56. Terms of Endearment (1984)

Title: Terms of Endearment

Release Date: 20 November, 1983

Oscar Ceremony: 9 April, 1984

Director: James L. Brooks

Starring: Shirley MacLaine, Debra Winger, Jack Nicholson


Nominees: The Big Chill, The Dresser, The Right Stuff, Tender Mercies


“Momma, that’s the first time I stopped hugging first. I like that.” – Emma Horton

I found Terms of Endearment to be a sort of precursor to Gilmore Girls, but in a more realistic and serious way. Mother-daughter relationships always make good ground for melodramas, or in this case, Best Picture winners. Although my relationship with my mother is nowhere near as complicated as the one between the film’s two protagonists, I could still empathize with the story.

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The movie opens with a shot of Aurora Greenway (Shirley MacLaine) leaning over the crib of her sleeping baby daughter Emma (Debra Winger). We get some insight into Aurora’s character as she wakes up her baby just to make sure she’s still breathing. Emma naturally starts crying, which reassures Aurora, who then ends up leaving the room without actually comforting her back to sleep. After a jump in time, we learn that Aurora’s husband passes away while Emma is still fairly young, and she’s often the one who has to comfort her mother. Finally, we jump ahead to Emma’s graduation and upcoming wedding to high school sweetheart Flap Horton (Jeff Daniels). Aurora is skeptical about this union, but Emma has grown into a very rebellious young woman who doesn’t care about her mother’s opinion in this case. Truth be told though, I wouldn’t bet my money on a guy named “Flap” either, but maybe that’s just me.

Aurora and Emma have a relatively complicated love/hate relationship. They’re both dysfunctional and crazy but in different ways, which doesn’t always make them compatible. They also do not fit the mold of typical mothers and daughters; sometimes, they act more like friends, or even nemeses. Emma eventually moves to Iowa for her husband’s job as a college professor, and Aurora gets involved with her longtime neighbour, a womanizing, alcoholic retired astronaut named Garrett Breedlove (Jack Nicholson). Both women regularly keep in touch and remain involved in each others’ lives despite the distance. The film’s purpose is to explore the many facets of their relationship as they both go through a variety of life experiences.

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While this might not be the most obvious choice for Best Picture, it’s not one that I disagree with. Initially, it doesn’t really feel like a serious movie. In fact, it feels like one of those Lifetime or Hallmark made-for-TV movies. It’s also not clear whether it’s going to be a comedy or a drama, or what we are supposed to think and feel along the way. I believe that part of the confusion is largely due to the cheesy cheerful music. Don’t get me wrong, the movie’s musical theme is beautiful and charming, but it’s often distracting. There were so many scenes where I found myself thinking “damn, this would have SUCH a different tone if the music were different.” It’s crazy how important a film’s soundtrack can be; it can change the entire mood and atmosphere. I guess that must be the reason why horror movies aren’t so scary when you turn the sound off.

Actually, considering the subjects that Terms of Endearment deals with, maybe having cheesy music isn’t so bad. It reminds us that there’s still beauty in everyday life and that in the end, things have their way of working out. The childlike vibes it brings also mirror Emma’s difficulty of growing up and moving on, as well as Aurora’s constant dependency on her daughter. It makes everything much easier to digest for the audience. Apparently, the director settled on Shirley MacLaine to play Aurora because she was the only one who saw it as a comedy. That says a lot about the story’s intentions.

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Let’s talk about Debra Winger, aka the actress who plays Emma. I was really sad to see that her success pretty much went downhill after this movie. Personally, I couldn’t take my eyes off of her the entire time. There’s just something about her… she’s pretty, funny, and free-spirited. She’s perfect for the role of Emma. She’s able to be crazy and outgoing, all the while showing a subtle vulnerability. However, I read that in real life, she was difficult to deal with. Since Shirley MacLaine isn’t exactly an angel either, things didn’t always go smoothly on set. I don’t like hearing these things, but hey, it is what it is. MacLaine famously beat Winger in the Best Actress category for this movie too, and that’s never easy to deal with. If you ask me, I think Debra Winger might have actually deserved it a bit more, but I can definitely see why they gave it to Shirley MacLaine, especially considering her past work and significant status in Hollywood.

Anyways, I really liked Terms of Endearment. I think it’s one of those movies that appeals to women more than men, but that works out fantastically for me so I can’t complain. To all the mothers and daughters out there, remember to love each other because if you do, there’s nothing you can’t work through together.

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