Everybody thinks that other people’s families are bizarre. We grow up assuming that everybody’s parents talk to each other the way our own do, that everybody has the same bed time and that everybody has the same go to Friday night treat for dinner. It’s therefore understandable that when we’re children and go for sleepovers at friends’ houses, the things we see just make no sense at all and there’s no way we can rationalise it. James L. Brooks’ 1983 “Terms of Endearment” is a film which at its core is the story of the relationship between a mother and daughter, but the dynamic between the two of them is so bizarre and contradictory that had the performances of the lead actresses not been as compelling as they were, there’s no way the film would have worked.
Widowed Aurora Greenway (Shirley MacLaine) is disapproving when her daughter Emma (Debra Winger) marries young, slick college professor Flap Horton (Jeff Daniels) and again when she moves away with their children for Flap’s new job. Emma loves her mother but agrees to the move to escape Aurora’s controlling and intrusive parenting. As Emma’s marriage quickly becomes strained, she struggles to raise her children as Flap drifts further and further away, culminating in her having an affair with a local man (John Lithgow) and Flap fooling around with his fellow buxom professors. Aurora meanwhile, after years of keeping two mild mannered, neutered admirers at bay (Danny DeVito and Norman Bennett), she allows herself to be swept away by the charming and roguish ex-astronaut Garrett living next door (Jack Nicholson) in a passionate romance which she confides to Emma with teenager like giddiness. When Emma is diagnosed with cancer and told she has only months to live, Flap and Aurora are forced to confront their differences as Emma struggles to reconcile her fate, culminating in a genuinely heartbreaking scene as she says goodbye to her sons.
Aurora is certainly not delicate in her interactions with Emma, telling her that her husband is a lowlife, that she’s not special enough to overcome a bad marriage, that there’s no way her life is going to get any better if she keeps having children with him. It’s never really explained why Aurora has become so embittered; there’s no mention of her husband and what their life was like before he passed away. Her relationship with Emma flies from fiery and venom lipped bickering to giggling small talk to excruciating screeching in Emma’s hospital ward when the nurses are late in administering her pain medication. We never see them really reconcile after they have an argument; perhaps they have such a deep understanding of each other that no apology is necessary, or maybe Brooks has deliberately omitted these scenes because it’s not important how they reconciled. Emma knows that Aurora does what she does out of love, as misguided as her actions may seem. We aren’t exposed to the full scope of their relationship, and that’s why the volatility of it seems jarring, but that’s alright. A lot of it didn’t make sense to me, and I couldn’t figure out why the two women often acted the way they did, but maybe if Aurora and Emma Greenway were to sit as a fly on the wall and watch the goings on of my family, they might think it was a little strange themselves.
One thing that didn’t sit right with me was Aurora’s relationship with Garrett next door. It seemed somehow disingenuous and artificial in amongst such convincing and complex portrayals of families, friends and lovers. Also, Nicholson’s performance is just a little boring and uninspired and certainly not deserving of his Best Supporting Actor Oscar; all he seemed to do was grin and raise his eyebrows an awful lot just like, well, Jack Nicholson. The whole schtick of the rouge playboy being tamed by an unlikely and earthy older woman seemed so surface level and lazy in this film and I found myself growing impatient when these scenes dragged on.
The lead female roles however, (of which MacLaine won her first Oscar), are unique and especially pivotal to this story. In many ways the performances, while maybe not superseding the script, certainly elevate it in a way which couldn’t have happened had MacLaine and Winger not been involved. What was especially surprising to me was how sweet and funny this film is, because I had heard about the infamous scene in which Emma says goodbye to her boys from her hospital bed and had assumed that the film would largely be a depressing experience. It’s a shame, because “Terms of Endearment” is so much more than that. One of the messages of the Jewish holiday of Passover is that existence is equally bitterness and sweetness, but all important in the journey of life. I was reminded of that sentiment while watching this film. I certainly grew teary as promised in Emma’s final scene with her sons, but I would say that this is a story as much about the humour, silliness and beauty of life as well as the tragedy.
By Jock Lehman