COME TO LAUGH. COME TO CRY. COME TO CARE. COME TO TERMS.
It never fails. I’ve seen this film, director-producer James L. Brooks’s first, four or five times and it always leaves me choked up. When I see it with other people I fight back the tears (like any other 30-year-old man…), but not when I’m alone. The film is funny, heartwarming and quite possibly the best tearjerker ever to come out of Hollywood.
When we first meet Aurora Greenway (Shirley MacLaine), she’s the kind of mother who will wake her baby up in the middle of the night just to make sure the child hasn’t suddenly died. As her daughter grows up, Aurora stays close to her, even more so after the death of her husband. When Emma (Debra Winger) one day announces that she’s going to marry a young man called Flap (Jeff Daniels), Aurora tells her that she’s making a mistake and refuses to come to the wedding. It’s not a big deal; Emma is very angry at first, but their relationship is too strong to be permanently damaged and Aurora is forced to deal with her daughter’s marriage. As the years go by, Emma gives birth to two sons and reluctantly moves to Iowa with her family; she stays in touch with her mother over the phone. Aurora is of course right about Flap, but the marriage nevertheless survives to a certain extent.
Aurora goes on with her life as well, constantly being suited by a group of men who have nothing better to do but adore the headstrong woman twenty-four-seven. She enjoys their company, but finds herself fascinated by the neighbor, washed-up astronaut Garrett Breedlove (Jack Nicholson), who spends his retirement partying with much younger women. He turns his attention to Aurora who pretends not to be interested, but after one particularly drunken lunch the couple starts an uneasy relationship…
What I have described so far is a very enjoyable comedy with dramatic moments, an hour and a half where we truly get to know these people. But we are not prepared for what comes next – and here come the spoilers. Emma is diagnosed with cancer and suddenly all the characters, Aurora and Flap in particular, need to deal with the inevitable. Emma is going to die and decisions must be made regarding the children, since Flap might not be prepared or actually willing to take care of them. The final goodbyes at the hospital are absolutely devastating, beautifully played, somberly and soberly directed.
As the end credits roll, we ponder the lessons. Life is brutal, which is why we need to keep making meaningful bonds with people throughout it. Life is never black and white; we keep making mistakes, but that’s part of it all and not necessarily disasters. The choices some people make may seem wrong to others, but could be the only options they have.
It’s a fascinating story, exceptionally well directed… although the depiction of cancer will leave some people shaking their heads in disbelief. Let’s just say I’d like to die as gracefully as Emma, apparently without any pain. But it still works, thanks to the actors. Winger gives a thoroughly charming performance; MacLaine seized on the opportunity to create a flamboyant, larger-than-life Texas belle and she’s unforgettable, and Nicholson is hilarious as the sly, old devil who’s conquered space but finds Aurora tougher to deal with. The supporting cast is also very good, including the kids who play Emma’s sons; their final moments with her are so heartbreaking.
Of course there were critics who were above falling for this, but I’m not one of them. This is one case where I completely surrender. I know there are problems with the film, but what’s good about it is so damn good that I have to make the emotional decision to ignore the gripes.
Terms of Endearment 1983-U.S. 132 min. Color. Produced, written and directed by James L. Brooks. Novel: Larry McMurtry. Music: Michael Gore. Cast: Shirley MacLaine (Aurora Greenway), Debra Winger (Emma Horton), Jack Nicholson (Garrett Breedlove), John Lithgow, Jeff Daniels, Lisa Hart Carroll… Danny DeVito. Voices of Albert Brooks, Mary Kay Place.
Trivia: Jennifer Jones originally owned the book rights and allegedly wanted to play the part of Aurora. Sissy Spacek was reportedly considered for the part of Emma; Burt Reynolds for the part of Garrett. Later a stage play. Followed by The Evening Star (1996).
Oscars: Best Picture, Director, Actress (MacLaine), Supporting Actor (Nicholson), Adapted Screenplay. Golden Globes: Best Motion Picture (Drama), Actress (MacLaine), Supporting Actor (Nicholson), Screenplay.
Last word: “It was tough. I was learning on the job and it was pretty scary… I haven’t had too many electric moments in my life, and they don’t mean anything except that you experience them. They don’t create a changed universe, or anything. But the last shot of ‘Terms of Endearment’, because we’d been through some very rough times in the weeks before, I was strapped to the front of a car as we got the shot of Emma arriving in New York. And we were in Brooklyn when we went over the bridge and got the shot, then we rode back. And it was on that ride back that I knew I’d finished the movie and I felt like my head was gonna come off! And then it was amazing because we were looking at the statue of Liberty and… I had finished. I had finished. I’ll never forget that. (Brooks, The Hollywood Interview)