Terms of Endearment


Kicking off Best Picture Month 2015 we have James L. Brooks’ Terms of Endearment. Far from the most famous best picture winner out there, but I’ve wanted to see this film for a while for a number of reasons. First, it beat out what used to be my favorite film The Right Stuff, and I wanted to try and figure out the Academy’s reasoning there. Second, I watched a few scenes in my screenwriting class and they were actually pretty good. It’s also on Netflix, so that makes it easily. All in all, Terms of Endearment is a pretty good film on a writing and performance level, but has little to offer visually.

Terms of Endearment focuses on a mother-daughter relationship. Aurora Greenway (Shirley MacLaine) is an incredibly protective mother whose whole existence seems to center around making sure her daughter Emma (Debra Winger) has what’s best for her, whether she likes it or not. This leads her daughter to resent her sometimes, but on the whole it just results in Aurora always being just a little bit disappointed in her choices, especially the choice to marry her high school sweetheart Flap Horton (Jeff Daniels). He moves them all to Iowa, and Aurora hates him even more. Emma keeps getting pregnant to the horror of her mother, who doesn’t think she should tie herself to the unmotivated Flap any more than she already has. Meanwhile, Aurora tries to improve her own life by taking up with the former astronaut/womanizer next door, Garrett Breedlove (Jack Nicholson). When Emma suddenly gets cancer, Flap and Aurora have to reconcile their feelings to make things easier on Emma.


This plot may sound really ridiculous, but for most of the movie’s running time, it actually is pretty engaging. It’s kind of like Gilmore Girls except the characters don’t talk as fast. The film has a bunch of great one-liners and is actually pretty funny. The characters are very well defined from the beginning of the story, except for maybe Flap, who initially seems pretty cool and then turns out to be a douche. However, throughout we see Emma be such a sweet and upbeat person while dealing with her mother, while also still standing up for herself, that Flap fades into the background for the most part as the story focuses on the mother-daughter relationship. Also, Nicholson provides a nice distraction in actually getting Aurora to chill out for once in her life. They both are nice foils for her and the actors play well off each other. It isn’t until Emma gets cancer that all the good work the film has built up so far gets flushed down the toilet.

First of all, Emma’s the best character and it sucks that she’s the one who has to get cancer, but that’s how it goes. It’s not so much the decision to give her cancer as it is it’s so obvious why the film does it. It’s going along, sifting through the years to focus on the most poignant mother-daughter moments, and develops a pattern of them not quite seeing eye to eye on things. The film needs them to reach some sort of understanding, and that won’t happen if things stay the way they are, so to force a resolution they give one of them a terminal disease and have the character’s pressured to confront their feelings. Not only is that lazy writing, but it’s so obviously manipulative in the film that it doesn’t accomplish the emotional beats that it should have (though I have to admit the part Emma says goodbye to her sons is pretty tragic).


Overall, the film has about two interesting shots. Mostly it is just characters talking, and the cinematography is classic Hollywood; it’s just trying to get out of the actors’ way. Which is fine, but obviously makes things less interesting for the viewer on that level. At least the performances here are very good, on the whole. I liked Debra Winger here more than Shirley MacLaine, mostly because MacLaine was a more obvious character and I think she went a bit over the top in some of the later my-daughter-is-dying scenes. The supporting males were all really good, Jack Nicholson gave off this creepy vibe in the beginning that turned out to be weirdly hilarious, and John Lithgow is adorable in a small part as Emma’s lover.

All in all, Terms of Endearment is very good until the last act. The cancer thing is just lazy and manipulative, and would have ruined the movie had the first part of it not gone so well. The performances are really good here, but the direction/cinematography is pretty unimaginative. The Academy put it up for eleven Oscars and awarded it five. It won best picture, MacLaine won best actress, Nicholson won supporting actor, and Brooks won for both best director and best adapted screenplay. The film lost out on best actress for Winger (I would have chosen her over MacLaine personally), supporting actor for Lithgow, production design, sound, editing, and score. I can kind of see it getting editing, because it switched between time periods without being too jarring. The only other two film from ’83 that I would consider award worthy are the aforementioned The Right Stuff (nominated) and Brian de Palma’s Scarface (nominated for nothing). I liked Terms of Endearment, but both of those films are more enjoyable and I would have went with The Right Stuff. That said, I’m not too broken up about Terms of Endearment‘s win, mostly because it was better than I thought it would be.


“He can’t even do the simple things, like fail locally.”

Long story short: 3/4 stars


6 responses to “Terms of Endearment

  1. Tiny correction, Nicholson won Supporting Actor.

    And you are right on every front here. The movie has a very strong (stronger than it should have been) first half that kind of sunk because of that cancer bit, but I felt like the actors handled it so well that it kind of survived. This is NOT Best Picture material, but it is VERY AMPAS, so it makes sense, I guess.

    At least MacLaine has an Oscar, because she is one of the greatest of all time!

    • Thanks! I fixed it. I knew that though, I swear to God! Ha ha 🙂

      Yeah, I definitely feels like the Academy would eat it up with a spoon, so I’m surprised not at all that it would win. The acting did make this movie better than it should have been.

  2. I agree with much of what you say about the cancer plot but love it anyway. Shirley does go big in that famous scene about giving her daughter the shot but compensates in her final scene with Emma where they share a silent goodbye while Flap sleeps in the chair next to them. Also that scene with the boys is murder. I remember seeing the film in the theatre and people crying so hard they were actually wailing at different points in that last portion of the film. It might be melodrama but it was an experience.

    I’m glad it won Best Picture because it is a fine film but I love The Right Stuff too.

    • Fair enough. The cancer thing just wasn’t working for me, but those things are always subjective.
      Glad to hear some love for The Right Stuff; I really need to review it one of these days.

      • One thing about the emotionalism of the cancer section is that it is something that connects universally. I was traveling alone in Holland while the film was playing, not speaking Dutch at one point I felt the need to hear a language I knew. Even though I had seen the film it was the only one in English that was playing close by. It was packed and while the audience reacted well to the first part it was their reaction to the second that struck me. It was almost identical to the first viewing audience, sobs bordering on wails and exhausted faces at the conclusion. It was an odd perspective for me watching a film in English with Dutch subtitles but it impressed on me the things that really connected with an audience despite a language barrier.

        • I always feel a little bit bad saying this, but the cancer thing felt really cliche to me, even though it was done very realistically in the film. I was watching it and felt manipulated, which I absolutely hate feeling in a movie. That’s not to say I’ll hold it against anyone who is able to connect emotionally to it, but it wasn’t working for me at all. I felt like they were using it to tie up emotional loose ends and not as an experience in its own right. That is not meant to detract from anyone who has gone through that or something similar

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