A few days ago on Twitter, two friends and I were discussing the wonderful 1983 film Terms of Endearment. Apparently it was on television in the UK and I’ve seen it so many times I could just chime in though they were watching it in real time. It got me thinking about the ever-lasting brilliance of this film and it’s place above so many others in the entire world of movie-making. What follows is a review and some Hollywood history about the making of the movie, which was not always a pleasant experience. Luckily, sometimes the hardest things to do turn out to be the most wonderful.
“Come to laugh, come to cry, come to care, come to terms,” stated the trailer for Terms of Endearment when released in 1983. As it turns out, everyone did just that, from moviegoers to critics to members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Terms of Endearment cleaned up at the Oscars with five wins, started a love/hate game of tennis with film reviewers, and charmed audiences with its bittersweet story of a mother and daughter navigating through family issues, relationships, and death. Based on the novel by Larry McMurtry, Terms was the labor of love for director James L. Brooks.
Brooks began in television, working on series such as The Mary Tyler Moore Show and Taxi, and believe it or not, Terms of Endearment was the first film he directed. Interestingly, Brooks was sent the book as a vehicle for the actress, Jennifer Jones, who’d won an Oscar for her performance in The Song of Bernadette in 1943, obviously a wonderful actress but not who Brooks envisioned for the lead role of Aurora, the sassy and controlling mother. He succeeded in convincing Paramount to pick up the project which ended Jones’ involvement and then got the green light from Michael Eisner, Paramount’s Head of Production at the time, who wrote the following note: “Terms of Endearment. Go picture at 7 million. Deliver Xmas of ’82.”
For those who haven’t seen the movie, first, just go get it and see it in any way you can. It’s an important piece of cinematic history and a screenplay every writer should read. Basically, as many do know, the movie is about two remarkable women (mother and daughter) and their relationships with each other and with the men in their lives. That is about the most basic description of one of the most perfectly made slightly melodramatic films in American cinema. The relationships between the women are fraught with love and frustration. The men are real and flawed yet they are loved and love back in their own way – they give nothing more or less than able. There are no car chases (well a fun ride in a convertible on the beach!), no action scenes, no grotesque creatures, just real people dealing with real relationships in real dialogue, complicated and funny, heart wrenching and hysterically gut clutchingly funny. Bring a tissue. Bring a box. As stated in the film’s dialogue, “It never gets any easier”.
Brooks quickly cast Shirley MacLaine as Aurora, because, “She was the only one who ever saw it as a comedy.” The other roles would not be so easily cast. Sissy Spacek was originally set to play her daughter Emma, and Brooks, who also wrote the screenplay, added a pivotal character to the story – Garrett Breedlove, the ex-astronaut neighbor of Aurora, a role he wrote specifically for Burt Reynolds. Reynolds turned down the role to make Stroker Ace. Ooops. Then Paul Newman was also offered the role, then finally Jack Nicholson. Spacek was replaced by Debra Winger, who had just come off of An Officer and a Gentleman.
It’s hard to imagine anyone else in the role of Garrett Breedlove. Jack Nicholson jumped at the chance to play him, declaring in a Rolling Stone interview, “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. I just went against the grain of the cliche. 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 represented that in this movie.” Breedlove was as spry as they come and Nicholson won himself an Oscar for the role. Rounding out the cast were Jeff Daniels, John Lithgow, and Danny DeVito.
During shooting, rumors abounded that Winger and MacLaine were not getting along: MacLaine later said of her temperamental co-star, “She marches to the beat of a different drummer than the rest of us.” Brooks agreed that the two were not friends but also said, “Each of them understands better than anybody else alive what the other is going through. The bonds are so deep and singular they could take any kind of behavior and not be damaged. So everybody would say “Look how they hate each other” and you’d find them turning to each other and playing a scene brilliantly. It’s like estranged family members in a way. Whenever the situation demands, the estrangement is gone and the familial qualities are there.”
“Debra insisted that I, and her parents, call her by the character’s name, Emma,” recalled MacLaine. “I understood the torture she was going through, but I just don’t work that way.” MacLaine’s own preparations for her role were equally unconventional, though. “My real role model was Martha Mitchell,” the actress told reporters. “She was in my mind all the time. I always felt she was hovering while I was working.” (Mitchell was the outspoken wife of President Richard M. Nixon’s Attorney General, John Mitchell, during Watergate and she had plenty to say about politics whether asked or not.)
MacLaine’s relationship with Nicholson was more positive; in the same interview, she described it as: “We were like old smoothies working together. We both knew what the other was going to do. It’s was an amazing chemistry–a wonderful, wonderful feeling.”
The most remarkable achievement of Terms of Endearment is its ability to find the balance between the funny and the sad, (something I tend to find of great importance in people as well) between moments of deep truth and other moments of high ridiculousness. Terms of Endearment understands its characters and loves them, so we never have a moment’s doubt: What happens next is supposed to happen because life’s like that. This is a movie with bold emotional scenes and big laughs, and at the same time it’s so firmly in control of its tone that we believe we are seeing real people. Real people may not always be as funny as the lines uttered brilliantly by MacLaine, Winger, Nicholson and others, but they are speaking the truth, they are living real lives up on the screen and having real reactions to real life issues.
Terms of Endearment was a massive box office hit, prompting many rave reviews like this one from the New York Daily News: “…A juicy, utterly captivating movie that not only features wonderfully human characters, but actually dares to deal with the joys and frustrations of maintaining a mother-and-daughter relationship” Not-so-positive reviews included such gems as “Terms of Endearment is as manipulative as anything Spielberg ever did. Sentimentality drips from every scene. . . Lots of laughs, just as many tears, and a general feeling of having one’s strings pulled.” I happen to side with the positive ones, believing these to be some of the most soulfully realistic portrayals of characters as real human beings ever to be shown on a movie screen. Brooks felt similarly of course, disagreeing with the term manipulative. “It’s not sugar-coated. 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 have always said that this story was written by a man who had a mother like Aurora. No one is brilliant enough to make up a woman like this. This was experienced, not created.
The Academy agreed as well: Brooks picked up the Oscar for Best Screenplay, Best Director, and Best Picture – not bad for his first try! In his acceptance speeches he thanked, among others, Jennifer Jones, Paramount, and Debra Winger. Winger was the only primary player not recognized with an award for her efforts. Nicholson picked up the Best Supporting Actor statue, and Shirley MacLaine beating out Winger for Best Actress, saying in her speech, “I have wondered for twenty-six years what this would feel like” And then, with perhaps a parting shot to her off-screen nemesis, “I deserve this!”. And she did, 100% yes, and so does everyone else who had anything to do with this film.