Sunday, July 29, 2012



The best picture winner of 1983 was a triumph for writer, director and producer  James L Brooks (who also won Oscars for his direction and script), made even more impressive by the fact that he had never directed a film before.  It's a moving family drama, filled with warmth and humor, and even if it lapses into some maudlin territory towards the end, the terrific performances still make it a winning film.

Brooks first began his career working in television in the mid sixties, eventually going on to produce hit shows like THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW and TAXI.  His first foray onto the big screen was as writer and producer of 1979's well received comedy  STARTING OVER.  For his directoral  debut he decided to adapt Larry McMurtry's 1975 novel, TERMS OF ENDEARMENT.  He bought the rights from movie actress Jennifer Jones, who wanted to play the important part of Aurora Greenway, but  Brooks talked her out of it.  He spent two years on the script while looking for another Aurora; Anne Bancroft and Louise Fletcher were both considered, but finally the role went to Brooks's first choice, Shirley MacLaine.  He also added the character of retired astronaut Garret Breedlove as Aurora's love interest, with Burt Reynolds in mind, Brooks having worked with Reynolds before on STARTING OVER.  Reynolds loved the  part, but he was already committed to making STROKER ACE (talk about going from the sublime to the ridiculous!), and Jack Nicholson was picked instead.  Debra Winger, hot off the hit AN OFFICER AND A GENTLEMAN, was chosen to play Aurora's daughter Emma, and fine actors Jeff Daniels and John Lithgow were also added to the cast.  The film was shot on several different American locations, and while there was some reported tension between MacLaine and Winger, the shooting was not difficult, and the film was finished for around eight million dollars; it would go on to make over a hundred and eight million. 

The film is about the decades long relationship between the widow Aurora Breedlove (Shirley McClaine)and her daughter Emma(Debra Winger), starting with Emma's wedding day.  Over the years, they both have trouble with the men in their lives and stick by each other.  When Emma is stricken by cancer, Aurora moves to hold her family together.

Shirley McClaine & Debra Winger

When shooting this film, Brooks demanded that it be shot entirely on the various locations that the story is set in and not on Hollywood sets;  this is important to its sense of realism, like when Emma goes to visit New York City for the first time, we can understand her feeling of awe, because we've already seen the kind of places that she has lived all her life. That sense of realism pervades the entire film, which cinematographer Andrzej Bartkowiak shoots with naturalistic lighting and no fancy editing or camera set ups. This is exactly the right style for  the film's story, which is also completely believable; the characters all feel like real people, real decent, flawed people,  living their lives in an ordinary way.

Working on the MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW (which was considered groundbreaking for having a female lead that was single, both a rarity in TV at the time) seems to have given Brooks a real affinity for creating likable female characters.  And he couldn't have done better than mama Aurora and daughter Emma, with McClaine and Winger both giving marvelous performances (both were nominated for the best actress award, with McClaine winning).  While certainly neither character is  perfect, they both are likable, funny and relatable; both actresses get big dramatic moments that they deliver wonderfully, and add nice, small eccentric touches to their performances (Winger gets stoned and dances in front of a mirror wearing her bridal veil on the night before her wedding, McClaine tips over while leaning out the window to spy on her neighbor). Most importantly, they share excellent chemistry, even when they're just talking on the phone.  Their bond seems so strong that it is both moving and appropriate that the last thing Emma does before dying is look at Aurora one last time.

After a couple of brief flashbacks, the movie opens with Aurora sternly warning Emma not to marry Flap Horton (Jeff Daniels, who is very good), a college professor.  Aurora even goes so far as to boycott the wedding ceremony (although, in true form, she constantly calls Emma the next day).  And while it would appear that the marital trouble that soon occurs would prove her right, it's to the film's credit that Flap is no villain: he truly does seem to love Emma at first, and he does the right thing when she falls ill.  And while he philanders with at least one adoring student, Emma herself has an affair with likable married local banker Sam Burns(John Lithgow), who, again to the film's credit, is portrayed as a perfectly good man who strays from his wife out of sexual frustration.
As Emma's marriage deteriorates, Aurora finds herself slowly being drawn to her next door neighbor, former Astronaut Garrett Breedlove (Jack Nicholson).  Now Brooks may not have written the role for Nicholson, but, as usual, Nicholson made it his own, giving the film an energetic shot in the arm and some very funny moments whenever he's on screen (he won a best supporting actor award for the role).  And, can any other actor go from lecherous to charming in a heartbeat the way he often does here?  At first glance, he and Aurora would seem like an odd pairing; her the proper lady, him the leering boozy womanizer, and early in the film, when she seems him drunkenly flirt with two younger women, she seems repulsed.  But she can't stop thinking about him, and although she has several adoring admirers (one of whom is humorously played by Danny DeVito), they lack the animal magnetism of Garrett.  And so, she decides to accept his invitation to a lunch date, even if she's late by few years (Nicholson's reaction to this is classic!).  The date is both a disaster and the film's comic highlight, as McClaine gets wind blown while sitting in Garrett's top down sports car, has Garrett inform her that she needs to get drunk, and then has to sit in his car as he speeds down the beach, sitting on top of the car and steering it with his feet!  And yet, despite all of this, later, on her fiftieth birthday (which may actually be her fifty second) Aurora invites Garrett over to her house, and so begins a most unlikely, but eventually understandable relationship. It's great to see a loving, sexual coupling in a movie  between two people who are not young or physically perfect, and I love how giddy Aurora gets talking about it with  Emma.  Along with his humorous over the top antics, Nicholson also gets to show moments of tenderness, especially when, in the film's most romantic moment, he unexpectedly arrives to provide moral support to Aurora as she cares for the cancer ridden Emma. ("Who would have expected you to be a nice guy?", says Aurora, seeing what she always sensed in him.).

Jack Nicholson

There is some debate to the film's final third, when Emma slowly dies of cancer, with some people dismissing it as an obvious, melodramatic development that sinks the film into TV movie disease of the week territory.  Personally, I don't think the cancer is necessary to a story that already has plenty of drama, but this movie is  too well made and well acted to be dismissed so lightly, especially when the cancer is just one part of the story.  And Brooks shows enough restraint to keep the film from sinking into heavy handedness. For example, he actually allows Winger to truly look sick, instead of flooding her with heavenly lighting and making her look beautiful like director Arthur Hiller so infamously  did to Ali Mcgraw in 1970's LOVE STORY.  He also mostly avoids over the kind of sappy, over the top musical cues that so often drown stories like this in sentiment, even during the powerful scene in which the dying Emma reaches out to her eldest son Tommy(Huckleberry Fox).  And he never allows his sense of  humor to disappear, using it to temper the darker moments, as when a doctor tells Aurora "I tell people to hope for the best and expect the worst" and she responds "And they let you get away with that?".  Most importantly, Emma's illness allows Brooks to make an important point about how friends and family can come together in a crisis and forget their differences, as the actions of both Flap and Garrett show. Unfortunately, this idea is one that proved so influential that it has become a timeworn cliche in movies about families, like 1998's STEPMOM or 2004's FINDING NEVERLAND, (and who knows how many TV movies on the LIFETIME network), so, through no fault of its own, TERMS OF ENDEARMENT has become dated over the years.  Yet I still feel that it a great movie, worth watching just to see two female stars at the top of their game (a rare commodity in modern Hollywood!).


Just as with 1982's GANDHI, this is another tough call for me, because while I do love TERMS OF ENDEARMENT, I think that another, better film was released that year: Philip Kaufman's outstanding THE RIGHT STUFF, one of the few patriotic movies that I really admire.  But TERMS OF ENDEARMENT is still a fine choice.