Terms of Endearment: Finally, A Good Romantic Comedy

A few weeks ago, I reviewed Kramer vs. Kramer, a story about a marriage that’s beyond repair and the subsequent divorce proceedings. As I said then, it was a gripping story about Ted Kramer’s (Dustin Hoffman) adjustment to the sudden departure of his wife Joanna (Meryl Streep). Along the way, Ted loses his love for his wife but finds it for his son, Billy. It’s an intensely personal story and, to be honest, it shook up my expectations.

This week’s review is for Terms of Endearment, a MUCH DIFFERENT movie from last week’s review of Slumdog Millionaire, but that doesn’t mean it was any less great. But, just like Kramer vs. Kramer, I had my expectations for this film shattered. I’m finding that happens often to me, apparently, and that’s a good thing in my humble opinion.

Terms of Endearment, directed by James L. Brooks, was nominated for 11 Academy Awards and won five of them, is a gritty, tear-jerking tale of losing love, finding love and what happens when your loved ones must prepare for an unimaginable event. It features an incredible all-star cast and has amazing performances across the board. It’s both funny and heartbreaking with complicated characters in a simple, yet engaging narrative.

Now, for the review:

Plot:

Terms of Endearment follows two women, Aurora Greenway (Shirley MacLaine) and Emma Greenway Horton (Debra Winger) over the course of about 30 years. From the beginning of the movie, Aurora, Emma’s mother, disapproves of Emma’s marriage to Flap Horton (Jeff Daniels) and believes that it will damage her destiny that she will not be able to recover. Emma goes through with the marriage anyway.

Then the movie goes from Houston to Des Moines, Iowa and then to Kearney, Nebraska. Aurora, a widower, has a few flings throughout the movie, most notably, though with Garrett Breedlove (Jack Nicholson), a former astronaut. Emma, on the other hand, has three kids and watches as her marriage to Flap frustratingly crumbles. Throughout the film, Aurora and Emma stay connected through long telephone conversations. The two are each other’s best friend.

There are essentially two narratives, here: Emma and Flap’s marriage and Aurora’s affair with Garrett. While the two stories are not inherently original in my mind, the narratives are fused together in a way that they seem to play off each other. As Aurora encounters joy, Emma finds devastation. The main portion of Aurora’s story happens at the beginning with Emma’s at the end.  Naturally, the two stories become one by the end of the film. This added depth to a fairly predictable story and I loved it. 1.

Writing/Dialogue:

Terms of Endearment, like many other Best Picture winners, was based on a book of the same name by Larry McMurtry. The screenplay was written by James L. Brooks, who also produced and directed the movie. The screenplay earned Brooks an Oscar.

When it comes to the writing, the narrative is perfectly paced and the drama is almost flawless. There was nothing that was unbelievable or over the top about Terms of Endearment when it came to the writing.

The dialogue isn’t perfect, but I don’t suppose it should be. The characters are not high-brow and they’re from very classic parts of the country, Texas and the Midwest. That’s not to say there aren’t high-brow folks from both those places. The grammar isn’t perfect and the vernacular isn’t quite proper. But my grammar and vernacular aren’t perfect either, but the writing made this movie incredibly relatable.

It’s not without its quips, though. When Aurora, the uptight widower and Garrett, the often-drunk former astronaut, are on their awkward first date, Garrett thinks that drinking will take some of the edge off. The following exchange occurs:

Garrett: “You’re just going to have to trust about this one thing. You need a lot of drinks.”

Aurora: “To break the ice?”

Garrett: “To kill the bug that you have up your ass.” Garrett smiles.

The last line was delivered to perfection, in that raspy, sort of creepy Jack Nicholson way. Terms of Endearment is a very charming movie and the main feature of that charm is its great dialogue and screenplay. 1.

Sound

Michael Gore composed the score in Terms of Endearment and it earned him an Oscar nomination for Best Original Score. It’s as charming as the rest of the movie is. To me, it always evoked a sense of hope, even when things didn’t go quite as well.

Interestingly, I was reminded of Driving Miss Daisy when I heard the score for the first time. It features the higher tones of the piano, contrasted by the lower-end notes as well as short, choppy and upbeat strings. This brings a light-hearted tone to a light-hearted romantic comedy. I wasn’t around in the 1980s, but the score sounded very “80s” to me. And that’s just fine. 1.

Set Design

In contrast to Slumdog Millionaire, the set for Terms of Endearment was very simple, nothing special. It was so simple, almost to the point of conservative. Aurora’s home has all the knickknacks that you’d expect in your mother’s house. And, the clothing is very plain and somewhat fashionable for the day.

This movie garnered an Oscar nomination for Best Art Direction and it’s not just because of the natural-looking clothes and sets. It’s because what the sets represent. So much of this movie takes place inside a home, be it Aurora’s, Garrett’s or Emma’s. The homes are indicative of the lives of the people in them. Aurora’s home is very tidy and conservative and there’s nothing out of place. She happens to be the same way. She’s putting on a mask to show that she’s got it all together. Garrett’s home is full of his astronaut stuff and photos of him from when he was an astronaut. He can also be arrogant and full of himself.

Finally, the house of Emma and Flap is very small and chaotic. This shows that Emma’s marriage is constricting to her personality while her life isn’t stable. The couple argues frequently and seems to leave their issues out in the open, just like the many boxes and books that are strewn about the living room. 1.

Cinematography

Andrzej Bartkowiak was the cinematographer for Terms of Endearment. This movie was not nominated for Best Cinematography, and I don’t think it should have been. This one joins the long list of Best Picture winners thus far that have very plain, yet effective, cinematography. Most shots are from a tripod, crane or a dolly. There are a few creative shots, such as a high crane shot that follows behind a car driving down a country road.

The most memorable use of the camera is shortly after the date scene between Aurora and Garrett. The pair has had a few drinks and they are driving along the beach. Or something that resembles it. Garrett’s sitting on top of the T-top Corvette driving with his feet while Aurora controls the gas and brake. So, it’s a little crazy. Aurora, being the uptight lady that she is, stopped the car suddenly and sends Garrett flying into the ocean. The camera goes from being steady on a tripod to the shoulder.

As she checks on him, the camera shake gives off a sense of confusion and calamity. Aurora’s world is very confused as she realizes that she has feelings for this egotistical man and it’s “shaking” down the barriers that she put up to defend against Garrett. Plus, this scene is just beautiful. 1.

Acting

Terms of Endearment received four acting nominations at the Academy Awards, winning two of them. The cast is full of talent and all the performances were great. In addition to Shirley MacLaine, Debra Winger and Jack Nicholson, it also features Jeff Daniels, Danny DeVito and John Lithgow. Even though I’ll focus on MacLaine, Winger and Nicholson, here, let me say that Danny DeVito plays a very convincing southern gentleman.

Shirley MacLaine (Aurora Greenway) MacLaine is the first repeat thespian that I’ve come across writing this blog. She had a secondary role in Around the World in 80 Days, the third movie I reviewed. In this one, though, MacLaine takes center stage and played her most noteworthy role with perfection.

What stood out to me about her performance was her subtlety, her delivery and body language. Aurora is never afraid to show how she feels about everything, from her disapproval at Emma’s marriage and becoming a grandmother. This was truly a legendary performance by MacLaine. So much so, she grabbed Best Actress for her role. 

Debra Winger (Emma Greenway-Horton) Debra Winger was nominated alongside MacLaine for Best Actress in her role as Emma, Aurora’s bubbly daughter. Her role was characterized by chaos: a failed marriage, personal tragedy and a corrosive family life. Naturally, these things would make any person lose their cool. Emma loses it often and Winger pulls it off so well that I couldn’t help but be empathetic.

One of note in relation to Winger: she and MacLaine didn’t get along while shooting this film. This is a very interesting note as Aurora and Emma have an immensely close relationship on-screen, but MacLaine and Emma don’t off it.  

Jack Nicholson (Garrett Breedlove) What can I say about Jack Nicholson, other than it’s Jack Nicholson? His role was a critical part of this movie and really made it move forward. He plays the complex, lonely, womanizing, drunken former astronaut very well. Each line is delivered perfectly and is all-around fun to watch. He’s funny and adds a terrific counter-balance to the film. Breedlove is the exact opposite of Aurora, yet they’re able to complement each other. Their chemistry is electrically charged and it’s a terrific performance by Nicholson. So much so, that he won Best Supporting Actor for this role.

John Lithgow was nominated for Best Supporting Actor for his part as Sam Burns. This one is a puzzle to me. His character is a plot device and nothing more. He does a good job for sure, but his only function is to drive the story forward and has no real character arc. Despite this, the acting in Terms of Endearment makes this movie tick and great performances were turned in all-around. 1.

Directing

James L. Brooks wrote, produced and directed Terms of Endearment and it grabbed him the Oscar for Best Director. This film is an all-time classic, one that I won’t forget. While it may not get the same score as some other ones that I liked, this movie is an emotional look at very intense personal relationships. It centers around finding joy in life, regardless of the circumstances but also that life still wins in the end.

Brooks got the most out of his cast and crew and told a very deep and beautiful story about a mother and a daughter and what it means to love each other. 1.

Bonus Points

I’m giving another point to the acting. All performances were great but had a foundation in terrific performances by MacLaine, Winger and Nicholson.

Final Score: 8/10

Oscar Facts

Terms of Endearment won the 56th Academy Award for Best Picture on April 4, 1984, at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in Los Angeles. The movie beat The Big Chill, The Dresser, The Right Stuff and Tender Mercies for Best Picture. The award was presented by Frank Capra (whose two Best Picture winners we’ll get to in January) and accepted by James Brooks. In all, Terms of Endearment was nominated 11 times and won five times, the most nominations and wins for a movie that year.

Other notable winners were Robert Duvall winning Best Actor for his role in Tender Mercies while Linda Hunt won Best Supporting Actress for her work in The Year of Living DangerouslyJohnny Carson hosted the ceremony.

Next Week

I’m doing the next post a little different. I’m headed home to Kansas over the holidays and will not publish a review on January 1, 2018, because of the holidays. Titanic, which is next, is seriously ten years long (or, 195 minutes) and I don’t want to squeeze it in while I’m spending time with family. I’ll post Titanic, James Cameron’s epic 70th Best Picture winner on January 8. After that, it’s It Happened One Night, You Can’t Take it With You, The Deer Hunter, No Country for Old Men, The Godfather and The Godfather Part II. Thanks for reading everyone and have a wonderful holiday season!

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