLaine. In the Best Supporting Actor category, both Jack Nicholson and John Lithgow (Third Rock from the Sun) received nominations, and Nicholson won.
The film quickly establishes Aurora Greenway (MacLaine) as a widow living comfortably in an upscale Houston neighborhood. Aurora is an aristocratic woman who finds domestic chores beneath her. Aurora's only child--a daughter named Emma (Winger)--is on the eve of her wedding, and Aurora tells her, "If you marry Flap Horton tomorrow, it will be a mistake of such gigantic proportion it will ruin your life... You are not special enough to overcome a bad marriage." After a little more discussion, Aurora informs her daughter that she will not be attending her wedding.
Emma marries Flap (Jeff Daniels), who is apparently a graduate student in literature, and they are happy together in spite of living near the poverty line. Emma and her mother remain close, but Aurora and her new son-in-law barely tolerate each other. After a few months of marriage, the young couple is visiting Aurora when Emma tells her mother she is pregnant. Emma is delighted and hoped Aurora would be too, but her mother angrily exclaims, "Why should I be happy about being a grandmother!" This gives Flap the chance to needle his mother-in-law, "Does this mean you won't be knitting the baby any booties?"
One evening Aurora is only a few feet from her neighbor's driveway when a convertible pulls into it. Inside the car are two attractive young women and her middle-aged neighbor, ex-astronaut Garrett Breedlove (Nicholson). Breedlove is skunk drunk and falls face down on the pavement as he gets out of the car. Forehead bloodied, he staggers to his feet and invites one of the young women in. She responds by saying, "Mr. Breedlove, I went there tonight to see a United States astronaut give a lecture… I didn't expect some silly flirt who had to keep his jacket open because his belly's gettin' too big. I expected a hero." Breedlove then asks the other young woman in, but she also declines, and the young women drive away. (Jack Nicholson is brilliant in this scene, and it's interesting that Brooks mentions on the DVD that Nicholson prepared for it by getting drunk!)
Some years pass, and Flap takes a job as an associate professor in Des Moines, where he and Emma soon have a second child. Emma enjoys not living so close to her mother, but keeps in close touch with her via frequent telephone calls. Eventually, Emma comes to like living in Des Moines, and she and Flap have a third child there. But after a few years Flap seems unhappy at home and starts acting suspiciously like he's having an affair. Then Emma takes as a lover the mild-mannered Sam Burns (Lithgow), the bank officer who turned down Flap and Emma's application for a second mortgage on their house.
Meanwhile, back in Houston, Aurora agrees to go to lunch with Breedlove. The date starts off rather badly, and they have been seated in the restaurant for only a few minutes when Breedlove realizes that he must risk taking extreme measures to prevent Aurora's stuffy behavior from coming between them. Breedlove looks at Aurora and says, "You're just gonna have to trust me about this one thing. You need a lot of drinks." "To break the ice?" asks Aurora, to which Breedlove responds, "To kill the bug that you have up your ass."
After lunch, Breedlove and Aurora drive his Corvette at high speed along the beach, skimming the edge of the Gulf of Mexico. Aurora sits, controlling the accelerator and brake, while Breedlove stands upright, steering the car with his foot. When Aurora brakes too quickly, Breedlove is thrown into the water. Aurora wades in after him to find him uninjured, and soaking wet, they exchange their first kisses. But before they get home, they have started to argue again, and Aurora gives as a justification for the way she reacts to him, "I just didn't want you to think I was like one of your other girls." But Breedlove's incensed response to this is, "Not much danger in that unless you curtsy on my face real soon."
It's not long before Aurora calls up Breedlove one night and asks him over to look at the Renoir that hangs in her bedroom. When he gets there, he finds her elegantly dressed for bed and only two lights are burning. As Aurora turns off one light and prepares to get into bed, Breedlove says, "I like the lights on." She responds firmly, "Then go home and turn them on." As they go to bed, Breedlove turns off the last light.
When Flap takes a new job at a college in Nebraska, Emma reluctantly says good-bye to her lover in Des Moines and she, Flap, and their three kids move again. Then one day on the new college campus, Emma encounters a young woman she once saw caressing Flap back in Des Moines and instantly realizes that the reason for their move was so that Flap could remain near his girlfriend. Emma confronts the woman, who icily tells her, "I don't think there's an emotion that you're having that I couldn't …," then pauses, searching for the word she wants, and finishes, "validate."
By this point in the film, the transition from comedy to drama is pretty much complete. From here on, the story becomes increasingly sad, and the characters must face some painful decisions. On the DVD, Brooks remarks that he suggested to the cast while on location in Houston that they might want to prepare emotionally for the poignant parts of the film by visiting the somber Rothko Chapel, but apparently only Jack Nicholson acted on the suggestion.
The acting in Terms of Endearment is outstanding by any standard, and there's a memorable scene where Aurora and Emma lie on a bed, sipping tea, talking happily in the kind of mother-daughter moment we all yearn for. Yet, according to Brooks' commentary on the DVD, Shirley MacLaine and Debra Winger were unwilling to even speak to each other off-camera at the time. I guess that's why they call it acting!
I'll admit that sometimes the film tilts too far in the chick-flick direction, but Jack Nicholson gives it enough of a testosterone boost to keep it from going over the edge. This is one of my favorite performances by Nicholson, the other two being One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and Five Easy Pieces. Also, Terms of Endearment has too much of a TV-movie feel at times, but it transcends this because of its complex characters, strong performances, and cinematic scenes, such as when Breedlove and Aurora race along the shoreline of the Gulf of Mexico. The dialogue is witty throughout, and there's some great location shooting in Texas and Nebraska (where Debra Winger became romantically involved with Nebraska governor Bob Kerrey). All in all, Terms of Endearment is a very good movie, and James L. Brooks' commentary on the DVD is well worthwhile.