I have been watching all the movies that won the Oscar for Best Picture. The next on my list was the 1983 winner, Terms of Endearment, directed by James L. Brooks (famous for his work on The Simpsons as well as for directing Broadcast News and As Good As It Gets) and starring Shirley MacLaine and Debra Winger.
Terms of Endearment is a family drama focusing on the story of a mother and daughter who often disagree but who nevertheless support each other through many challenges. While it ends with a tragedy, the movie is neither saccharine nor overplayed but feels like a genuiine chronicle of family life.
The other Best Picture nominees that year were The Big Chill, The Dresser, The Right Stuff, and Tender Mercies. Terms of Endearment also won Oscars for Best Acting in a Supporting Role (Jack Nicholson), Best Actress in a Leading Role (MacLaine), Best Director, and Best Writing, Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium (Brooks, from the Larry McMurty novel).
The movie begins with a funeral, as mother Aurora (MacLaine) and daughter Emma (Winger, played as a young girl by Jennifer Josey) cope with the death of Emma's father. It's clear from the beginning of the movie just how much Aurora depends on her daughter's presence.
So when Aurora objects to her daughter's marriage to Flap Horton (Jeff Bridges), a man she believes has no future, at first it seems like jealousy rather than a mother's intuition. Even long distance, the two women continue to connect via frequent phone calls, sharing the details of their life, such as marriage and money troubles on Emma's part, and a romance with the astronaut who lives next door (Nicholson) on Aurora's part.
Really, it seems as if, except for one friend in New York whose life is very different from Emma's, the two are everything to each other: confidant, friend and family. So even though they sometimes argue, their bond carries them through.
Winger and Bridges were so young in this movie I barely recognized either of them. Winger goes from being a tomboyish young woman to the mother of three children with an undependable husband. Emma's hectic life is in stark contrast to MacLaine's Aurora, who is always tightly controlled. In fact, she fears losing control so much that, until the astronaut comes into her life, her world is devoid of real intimate relationships, besides that with her daughter.
I hadn't seen this movie before, and quite honestly, I was not looking forward to it. I feared it would be a sort of Lifetime movie, manipulating the audience's emotions. Yet, it doesn't feel like that at all. It feels more like a document of a family's life, joy, and grief.
MacLaine is extraordinary as Aurora, with a deeply textured portrayal. While Winger's acting seems effortless, that's a testament to how well she embodies Emma. The contrast between them is so strong that, even though the characters themselves rarely appear on screen together, communicating over the phone, their emotional bond is clear.
Set in the recent past of the late 1970s or early 1980s, the moviemakers did not have to design elaborate costumes or sets. However, great care was taken to give this movie an almost documentary feel, with costumes and sets suited to the characters and scenes.
This movie seems so real that it feels effortless, and yet a lot of work did go into it. Brooks must have faced challenges, for example, with all the phone scenes. Although we don't see much of each setting, Emma and her family move around quite a bit, requiring several different home sets and streets. Interestingly, Brooks based the look of the movie on a previous Best Picture winner, The Best Years of Our Lives (1946).
Until the ending, this seems like a movie about women finding consolation and support in each other, especially when the men in their lives fail them. As the movie enters the final act, however, it turns into a tearjerker, which I won't spoil by revealing the ending. All the characters involved handle this transition with adeptness, so that the movie never turns into a weepy, overwrought, scenery-chewing affair.
Terms of Endearment is the sort of movie my siblings and I called a "Mom movie": a family drama without a lot of sex and violence that we could safely bring home to watch with the entire family, including my mother, who had very particular tastes in films. Over the years, I came to appreciate "Mom movies" for what they were: at their best, richly-drawn stories drawn from human experience. And this movie fits that definition.
Rating (4 out of 5): *****
Don't let the sappy title fool you.