Anyone who remembers the heft of a phone book or the twist of a landline cord probably has some memory of watching Aurora Greenway (Shirley MacLaine) climb into her baby’s crib to make sure her peacefully sleeping daughter is still alive. Or maybe your mind goes to the scene in which the pearl-clutching Aurora and her Lothario-with-a-heart-of-gold neighbor, Garrett Breedlove (Jack Nicholson), speed down a Texas beach in his convertible, hair tousled and libidos charged.
I’m not sure if there is such a thing as a perfect film, since one person’s “Jaws” is another’s “Rules of the Game,” but I would argue that 40 years after its release, “Terms of Endearment,” directed by James L. Brooks and based on a Larry McMurtry novel, comes pretty close.
McMurtry’s 1975 book received mixed reviews, although a Times critic wrote that he “can write up a mess and still win you over with it.” The story, available on most major platforms, hinges on the relationship between Aurora, a wealthy Houston widow, and her rebellious daughter, Emma (Debra Winger). It moves swiftly from that now iconic crib scene to Emma’s troubled marriage to the pretentious, adulterous Flap Horton (Jeff Daniels). Thanks to his job (and his ego), Emma is forced to leave her beloved Texas for Iowa and then Nebraska. Flap is a guy who uses words like “quisling” and blames “pregnancy paranoia” for his wife’s cheating accusations. Those two things alone should explain why Aurora despises her son-in-law.
Then there’s the unexpected turn after the halfway mark. I first watched “Terms of Endearment” as a teenager in Houston sitting at home with my cinema-loving mom. I had never seen a movie with scenes about a lump in a woman’s armpit, or a cancer diagnosis, or a desperate, grief-stricken mother crying out for medication for her child. As wrenching as those moments were, the comedy and the tears blended in a way I had never experienced as a viewer. Even years before deep loss came into my own life, that delicate balance of pain and humor seemed right. It felt true.
We watched the movie together repeatedly over the years, and each time my mom and I bonded over our love of Aurora’s hilarious brand of cantankerous Southern belle (even though the character had originated in New England). We related to the mother-daughter dynamic of wanting to murder each other one moment, and cuddling in bed giggling the next. Since we knew the neighborhood Aurora lived in, the affluent River Oaks, we felt a kinship with the characters, as if they existed within our universe. We also agreed that you would never drive along a Texas beach from River Oaks to go eat at Brennan’s since they’re about five miles apart and the only nearby water was a bayou, but we let that cinematic cheat slide.
Mostly, we bonded over the film’s message that levity and sorrow can, and should, coexist. I hesitate to even call it a “message” though, because there’s nothing heavy-handed about the way it’s delivered. The theme is just part of the fabric of the movie, like Aurora’s petal pink décor or Emma’s messiness. It exists in the performances, the score and, of course, the writing. When a doctor tells Aurora, “I always hope for the best and prepare for the worst,” she shoots back, “And they let you get away with that?” MacLaine delivers the line with the perfect blend of bitchiness and a mother’s protective, powerful love for her child.
Brooks, a creator of television classics like “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” and “Taxi,” saw something in McMurtry’s “mess,” and spent four years trying to get the movie greenlit. “Somebody sent me a book that I had a real reaction to,” Brooks said in a 1983 interview. Nicholson signed on to play the retired astronaut Breedlove because of the complexity of the relationships and because the script made him cry. At the time, Brooks said the adaptation of the novel ended up being the toughest thing he had ever written.
The struggle paid off. “Terms of Endearment,” initially rejected by studios that thought audiences wouldn’t want to see a movie in which a main character dies, was nominated for 11 Oscars. It won five, including best director and best picture, which no doubt made Paramount happy it took the risk. MacLaine and Nicholson also won Oscars. In addition to the acclaim, the film became a cultural touchstone. When I recently asked people what they remembered about the movie, I received a barrage of replies like, “Oh, how I bawled!” and “That opening scene!” Not one person said it was too sad.
Despite my love for the film, I avoided watching it over the past eight years until this summer. Some people love sad movies the same way others crave horror. We get to experience emotions that we typically tamp down and avoid. It wasn’t that I had been avoiding sadness, but that I’d had too much of it. I didn’t need any help channeling a good sob session.
My mom, who adored the film as much as I did, was diagnosed with colon cancer in 2015, and she died in 2018. How could I possibly sit through the scene where a distraught Aurora screams at the hospital staff to give her daughter the medicine? How could I continue breathing when Emma gives that little wave to her mother near the end?
For several years, I couldn’t fathom enduring any of it, but then something shifted. I missed the movie and those complex relationships that made Nicholson cry. Why should grief ruin my ability to watch something I love? Or maybe I decided to watch it again because I’m a masochist. Whatever the reason, I didn’t want to lose this film I cherished or to give up on the scenes that filled me with such joy, just because I feared the tears.
In Richard Schickel’s 1983 Time magazine review, he wrote, “The impulse in praising a film for which there are almost no analogies is to define it by what it is not, but that is really not good enough. It deserves some blunt declaration of respect and unguarded affection.”
When I sat down to watch “Terms of Endearment” again, I knew what was coming. And yes, I cried. But the humor won out. It made the inevitable emotional breakdown worth it. For someone born long after the days of landlines and phone books, seeing Emma’s son in a child seat that’s in the front seat will probably be shocking. Emma’s best friend, Patsy (Lisa Hart Carroll), owns what was then a first of its kind: a top-of-the-line mobile phone that’s so huge by today’s standards she may as well be holding a tanker truck in her hand.
Watching the film in 2023, Emma reminds me of many women of my mom’s generation. She is a stay-at-home parent who is annoyed and even a little bit scandalized when Patsy’s New York friends talk about abortion or divorce or — God forbid — having careers. She is, as Flap calls her on their wedding day, a “sweet-ass gal.” Emma might come across as retro these days, but I would much rather hang out with her than with Patsy’s humorless friends.
“Terms of Endearment” does that rare thing that only the best films accomplish, which is that it makes you feel as if the characters continue to exist after the credits roll. They’re out there somewhere, talking on their giant phones, trimming their rose bushes, living their lives. The actors so deeply inhabited the characters, whether it’s Emma blowing her nose into wadded-up tissues while wearing her wedding dress, Aurora and Garrett pretending to hate each other, or Flap flirting with that grad student while his baby is strapped to his chest. I know Flap is a character in a film, but he is also quite possibly the most infuriatingly banal example of a colossal jerk I have ever witnessed. If I ever see Daniels walking down the street, I’m afraid I may actually heckle him for cheating on Emma.
When MacLaine won her best actress Oscar, she said, “Jim Brooks deeply wanted to make a film about the defects and imperfections and foibles of people in a humorous and loving way.” Four decades after its premiere, the clothes may look dated, but that sentiment never gets old.