Terms of Endearment (1983)

Director: James L. Brooks
Screenwriter: James L. Brooks
Adapted from: Terms of Endearment by Larry McMurtry
Cast: Shirley MacLaine, Debra Winger, Jeff Daniels, Jack Nicholson, John Lithgow, Lisa Hart Carroll, Danny DeVito
Nominations: Picture, Director – James L. Brooks, Actress – Shirley MacLaine, Actress – Debra Winger, Supporting Actor – John Lithgow, Supporting Actor – Jack Nicholson, Adapted Screenplay, Editing, Art Direction, Score (original), Sound
Wins: Picture, Director – James L. Brooks, Actress – Shirley MacLaine, Supporting Actor – Jack Nicholson, Adapted Screenplay

Sometimes a film can hit all the necessary genre beats and play out like most every other film like it yet still have originality and freshness.  Terms of Endearment is a steadfast melodrama in the vein of Douglas Sirk’s Technicolor weepies from the 1950s and Bette Davis’s “women’s pictures” of the 1930s and 40s, yet after almost 37 years it remains a prime example of the genre.  A few tropes of melodrama include focusing on female characters, difficult family relationships, emotional struggles, and a (usually) fatal illness.  In the face of those hardships, characters typically display perseverance, selflessness, and courage.  Of course, Terms of Endearment fulfills those criteria. 

As is often the case, the longevity of the film is firmly rooted in its characters.  Even if there’s a character you can’t stand, there are plenty of others you can love and admire.  If Aurora is too austere and distant for you, Emma is there with her open heart and genuine care; if Sam Burns is too stiff and formal, Garrett freewheeling and casual.  And if you don’t like Flap, well, that’s obviously for the best, because he’s easily one of the more despicable characters in film history—he’s not out-and-out evil, no, but he’s conniving and dishonest and disloyal and just an overall terrible person.

One interesting aspect with the relationships the two main characters from about halfway through the film—Aurora with Garrett and Emma with Sam—is how their respective partners mirror the other main character.  That is, Sam’s personality has some similarities with Aurora’s, and Garrett’s personality has some similarities with Emma’s.  Sam, like Aurora, is enraptured with Emma and knows that Flap is a terrible husband for such a selfless wife.  Garrett, like Emma, is fun and exciting, but also hides a vulnerability that breaks our heart when someone is careless enough to exploit it.  Both women try to replicate the other with a lover, but both partners far short of the expectations a mother-daughter relationship asks for.  (An aside: we’re not given much information about Rudyard, Aurora’s husband and Emma’s father, but I wonder if Emma saw something of him in Flap.)  By trying to implicitly replace each other, both characters better appreciate and understand the relationship they share.

Given the tragic trajectory of the narrative, both Aurora and Emma have opportunities to shine as more than movie characters.  Emma’s most impactful moment, for me (and many), is her final talk with her sons.  She’s upfront and direct with Tommy, despite his ambivalence toward her; her sincerity about knowing he’ll feel guilty in the years to come and her matter-of-fact assurance that that guilt should be ignored is uplifting and heartbreaking—and made all the more agonizing because of Tommy’s disinterest in the circumstances.  But Emma stays true to herself, pushing forward with letting Tommy know that she loves him and that she knows he loves her.  It’s a level of bravery that we can’t help but admire and respect.  Aurora, already a complex character to begin with, reveals incredible tenderness and compassion as she and Emma share one final look with each other.  As simple as the shots and sequence is, there’s so much emotional history etched on Aurora’s face: she was there for Emma’s birth and there for her death, and the entire 30 years of their relationship is as plain as day in her expressions.

The meaning of Terms of Endearment has changed quite a bit for me between the first time I saw it about 20 years ago and the second time I saw it.  I found Aurora to be impossible and unbearable, but as a parent, I smile at her devotion to her child.  I cringed less at Emma’s insistence at staying with Flap because I better understood the no-win situation she was in as an under-educated, unskilled housewife with three kids.  The things that made me shrug off the film years ago had become the very reasons I appreciate the film today.