* family, usually mother-daughter, often tenuous or estranged
* tragic and/or forbidden romance
* death of major character, almost always female
* bittersweet humor
Hey, whatever works, right? In fairness, a lot of these films are actually still pretty good today, but one in particular reached the ultimate plateau in winning Best Picture. That would be 1983's Terms of Endearment, adapted from Larry McMurtry's book of the same name. The screen version was written, directed and produced by James L. Brooks, and was well-liked by just about everyone including Bette Davis, who was often critical of modern films in her later years. Grab the tissues, here we go!
Aurora Greenway (Shirley MacLaine) is quite the overbearing mother to her young daughter Emma (Jennifer Josey), and that magnifies upon her husband's death. Aurora often gets tense and sleeps in Emma's bed with her. Still, they have what is probably the standard mother-daughter relationship. Once Emma is grown up and graduating high school though, it gets a little more strained. The older Emma (Debra Winger) is getting married to Flap Horton (Jeff Daniels), but the day before the wedding she's hanging out in her bedroom smoking with her best friend Patsy (Lisa Hart Carroll). Aurora eventually starts banging on Emma's door and tells her she needs to talk to her now. Emma goes to her mom's room. Aurora states she disapproves of Flap, saying he has no ambition and can provide her no future. Emma and Aurora wind up agreeing that Aurora shouldn't attend the wedding.
Emma and Flap move into their new place on their wedding night. It's a little hard to get romantic though, what with Emma's bad cold and Aurora continually trying to call them on the phone. (They don't know for sure it's her, of course. Remember, this is early 1980's. No cell phones, no caller ID, etc., but at the same time...they know for sure it's her.) Sometime into the night, Emma finally answers the phone when it rings yet again. She tells Aurora she should apologize to Flap. Flap doesn't want to talk to her but gets the phone put to his ear. He says he doesn't need an apology, just respect for their marriage.
Aurora is having a get-together at her place with her family and many of her suitors, including Vernon (Danny DeVito). During dinner, Emma breaks the news that she's pregnant. Aurora is horrified about becoming a grandmother and goes outside, where she sees her neighbor, retired astronaut Garrett Breedlove (Jack Nicholson), returning home from a drunken night with two younger girls. He's unsuccessful in inviting them into his house.
Emma and Flap move to Des Moines, Iowa since Flap has gained employment as an associate college professor there. (Everyone is in Houston, Texas, at the start, just as an FYI.) Now without her daughter living nearby, Aurora ponders things in her backyard but hears Garrett next door making a racket. She calls for him to quiet down, and they wind up meeting at the fence and having their first conversation. It culminates with Garrett asking her out for lunch. She kindasorta says yes, but then he gets fresh so she insults him and leaves.
Several years pass. Emma and Flap have two children and a third on the way, but Emma's struggling to make ends meet and asks Aurora for help. It turns into an argument which ultimately results in Emma saying she'll work it out. At the supermarket, Emma's a few bucks short on the groceries she's buying, so someone else in line helps her out. It's Sam Burns (John Lithgow). Sam and Emma flirt a bit, being that her marriage is a bit strained at the moment.
Aurora turns 50 and has a gathering with her suitors. One questions her age, so she gets upset and goes outside for some air. While doing so, she decides to go to Garrett's front door for the first time. She says a few years ago he asked her to lunch. She accepts. Garrett smiles and they make a date for tomorrow. What a date it is, as they have lunch and a few drinks, then wind up doing some crazy driving on the beach, which ends up with Garrett flying out of his convertible (which he was sitting on the roof of to begin with) and into the ocean. Aurora checks on him and they wind up kissing, but that goes south when Garrett starts to grope her breasts. Garrett admits to Aurora that she brings out the devil in him.
Meanwhile, Emma and Sam are secretly meeting for lunches and they wind up having an affair as well. Aurora and Emma talk on the phone that night and Aurora admits the date with Garrett was entertaining, but he got fresh later. Emma tells her mother she should call him for a second date. Aurora thinks about it, and later when she hears Garrett in his backyard pool, she calls him on the phone. He's happy to hear from her. She invites him over to check out the Renoir painting, which is conveniently in the bedroom. Both figure out the hidden meaning of the call and he comes over a short time later. Aurora still seems put off by Garrett, saying she's a grandmother, but then she locks onto his lips and they wind up getting biz-zay.
Emma calls Aurora the next morning. Flap has gotten an offer to head up a department at a college in Kearney, Nebraska. He's considering it. Aurora admits to Emma that "the astronaut" is in bed sleeping next to her. Emma is thrilled and they agree Aurora should get off the phone now. Emma heads to see Flap at his workplace. He catches her flirting a bit too physically with a grad student named Janice (Kate Charleson), and screams at him. He chases her down and says nothing happened, but Emma decides she's taking the kids and going back to Houston.
Aurora and Emma gleefully reunite. Garrett isn't too comfortable being around them all though, especially with the three kids being part of the mix. After a couple of days, Flap calls Emma and convinces her to come back to Des Moines, as he does wish to accept the new position in Nebraska. Emma decides to head back, comfortable with the fact that he shouldn't philander any more with Janice since they're moving away. After Emma leaves, Garrett visits Aurora and says he's not the right guy for her, and breaks off the romance, citing his being used to not feeling an "obligation" to one woman.
So now we're in Nebraska. Emma visits Flap's department...and discovers Janice chatting with a faculty member. Janice tries to make a quick exit, but Emma catches up with her outside. Janice tells Emma she understands every emotion she has right now, but she should hear everything from Flap and not her. Emma will do just that, but first she's on her way to get her and daughter Melanie their flu shots. While there, the doctor notices two lumps on Emma's right underarm, so he recommends they get checked out just to be safe. Emma calls Aurora later to mention this. Aurora is sure it's just a cyst from clogged sweat glands. Unfortunately, she learns later the lumps were malignant tumors. She's put onto medication to fight the disease and discharged. Patsy has visited the hospital and invites Emma to New York City, where she now lives, for a child-free vacation, but after a few days Emma feels out of place and decides to return for more treatment.
Upon returning, Emma's doctor tells her the medicine has not helped, and her time is short. Aurora remains at the hospital every day, occasionally freaking out on the staff since they're not doing enough for Emma in her eyes. Aurora does relax a bit, however, when she discovers that Garrett has flown out to visit and offer support. He can't stay too long but Aurora and Emma are both elated he came, and later at the airport, Aurora and Garrett profess they do indeed love each other.
In a discussion in the hospital cafeteria, Aurora tells Flap bluntly that he does not have the energy for work, family and womanizing, so he should let her raise the children in Houston. He then discusses things with Emma. Patsy wants to adopt Melanie, but Flap and Emma don't want their kids to be separated. Emma also doesn't want Janice raising them. Flap agrees that having them live with Aurora is best.
Everyone is pretty much accepting of the fact that Emma will be gone very soon. The oldest son Tommy (Troy Bishop) has shown open resentment towards Emma for quite awhile, thinking she drove Flap away. Emma reassures Tommy she loves him and she knows he loves her too. Aurora walks the kids out later and Tommy makes a wisecrack, causing Aurora to slap him and tell him to respect his mother. Aurora hugs Tommy, who we hear apologizing and crying. Emma dies that night. The funeral is held back in Houston, with Emma's friends and family gathering in Aurora's backyard for a memorial service. Garrett bonds with the children, especially Tommy, and the film closes on Aurora sitting with Melanie on her lap.
The character of Garrett Breedlove was written specifically for Burt Reynolds, but he turned down the role since shooting would overlap with another film he had already committed to, The Cannonball Run. Reynolds later said of his decision, "There are no awards in Hollywood for being an idiot.".....The opening scene of the film contains Aurora's husband's voice from another room. That voice belongs to Albert Brooks.....Winger, as was often the case, wasn't easy to work with. She often criticized her films during and after completion, and apparently going through withdrawal from a recent cocaine addiction, got into a shoving match with MacLaine on one occasion.....Jennifer Josey, who played Emma as a child for about 2 minutes of screen time, never appeared in another movie or TV show.....Despite one "F"-bomb being dropped during the movie, it wound up hitting theaters with a PG rating. PG-13 didn't exist yet. No film in 2015 would be given a PG rating with an "F"-bomb in it.....This was James L. Brooks' directorial debut. Upon the film's completion, he received a gift from someone of a book of Life in Hell cartoons, drawn by Matt Groening. Brooks was so impressed with the cartoons, years later he asked Groening to draw some cartoon shorts for The Tracey Ullman Show, which Brooks was a writer and executive producer for. Those shorts introduced us to The Simpsons.
Terms of Endearment had a great box office run, landing at number one or two every week for its first eleven weeks of release. By the time it left theaters, it had brought in $108M+. Critics lauded the film, with Roger Ebert saying he wouldn't change a single thing, and Gene Siskel (correctly) predicting it would win Best Picture. Leonard Maltin gave the film a rare (for Maltin) four-star rating. And at the 56th Annual Academy Awards ceremony, the film scored 5 wins amongst its 11 nominations within 9 categories. There were two nominees each in two of the acting categories, and in both cases the normal vote-splitting didn't occur. Jack Nicholson bested John Lithgow in the Supporting Actor category, and Shirley MacLaine won Lead Actress over Debra Winger. The other four losses for the film were for Art Direction, Sound Mixing, Original Score and Film Editing. The other three wins came for Adapted Screenplay, Director and Picture, with all going to James L. Brooks. The Best Picture win saw victory over The Big Chill, The Dresser, The Right Stuff and Tender Mercies. Oddly enough, a week ago at this time I'd only ever seen Tender Mercies. I watched Terms for the first time for this blog. The other nominees I've never seen. However, I know many people were big fans then and are still big fans now of two of those specific nominees, The Big Chill and The Right Stuff. In retrospect I think many, including my wife, feel that Chill should have probably won top honors. I myself thought Terms was nothing special. It told a good story, but there was no indication of when time advanced, which was often. You would need to figure it out as you went along. ("Oh, look, they have two kids now.") I was impressed with the performances of the main ensemble. However, a lot of the supporting players just seemed to be kinda "there". Nicholson as a romantic lead was weird to me. Lithgow got nominated, although I'm not sure why. DeVito's character served no purpose. I found Terms of Endearment to be a satisfactory film, but nothing more.