There are a lot of rules in this world, but I’ll let you in on an obscure one. Always trust in James L. Brooks. The man has a sense of humor and tragedy that resonate with me like few others. He’s like a slightly lighter Mike Nichols. I spotted Terms of Endearment (1983) at the library and figured it would be a pain-free part of catching up with Best Picture winners. You know, one of those easy-viewing winners that sometimes come up in the Oscars like Argo (2012), Chicago (2002), or Shakespeare in Love (1998); pleasant, but no real benefit to the human race for longer than a solar season. The fact that it beat out The Big Chill (1983) and The Right Stuff (1983) undermined by the fact that the two other nominees The Dresser (1983) and Tender Mercies (1983) probably haven’t come up in a conversation between anyone other than the participants since March, 1984. Boy did I get that wrong. The man behind Broadcast News (1987) is not to be doubted.
Emma (Debra Winger) was born of a very difficult mother. Aurora (Shirley MacLaine), like her namesake, is a princess for life. After Aurora’s husband died, it’s a miracle that Emma didn’t turn out to be completely untethered. Emma marries an academic named Flap (Jeff Daniels) and they get pregnant—as the culture now so oddly puts it—in quick time. “What makes you think I’d be happy to be a grandmother!” When the second one comes, Flap gets a job in Des Moines, and they leave their spot in Houston. At that point, a rapscallion of an astronaut, the aptly named Garrett Breedlove (Jack Nicholson), moves in next door to Aurora. The marital garden does not bloom so well in Iowa, but they manage it decently. Then something awful happens.
Death to teenagers, that’s what I say. I am told that I did something quite terrible to my mother, but I’d like to think that my adolescent intolerance for sentimentality borne of my almost completed journey towards total emotional detachment would have taken a breather for a moment such as the one in Terms of Endearment. Those titular terms, I might add, are conspicuous by their absence. Perhaps there is a message in that or perhaps an unnecessary commitment to the novel by Larry McMurtry. Anyway, these kids, played by Troy Bishop (the teen) and Huckleberry Fox (the younger son) are incredibly good. Some have called me heartless, so if you do not crack under the tears of Mr. Fox, then you sir—and, let’s face it, it’s “sir”—you sir, are dead.
The revelation of Terms of Endearment—and I mean in my more comfortable lexicon of collection rather than emotional maturity—is Debra Winger. Debra Winger is like the hot, awesome version of Greta Gerwig. Her husky voice and unburdened casualness is immeasurably appealing. Yeah, I saw her in An Officer and a Gentleman (1982) and loved her with a boy’s love, but now I love her 80’s self with the love of a boy in his later teens. I think it’s forever, but I’ve really just seen very little of the world. Terms of Endearment earned Winger an Oscar nomination that, for reasons beyond understanding, went to Shirley MacClaine instead. I suppose because she shouted about something serious. But it was Brooks who swept it all: Picture, Director, Adapted Screenplay. They nominated this movie for Art Direction and the thing is set in houses. That’s how much voters liked this movie. Eleven nominations, five wins. [Great, now I’m on another one of these Wikipedea surfing jags. Every time I see a well-regarded movie, I look at box office receipts from the 50’s onwards. What a waste of time. Did you know that Cinderella (1950) made twenty-five times as much as the second-place film of that year, King Solomon’s Mines (1950). About $1.3 billion in today’s money. Wow.]
I’ve avoided this movie for so long, honestly, because it’s just about the sissiest name a body ever came up with since Love Story (1970). That one, though, I’m keeping on the backburner until I have literally nothing else of value to watch. For the kind of movie Terms of Endearment’s cover looks like it is, one thinks that there’s got to be a mood. You probably think that about Ordinary People (1980) as well. And you’d be wrong both times. Just put it in and let it go. This is that mythical all-rounder, funny and sad, salty and sweet, that is just going to create that weird calm you get after a good cry. Because after all, you’ve just had a very good cry.
Hey, this is a review, not a ****-****ing contest—I’ll leave those four-letter words to your imagination—what are the flaws? O God, the 80’s music and those painfully heavy-handed musical cues. Please don’t let the fact that Michael Gore got a nomination for Best Score undermine the value of those other Oscar nominations. It isn’t a bad score, it’s just so trite to my ear. It was 1983, America had its whole life ahead of her, and they weren’t to know that these synthetic beats would turn our cultural farts into yawns after being so unkindly treated (best action movie hyperbole ever). There’s also a minor character flaw in some of Jeff Daniels’ decisions. In that arena, and the relationship arena, Brooks has some clashing tones of reality against emotional ‘satire’.
I’ve left this to the end both because it is intolerably obvious but it would be malpractice to leave it unremarked upon. This is basically a good Steel Magnolias (1989). One with a story that doesn’t rely on rank manipulation to make you weep. Terms of Endearment tries to earn it.
Nothing but good things to say. No Blu-Ray? Dumb. Still ultra available and necessary to see.