James L. Brooks
2 Hrs., 11 Mins.
Terms of Endearment January 25, 2018
’m sure a great many have noticed that their relationship with their mother has a lot in common with the one featured in James L. Brooks’ Terms of Endearment (1983). Here, all-too-familiar characteristics prevail: consistent, albeit good-hearted, doting; infuriatingly endless questions about one’s love life; harsh opinions you hate in the moment but later appreciate; a feeling of perdurable judgment.
Also advertised are all the things that make a mother/child relationship so special
in the first place. There’s the foundational truth that there’s maybe no one in the world who knows you better than your mom. The impression that, even when she’s really driving you up a wall, she’s the one who’s going to stick around when shit hits the fan. The unshakable understanding that there are few women in the world you both admire and adore so intensely.
Such a relationship is not necessarily a universality; some might even consider it something of a stroke of luck. But it’s a common one, and is the kind at the center of Terms of Endearment. The movie, by turns warmly funny and tear-jerking, is primarily concerned with the relationship between Aurora and Emma (Shirley MacLaine and Debra Winger), a mother and a daughter who have never exactly gotten along but have nonetheless always depended on the other to survive.
Covering about 30 years of their separate lives – with much meeting in the middle – it details their struggles but especially their love lives. It chronicles Emma’s turbulent marriage to a Jeff Daniels-portrayed character we figure was never Mr. Right, as well as a brief but tender affair she has with a professional type who loves her (John Lithgow). It also orbits around Aurora’s late-in-life romance with the ex-astronaut next door (Jack Nicholson, masterfully self-assured).
All should be syrupy and Aqua-Netted, an eye-roll-inducing modern twist on the standard mother/daughter film perfected by the films Lana Turner made post-Johnny Stompanato. We almost anticipate the inevitably tragic conclusion. But as it so often goes with the films of Brooks (essentially crowd-pleasing comedies that can pride themselves in their unparalleled intelligence and their ability to dexterously switch tones), nothing here’s cheap or manipulative. The writing and acting are both so individualistically good, we come to fall in love with its central women from the get go. We’re more than happy to walk beside them as life jerks them around, for better or worse.
Some of that reverence can be attributed to Brooks, who’s rarely made a movie in which the characters didn’t feel directly lifted from the prosaic everyday. But MacLaine and Winger deserve most of the credit: they embody these women with equal parts affection and zeal.
Aurora and Emma are such wonderful, distinct individuals to begin with. We’ve certainly met mothers like Aurora before: busibodies who were probably class president in high school, unofficially majored in homemaking and PTA-leading later on, and then spent so much time helicoptering their children that they forgot how to be themselves once empty-nest syndrome came about. And we’ve known plenty of Emmas: icons of assertion so apparently incapable of not seizing the day that we almost envy their confidence in themselves.
We reason that the principal reason Aurora and Emma have such a delicate relationship can chiefly be blamed upon how similar they are to one another. They’re inadequate when it comes to keeping their mouths shut, to failing to spice up their lives when they can sense that something’s wrong. I was so enamored with them, individually or when in the presence of the other (MacLaine and Winger have great chemistry in lieu of their famously not getting along throughout production), that I found myself genuinely crushed when the movie’s infamous kicker of a three-hanky ending arrived. These actresses understand them, and so does Brooks. And that makes it all the more moving. Few movies have so authentically captured a mother/daughter bond.
Terms of Endearment’s becoming a lasting title in the “classics” canon, then, is unqualifiedly deserved. It’s a fine piece of escapism that souses us in these characters and their lives, with plenty of intelligence and sensitivity to back its shameless tugging of the heartstrings. It’s humorous, too, but in the way life is: unpredictably and sometimes cursorily, but infectious when it is.
It makes sense that people continue to come back to it after all these years. Rather than attempt to distort real life for the purposes of entertainment, it sees the beauty in even the most fatiguing of happenstances and relationships. We can see so much of ourselves in these characters and the situations they face. If we don’t, we plain and simply like them. And that’s enough. A