Terms of Endearment (1983)

Directed by James L. Brooks


Terms of Endearment cleaned up at the Oscars, winning five awards including Best Picture and Best Director for James L. Brooks’ first film.  Based on a novel by Larry McMurtry, Terms of Endearment is a tearjerker, the type of story that can only work with the right performances and which could so easily fail.  There is nothing spectacular to this story, which spans about a decade or so and resists any melodrama.  It’s just about the relationship between a mother and daughter and how they show their love for each other.

You can trace everything back to that relationship in which a somewhat overprotective mother struggles to let her daughter go off into the world and make her own decisions.  We start with Aurora (Shirley MacLaine) waking her infant daughter up in the middle of the night just to make sure she’s still breathing.  When Emma starts crying, Aurora’s fears are mollified, and she leaves the room.

Later Aurora will crawl into bed with her teenaged daughter, something they do habitually.  When we finally see adult Emma (Debra Winger), she’s young enough to be living at home, concealing her pot smoking with a friend but old enough to be engaged to marry Flap Horton (Jeff Daniels).  Aurora tells her daughter that she can’t in good conscience support this marriage, and Emma tells her not to attend the wedding if she feels this way.  So Aurora stays home.

Already, the film could devolve into melodrama by taking Aurora’s dislike for Emma’s husband and blowing it out of proportion or having the other characters overreact.  Even as Emma marries Flap and has three children with him, she always knows and even accepts her mother’s distaste for her husband.  Flap himself expresses some frustration regarding Aurora’s opinions of him, but he takes it in stride.  For the rest of the film this all goes mostly uncommented on.  The characters just continue living their lives with an understanding of how the others feel, and they move on.

For the first few years after their marriage, Emma and Flap live next door to Aurora, allowing the mother-daughter bond to continue on as strong as ever.  Sure, sometimes Aurora calls unexpectedly and Emma rolls her eyes, but they have an unspoken understanding with each other.

Later, Emma and her family will move away from Aurora in Houston to Des Moines, Iowa, following Flap’s teaching career.  Geographically distant, we watch as mother and daughter go about their own lives, occasionally phoning in to update the other on how it’s going like old friends might.

Aurora develops a relationship with a former astronaut, Garrett (Jack Nicholson), who moves in next door, and Emma experiences some strain in her relationship when she suspects Flap is having an affair.  Somewhat as a response, Emma begins having an affair of her own with Sam (John Lithgow).

The film follows each woman’s respective relationship without making too much of those relationships.  They’re in search of something, but again the film resists any forced drama.  Even as Emma suspects Flap of having an affair, she doesn’t try to look too hard to see if she’s right.  Her focus is on family, and when she meets Sam, she starts spending more and more time with him, though the movie doesn’t present this affair as sinful or even as all that exciting.  It’s just another person in her life.

Aurora’s relationship with the astronaut is meaningful but similarly demystified.  They fall in love, and Aurora updates her daughter like they’re teenaged best friends, but when the astronaut decides this relationship demands more commitment than he’s willing to offer and leaves, Aurora lets him.  Though disappointed, she seems to have a grasp on the bigger picture, on family.  Like Sam or even Flap, these are just other people in her life, orbiting her most meaningful relationship, the one with her daughter.

Despite some marital strife, Emma moves with Flap to Nebraska where he receives another teaching job.  Having already left her husband once, briefly, it’s not hard to imagine her wanting to leave him altogether, but this perhaps highlights one of the differences between her and her mother.  Though we never see Emma’s father (outside of a single line uttered off screen by Albert Brooks in the very first scene), we get the impression that Aurora doesn’t want or need anyone else in her life.  She rejects multiple advances by other men, including early in the film when she explains that no, she doesn’t have any needs a particular man can fulfill.  Aurora is hurt but okay with the astronaut leaving, and she’s shown that she can exist on her own.

Maybe it’s a response to that which lets Emma stay with Flap so long, even as their marriage quickly sours.  It could just be a stubborn response to her mother’s disdain for Flap, or it could be a subconscious desire to keep the family together because she never felt like she had one growing up.

The movie doesn’t condemn or celebrate any of the characters’ behavior.  Instead of saying what could be or should be, it just presents these characters, all well-meaning but a little unprepared for life, as what is.

In the final movement of the film, Emma learns she has cancer, and everything else in the film, the strained relationships and possible melodrama, fade away as death begins to clarify what’s most important.  Though the distance remains between Emma and Flap, they share a happy moment soon before she dies.  Similarly, Aurora and Flap are there to comfort each other, though still with a polite distance influenced by all the time they’ve spent disliking the other.

Terms of Endearment, like other James L. Brooks films, effectively balances humor and this tearjerking sadness.  But it’s like life, right?  This film went up against The Big Chill in the Best Picture race, another film that finds the middle ground between happy and sad.  In that film, a bunch of college pals reunite following the death of one of their classmates.  Their conversations and memories of the deceased friend will pivot incredibly quickly from a cheerful memory to a sudden despair as reality reminds you he’s gone.

In Terms of Endearment, the whole film starts to feel like a memory, a celebration of Emma’s life and of her relationship with her mother.  The movie’s poster features the two characters smiling happily at the camera, and the whole film might be the recollection of stories told amongst friends and family at her memorial service, though just with much more insight into some of the more personal moments of her life.

The final scene of the film, at that service, has just about every important character in the film in attendance, except for Sam back in Iowa.  The characters find strength moving forward, and the film ends with Aurora’s smile as she watches the astronaut (who has returned and redeemed himself) cheering up Emma’s eldest son.

So despite the incredible sadness of the end of the film, the poster reminds you that Emma and Aurora had a happy life together.  Just as Sam will remember her through the smiling photo she gives him when they finally part, we are meant to remember these characters in the happier, lighter moments despite knowing how it all ends up, kind of like life.

Up Next: Obit. (2016), Sullivan’s Travels (1941), Silence (2016)

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