Terms of Endearment

TermsOfEndearmentThrowback Thursday! Winner of five Academy Awards, including Best Picture in 1984, Terms of Endearment is a great example of a beautiful and dynamic story. Combine the remarkable story with the incredible all-star cast, and you get an instant American classic. The narrative is touching, heartwarming, funny, and gut-wrenching. Covering the thirty-year lifespan of the relationship between a mother and daughter, this movie will have you laughing one moment and crying the next. From a mother-daughter story to the story of a charmingly eccentric woman who, in her 50’s who finally permits herself to fall in love; and the chronicle of a troubled marriage between a young professor and his whimsical bride. It’s one part dark comedy and one part heavy drama.

The movie’s about two remarkable women and their relationships with each other and with the men in their lives. Aurora, the mother, is played by Shirley MacLaine. She’s a widow who lives in Houston and hasn’t dated a man since her husband died. Maybe she’s redirected her sexual desires into the backyard, where her garden has grown so large and elaborate that she either will have to find a man pretty quickly or move to a house with a bigger yard. Emma, her daughter, played by Debra Winger, is one of those people who seems to have been blessed with a sense of life and joy. She marries a guy named Flap, played by Jeff Daniels, who teaches English in a series of Midwestern colleges; she rears three kids and puts up with Flap, who has an eye for coeds. And, Freud would have a hay day with the relationship that is formed between MacLaine’s character and the retired astronaut next-door Garrett Breedlove, played by Jack Nicholson; she is both repulsed by and attracted to him. Winger and her husband hit rough patches that they have to pull through. All of this is told in a series of perfectly written, acted and directed scenes that flow as effortlessly as a perfect day, and then something happens that is totally unexpected, and changes everything.

A lesser movie might flail hopelessly between such drastic extremes, and ”Terms of Endearment” does falter here and there. But it somehow manages to incorporate a great many dramatic threads. If it doesn’t always do so with the utmost grace or economy, neither does it ever fail to be enormously appealing, thanks to the bright, witty, larger- than-life performances that James Brooks has elicited from his stars. After a while, though, the film seems to relax about establishing its own cleverness, and it moves on more comfortably to follow the characters and their lives.

There are some lovely supporting performances in the film too; most notably John Lithgow’s as the bashful Iowa banker who becomes Emma’s lover after encountering her in the supermarket. Mr. Lithgow plays this entire episode clutching a canned ham in his left arm, yet he manages to make this touch seem sweet rather than sardonic. Danny De Vito is also quite good as Vernon Dahlart, whose name captures the flavor of his character and who is one of the many Texan moths around Aurora’s flame. As Flap, Mr. Daniels seems pleasant but ordinary, without the immense scale of the three other principals. This doesn’t seem to be the fault of the performance, but rather that of the screenplay. As written, Flap is an indistinct character.

This is a wonderful film. There isn’t a thing that I would change, with the exception of a lack of background on the characters, and I was exhilarated by the freedom it gives itself to move from the high comedy of Nicholson’s best moments to the acting of Debra Winger in the closing scenes. She outdoes herself. It’s a great performance. And yet it’s not a “performance.” There are scenes that have such a casual piety that acting seems to have nothing to do with it. She doesn’t reach for effects, and neither does the film, because it’s all right there. If you’ve never seen this American classic, you definitely need to plan to, and add it to your list.


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