Terms of Endearment (United States, 1983)

December 31, 2019
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Terms of Endearment Poster

Warning: As with most retrospective reviews, this reveals key plot points. Spoilers abound.

Undoubtedly, one of the reasons why James L. Brooks’ feature debut, the three-hankie weeper Terms of Endearment, won the Oscar for Best Picture is that 1983 was a weak year for competition. Nevertheless, it’s somewhat bewildering that this movie bested the likes of The Right Stuff and Silkwood (not to mention more than 20 films that did better at the box office). A big screen soap opera based on the Larry McMurtry novel, Terms of Endearment works as a device to manipulate audiences while highlighting over-the-top performances. Jack Nicholson won a Best Supporting Actor award for playing himself and Shirley MacLaine triumphed in the Best Actress category primarily because she had been passed over too many times previously for her to continued to be ignored.

For what it is, Terms of Endearment isn’t bad entertainment. Like all Douglas Sirk-inspired melodramas, it’s funny at times and touching at others. It goes overboard toward the end, pulling out the stops to provoke tears and there’s nothing about Brooks’ approach that hints at restraint. MacLaine’s fit of screaming at a nurse is emblematic of the production’s overall approach: be loud and annoying. The actress’ character, Aurora Greenway, is the living embodiment of that philosophy. One could argue that MacLaine deserved recognition for successfully making Aurora such a thoroughly dislikable individual.

The majority of the film transpires during the 1970s and focuses on the love/hate relationship between the pair of mother Aurora and her only child, Emma (Debra Winger). Aurora is a domineering woman with a larger-than-life personality who would rather skip her daughter’s wedding to the aptly-named university professor, Flap Horton (Jeff Daniels), than appear to lend her approval by attending. Emma and Flap don’t have the happiest of marriages but one senses that she stays with him rather than giving her mother the satisfaction of ending the union. The sex at least is good – they have three children – but not so good to prevent both of them from looking elsewhere. Flap has a number of affairs, including one that’s hinted at with Emma’s best friend, Patsy (Lisa Hart Carroll), and Emma hooks up with a mild-mannered banker named Sam Burns (John Lithgow). Ever the dutiful wife, however, Emma picks up house and family and follows Flap as he chases professorships in Texas, Des Moines, and Nebraska.

Meanwhile, back in Texas, Aurora puts off a number of suitors, including the diminutive but persistent Vernon Dahlart (Danny DeVito). Sparks fly when she’s with her next-door neighbor, the womanizing, alcoholic, risk-taking astronaut Garrett Breedlove (Jack Nicholson), who spars with Aurora in and out of bed. Although she admits to loving him, he decrees that he’s not the man for her, although he’s still hanging around at the end. That ending provides a reconciliation of sorts between Aurora and Emma – although it comes at the expense of the latter’s life. She dies of an unspecified form of cancer.

Terms of Endearment is presented as a collage of slice-of-life scenes. Many of these, taken individually, are effective in delineating the Aurora/Emma relationship (or, to a lesser extent, Aurora/Garrett and/or Emma/Flap) and present the actors with opportunities to shine, however briefly. Unfortunately, the connective tissue is thin and the movie’s frequent jumps in time not only risk disorienting the viewer but lose important plot points in the process. Characters like Vernon and Patsy are frustratingly half-developed and the shifts in how Emma and Aurora interact often switch, seemingly for little reason, during ellipses between scenes.

MacLaine enjoys chewing on the scenery and provides the kind of boisterous caricature the Academy occasionally recognizes. Aurora isn’t a person – she’s a writer’s construct who might have resembled a human being had Brooks and MacLaine dialed down the personality. Nicholson, meanwhile, isn’t required to do more than present his off-screen personality to the camera. Garrett is oddly charismatic in the way that misogynistic alpha males often are but he’s reptilian and seems more comfortable sneering than uttering sweet nothings. Debra Winger arguably gives the best performance in the film (a portrayal that is sweetened by allowing her to act her deathbed scenes) but she was notoriously difficult to work with.

The Academy’s boosting of Terms of Endearment was part of an early-‘80s overreaction to the sudden popularity of blockbusters. For most, the decade between 1975 and 1985 was the era of Lucas and Spielberg, a time when spectacle entertainment came of age. Yet not one of those crowd-pleasers won the Best Picture Award – One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest vanquished Jaws, Annie Hall triumphed over Star Wars, Chariots of Fire rode roughshod over Raiders of the Lost Ark, and E.T. lost out to Gandhi. The Oscars favored “small,” intimate films like Kramer vs. Kramer, Ordinary People, and Terms of Endearment, or high-minded epics like Gandhi, Amadeus, and Out of Africa. The Best Picture Oscar for Terms of Endearment was less an indication of enthusiastic support for Brooks’ film than a pushback against the likes of Flashdance, WarGames, and Return of the Jedi.

Some thirteen years after Terms of Endearment, a sequel was released. Dealing primarily with Aurora’s relationships with her grandchildren and housekeeper, The Evening Star brought back MacLaine in a starring role (and Jack Nicholson in an extended cameo) and failed to enrapture the critics who had swooned over the earlier film. The Evening Star is often cited as one of the worst-ever sequels but, in my opinion, the drop in quality isn’t as dramatic as some might argue.

Am I being too harsh on Terms of Endearment? As a throwaway bobbing among the flotsam of ‘80s cinematic history, it’s a passable way to spend a couple of hours (dated though it may be). It’s diverting and, although Brooks’ manipulation is extreme, it’s often effective. But to label it as the Best Picture of 1983 (or any year) is a miscarriage.

Terms of Endearment (United States, 1983)

Director: James L. Brooks
Cast: Shirley MacLaine, Debra Winger, Jack Nicholson, Danny DeVito, Jeff Daniels, John Lithgow, Lisa Hart Carroll
Home Release Date: 2019-12-31
Screenplay: James L. Brooks, based on the novel by Larry McMurtry
Cinematography: Andrzej Bartkowiak
Music: Michael Gore
U.S. Distributor: Paramount Pictures
Run Time: 2:12
U.S. Release Date: 1983-12-09
MPAA Rating: "PG" (Profanity, Sexual Content)
Genre: Drama/Comedy
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1