All of sudden, the world as we knew it did a fast fade out, and we faded into our current state. The tone of our lives was altered. There wasn’t much of a warning and our focus shifted. The carefree laughter and the way we moved about our lives stopped – and the way we planned things took a more serious and calculated manner. We started to prioritize things differently – and to understand even further the invaluable power of family and loved ones. We’ve learnt to adapt and compromise. I think of the Joni Mitchell lyric, “don’t it always seem to go, that you don’t know what you’ve got till its gone.”
James L. Brooks’ “Terms of Endearment” (1983) has a similar shift seventy-five minutes into its narrative – in which life is interrupted. Up until then the movie has had this engaging, funny and emotional episodic rhythm illustrating how time – and its gravitational pull just moves us forward through the years – without allowing us a breather for evaluation. We learn to love and embrace its characters with all their quirks, idiosyncrasies, and foibles – and we experience loss – as well as understanding that it all keeps moving forward – the continuity of life.
Texas widow Aurora Greenway (Shirley MacLaine) has always had a strong connection with her only daughter Emma (Debra Winger.) In the first scene of the movie, we see Aurora climbing into Emma’s crib to make sure she’s ok – shaking her up awake – something she will do repeatedly throughout as Emma grows older. “Emma wake up. I was tense and I was wondering how you were feeling,” Aurora asks a teenaged Emma. Aurora is not interested in dating and keeps several admirers at a distance instead focusing on raising her daughter – at times in a suffocating way. Emma marries Flap – an English teacher – against her mother’s approval for she thinks he’s a loser. “You’re not special enough to overcome a bad marriage,” Aurora tells Emma. Flap gets a teaching job in Iowa – they have three kids – and the marriage starts to get strained when he starts cheating on Emma. In the meantime, Aurora starts an affair with her wild and wooly next door neighbor who is a former Astronaut (Jack Nicholson). As I mentioned earlier, this at times hysterical and very moving story with fade ins and fade outs marking the passage of time is interrupted by an event that will affect them all.
I’ve seen this movie many times since its release. It is so well written by Brooks based on the great Larry McMurtry’s novel – the latter responsible for “The Last Picture Show,” “Lonesome Dove” among many other classics. Brooks also directs with dexterity all the tonal shifts. I particularly admire the way he uses spatial relationships to tell the story visually. Pay attention to the first time Shirley MacLaine engages Jack Nicholson. They’re separated by a fence – and notice their character proxemics. As the scene progresses it will change. There’s also the extraordinary and now iconic scene of grown mother and daughter sharing a conversation on the bed while drinking coffee. Their shoulders rubbing against each other – and their legs swaying back and forth behind them – at times playfully touching. It’s the way Brooks shows us their intimacy and connection without having to rely on too much explanation.
He’s also able to get the best performances out of each actor. John Lithgow is so awkward and kind in the small role of the banker who comforts Emma. I would venture to say that’s his best performance and so against type. He was rewarded with a Best Supporting nomination. Jack Nicholson is perfectly cast as Garrett the astronaut – a role that was written with Burt Reynolds in mind. Nicholson is mischievous and sexy. “I don’t know what it is about you Aurora. You do bring out the devil in me,” he says. One of the best moments in a film full of them – is the convertible ride lunch date on the beach with Aurora where he’s ejected and plopped in the water. They start kissing and he reaches underneath her dress. That part was not scripted. Notice how the camera inadvertently gets splashed by water. Nicholson won the Best Supporting Oscar.
The movie revolves around Aurora and Emma – one of the greatest – if not the greatest mother-daughter relationship on screen. Shirley MacClaine and Debra Winger are extraordinary in these roles. It has been well documented that they had a tempestuous relationship on set – and it shows. Aurora and Emma’s relationship is a complicated one – and the chemistry between the two actresses is electric.
This is one of the films I love to revisit over and over again. It’s a testament to the love of mothers – and to life.
Aurora: “I always think of us as fighting.”
Emma: “That’s only from your end. That’s because you’re never satisfied with me.”
Available to stream on Hulu, Sling TV, DIRECTV and ShowtimeAnytime and to rent on Amazon Prime, Vudu, YouTube, Google Play, Microsoft, FandangoNOW, Redbox and iTunes.
Screenplay by James L. Brooks. Based on the novel by Larry McMurtry
Directed by James L. Brooks
Starring Shirley MacLaine, Debra Winger, Jack Nicholson, Jeff Daniels, Danny DeVito and John Lithgow
Bringing “Terms of Endearment” to the Screen
“As he explained in an interview in Film Comment, “The book was sent to me as a vehicle for a specific actress. I read the book and I had a great emotional reaction to it, but I didn’t want to do it without preconditions, without saying it had to be the right person.” The actress was Jennifer Jones, who earned an Oscar for her performance in “The Song of Bernadette” (1943), a fine performer by Brooks’ own admission, but not who he envisioned for the lead role of Aurora, the sassy and controlling mother. He succeeded in convincing Paramount to pick up the project while effectively ending Jones’ involvement in the picture and eventually got the green light from Michael Eisner, who wrote the following note: “Terms of Endearment. Go picture at 7 million. Deliver Xmas of ’82.”
Brooks quickly cast Shirley MacLaine as Aurora, because Brooks said, “She was the only one who ever saw it as a comedy.” The other roles would not be assigned so easily: Sissy Spacek was originally set to play her daughter Emma, and Brooks, who also wrote the screenplay, added a pivotal character to the action – Garrett Breedlove, the ex-astronaut neighbor of Aurora, a role he created specifically for Burt Reynolds. However, Reynolds turned the role down due to a prior film commitment – bad move, it was “Stroker Ace” (1983). Paul Newman was also offered the role before Nicholson. Spacek was replaced by Debra Winger, a rising star with “An Officer and a Gentleman” (1982) and “Urban Cowboy” (1980) to her credit (her role in “Urban Cowboy” was, coincidentally, slated to be Spacek’s as well).
Jack Nicholson jumped at the chance to play Breedlove, declaring in a Rolling Stone interview, “…I’ve always wanted to play older…One of the things that motivated me with that character is that everyone was starting to make a total cliche out of middle age crisis, they were dissatisfied, they hated their job. I just went against the grain of the cliche. I just wanted to say, ‘Wait a minute. I happen to be this age and I’m not in any midlife crisis. I’m not an object of scorn or pity by anybody ten years younger than me.’ There’s got to be other people like me, so I’d like to represent that in this movie.” Nicholson would later say he based his character in part on astronaut Russell Schweikert (a former high school friend) and his own brother-in-law, a test pilot. Rounding out the cast were Jeff Daniels, John Lithgow–on a 3-day break from filming Footloose (1984), and Danny DeVito, the latter playing a hapless suitor of Aurora.” (tcm.com)
Filming “Terms of Endearment”
“…When MacLaine and Winger met to make the movie based on Larry McMurtry’s sentimental bestseller, they didn’t exactly hit it off. MacLaine was a Hollywood veteran with three Oscar nominations under her belt, while Winger was a fast-rising star after making 1980’s “Urban Cowboy.” Other than talent, they had nothing in common. “Debra Winger? I didn’t know the name,” MacLaine told PEOPLE in a 1984 interview. “I didn’t know who she was.” When they were first introduced, “we were all nervous,” recalled director-screenwriter James L. Brooks in the same PEOPLE story. “To see how my character would feel I was wearing all my leftover movie-star fur coats,” MacLaine said. “There was Debra dressed in combat boots and a miniskirt… I thought, ‘Oh my goodness.’” That set the tone for the pair’s on-set clashes. Winger was rebellious and provocative, while MacLaine was reserved. “No one can get a fix on the relationship,” said Brooks. “Not even the participants.” The result was a bracingly complex mother-daughter bond onscreen, if not a pleasant set.
“We knew what we were doing a lot of the time, sparring back and forth,” Winger said. “It was a very gritty way of working. People at Paramount thought we were crazy.” MacLaine didn’t appreciate Winger’s method. In her 1995 autobiography, “My Lucky Stars”, she wrote that her demanding costar yelled at her to “get over here,” when it was time to hit her marks on set. “‘I heard you,’ I said. ‘I know marks when I see them,’” MacLaine wrote in her book. “‘Good,’ [Winger] said. ‘How’s this for a mark?’ She turned around, walked away from me, lifted her skirt slightly, looked over her shoulder, bent over, and farted in my face.” “I can’t deny that we fought,” Winger told the New York Times in 1986. “We’re not having lunch together today. We challenged ourselves, and when we got tired of challenging ourselves, we challenged each other. But I think there was always a respect between the two of us.” (people.com)
Jack Nicholson on “Terms of Endearment”
“What I like is the way the movie understands how complicated a relationship is,” Nicholson says. “All of the relationships in this movie change a lot from beginning to end. How many movies can you say that about? There’s a line of dialogue I really love, where Winger’s friend is asking her how she can stand this guy who is cheating on her and not respecting her, and she says, ‘He’s cute.’ After eight years of marriage and three kids she can still say that.” (rogerebert.com)
About Author Larry McMurtry
“Larry McMurtry was born in 1936 on a ranch outside of Archer City, Texas. His first library was a set of 19 books given to him by a cousin setting off for war in 1942. McMurtry read and reread the adventure novels. The gift, he once wrote, “changed my life.” Among other books McMurtry remembers reading as a child was an abbreviated version of Don Quixote. Looking back, he recalls pondering “the grave differences (comically set) between Sancho and the Don. Between the two is where fiction, as I have mostly read and written it, lives.” Entering Rice Institute (later Rice University) in Houston in 1954, McMurtry’s reading life took off as he “strolled in wonder through the stacks of the Fondren Library, which then held about 600,000 books.” He left Rice and graduated from North Texas State Teachers College, but then returned to Rice for a Master’s. He also spent a year at Stanford University as a Stegner Fellow, where he studied with Irish short-story writer Frank O’Connor. By the late ’50s, McMurtry had manuscripts for two novels under his arm. The one, Horseman, Pass By, would become in 1961 his first published novel, later made into the movie Hud. The other, “Leaving Cheyenne,” would be McMurtry’s second novel, and about which Marshall Sprague wrote in the New York Times that “if Chaucer were a Texan writing today, and only 27 years old, this is how he would have written and this is how he would have felt.”
“The best part of a writer’s life is actually doing it,” McMurtry wrote in his second memoir, Literary Life, “The thrill lies in the rush of sentences, the gradual arrival of characters who at once seem to have their own life.” Two of those characters are Emma Horton in the Terms of Endearment novels and Duane Moore in the five Last Picture Show books. When Emma died, he writes, “I felt the loss most keenly.” And about Duane Moore, he admitted in Literary Life, “It would be strange if I didn’t miss him. He was not my alter ego in the first books, but he was certainly my alter ego in the last books.” “Lonesome Dove,” McMurtry’s 1985 novel about a pair of irascible Texas Rangers, attempted to demythologize the cowboy. He told one New York Times reviewer, “I’m a critic of the myth of the cowboy. I don’t feel that it’s a myth that pertains, and since it’s a part of my heritage I feel it’s a legitimate task to criticize it.” Two other novels followed that were also critical of the cowboy myth, and were, as was “Lonesome Dove to a large extent, misread as supportive of those legends. He contends there’s a danger of oversimplification, once telling the Times, that “the myth of the clean-living cowboy devoted to agrarian pursuits and the rural way of life is extremely limiting.”
McMurtry lives for part of the year in Tucson, Arizona, with wife Norma Faye Kesey (novelist Ken Kesey’s widow), sharing the house of his writing partner, Diana Ossana, and the three —all residents of Texas— spend the rest of the year in Archer City. McMurtry and Ossana have collaborated on several works, including the screenplay of “Brokeback Mountain,” based on the short story by E. Annie Proulx. With the revenue earned from movie rights and writing screenplays, McMurtry has garnered a reputation as one of America’s leading bookmen, having had antiquarian and secondhand bookstores for many years. While living and teaching near Washington, D.C., McMurtry founded Booked Up in Georgetown. As famous bookstores closed their doors in Washington and elsewhere in the ’70s, he and his partner, Marcia Carter, bought up the stocks and filled their own store. They also bought from their wealthy and well-read neighbors in Georgetown and Dupont Circle. Much of the library of Alice Roosevelt Longworth, for example, came their way one cold February day…McMurtry is still the kind of cowboy he’s been most of his life, herding words into paragraphs that become books, and herding books from all over the country into the inventory of Booked Up in Archer City, Texas.” (neh.gov)
About Writer and Director James L. Brooks
James L. Brooks was born on May 9, 1940, Brooklyn, New York. “Brooks grew up in New Jersey. After dropping out of New York University, he began working in television in 1964, initially as a writer for CBS News and later for documentaries and sitcoms. He found acclaim as the cocreator of the groundbreaking TV comedy “Room 222” (1969–74), which centred on the travails of an African American high-school teacher. Brooks then co-created and produced the hit sitcom “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” (1970–77) and its spin-offs “Rhoda” (1974–78) and “Lou Grant” (1977–82). Brooks’s next success as writer and producer, the sitcom “Taxi” (1978–83), maintained the narrative focus on interpersonal relationships between friends and coworkers that he had established on his earlier shows. His later television production credits included “The Tracey Ullman Show” (1987–90) and “The Simpsons” (1989– ).
In the 1980s Brooks embarked on a film career, the highlights of which were a series of comedy-dramas that he wrote, directed, and produced. The first, “Terms of Endearment” (1983), won him three Academy Awards. He earned additional accolades for “Broadcast News” (1987), about the lively dynamics of a TV newsroom…Brooks scored another hit with “As Good As It Gets” (1997), which presented a romance between an aging curmudgeon (played by Jack Nicholson) and a single mother (Helen Hunt) and garnered Oscars for both of its leads. His later films included “Spanglish” (2004), which explored class and cultural differences between two Los Angeles families, and “How Do You Know” (2010), a story of a love triangle, which marked his fourth collaboration with Nicholson. He subsequently returned his focus to the development and production of “The Simpsons.” In addition to his Academy Awards, Brooks won 20 Emmy Awards over the course of his career. He was inducted into the Television Hall of Fame in 1997. (britannica.com)