Lone Star Cinema: Terms of Endearment


Shirley MacLaine and Debra Winger in Terms of Endearment

Terms of Endearment really scored at the 1983 Academy Awards, winning Best Picture plus statues for actress Shirley MacLaine, supporting actor Jack Nicholson and director James L. Brooks (in his feature-film debut). Along with the award for direction, Brooks also won for his screenplay, based on the novel by Texas author Larry McMurtry. 

Widow Aurora (MacLaine) is all frills and composure, whereas her only child Emma (Debra Winger) is goofy and nonchalant. Before Emma's marriage soon after high school, Aurora warns her daughter, "You are not special enough to overcome a bad marriage." Which probably isn't the best way to tell your daughter to look more closely at her choices, but there you go. Terms of Endearment covers a span of about 15 or so years in the lives of mother and daughter.

Aurora stays in Houston, where she has gentleman callers (including Danny DeVito with a not-great attempt at an accent) and flirts/argues with the past-his-prime astronaut (Nicholson) next door. The fact that she is aging bothers her no end. Meanwhile, Emma and young hubby Flap (Jeff Daniels) move from Texas to Iowa to Nebraska, wherever Flap can get a quality teaching position at a decent college. Wouldn't you know it, Emma starts doubting Flap's fidelity. Even with two boys and a baby, she heads into her own affair with a small-town bank worker (John Lithgow).

For a film primarily about the relationship between a mother and daughter, it's a shame that Terms of Endearment's best moments are between Aurora and arrogant astronaut Garrett. They make each other a smidge more humble. The scene as they prepare for their first night together is sweetly awkward and endearing. The costuming by Kristi Zea is definitely of-the-time; MacLaine gets to showcase some poufy outfits, which are the perfect addition to Aurora's character. 

A friend who has read the book told me there is much more backstory in the novel, which Brooks had to cut down from 400-something pages for the movie. In this movie, we watch as Aurora grows into her self, but unfortunately Emma -- despite Winger's best attempts -- tends to come off as mainly stereotype: the harried housewife, the jealous wife, the adulterous woman and finally, the dying mother.  Although something about their relationship rang false to me, I could believe Aurora's frantic reaction to her daughter's illness, and Emma's disgust as her mom's continuing egocentricity in a hospital room. Winger does what she can with the role, infusing her lines with a dry humor.

I enjoyed Terms of Endearment slightly more this time than the first time I watched it in college. But I think if I want to watch a bittersweet comedy about a mother-daughter relationship that ends along the same lines, I'll stick with Steel Magnolias. Shirley MacLaine is wonderful in that one, too!

Terms of Endearment is available to stream on Netflix Instant.

Texas connections: The movie was filmed in Houston, and is based on a novel by Texan Larry McMurtry. Brooks and production designer Polly Platt would later act as producers for Wes Anderson's first feature, Bottle Rocket.

[Still via Oprah.com]