Terms of Endearment

Everyone daughter has mother issues.

Yeah, I said it. And being a daughter, I can verify that; we want our mother’s approval just as much as we don’t want to be like them, and in the process of pulling away, we discover that we are just like them. We can hope for the best, but we’ll never be all they want; if we’re lucky, they’ll love us anyway.

James Brooks’s “Terms of Endearment” is a rare movie that explores the rich complexities of mother/daughter relationships that doesn’t vilify one at the expense of the other.

Aurora (Shirley MacLaine) and Emma (Debra Winger) are the mother-daughter pair of the landmark film. Aurora is the widowed belle-of-the-ball, surrounding herself with suitors who will do her bidding for any attention, but who gets no joy from their devotion. Emma, on the other hand, is her mother’s earthy counterpart; Emma recklessly builds her marriage to Flap (Jeff Daniels) on a mutual sexual desire, thinking that this is what she needs to not become her mother.

On the surface, they seem to be opposites, but to his credit, Brooks makes a convincing case that these women aren’t mirror images, but stepping stones to the same end. Emma is open where Aurora is closed off, but through her relationship with her neighbor Garrett (Jack Nicholson, at the start of his being-Jack-Nicholson career), we see that Aurora was once open with the people around her, that she was an Emma who became an Aurora.

If the film had stayed at this thread, I would have been happy with “Terms of Endearment,” but it was not to be. If you have been living under a rock and don’t know the ending, please stop reading now; for the rest of you out there, Emma’s cancer and untimely end seems more like a cynical bid for Oscar attention than anything else. Not having read the source material, I’m probably being a tad unfair, but I can only judge what I see.

And while the acting is good, especially Shirley MacLaine, her iconic moment at the nurse’s station is so over-the-top that while she’s screaming “Give her the shot,” all I could hear is “Academy, notice me!” She deserved that Oscar for bringing humanity and vulnerability to such a shrewish character, but she nearly lost me.

The biggest disappointment for me was that for the life of me, I have no idea what this moving was trying to say; I kept asking myself “What’s the point here?” and I have not been able to answer that question. Am I supposed to feel sad that a good woman who occasionally does bad things is dying from cancer? I do feel sad, but I don’t care because in the larger picture, this story direction doesn’t matter. She’s only dying so Aurora can have her big scene, and Emma can have the teary goodbyes with her loved ones, and so on, and so on. I respect the script for not being mushy in the face of cancer, but I can’t love “Terms of Endearment” because it’s a cheap tragedy unworthy of the characters within it.

For a better Brooks experience, check out (or rewatch) his Oscar-winning “As Good As It Gets.” Using a light touch and moving portraits, he gets the story of three misfits looking for healing just right. There’s not much of a plot, but in this instance, the characters are what really matter; all else is trivial. 

Terms of Endearment (1983)

Written and directed by James L. Brooks

Starring: Shirley MacLaine (Aurora Greenway)

Debra Winger (Emma Greenway Horton)

Jack Nicholson (Garrett Breedlove)

Jeff Daniels (Flap Horton)