Filmsite Movie Review
Terms of Endearment (1983)
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Background

Terms of Endearment (1983) is a comedy/drama classic, an entertaining film, but also a manipulative, soap-operatic melodramatic tearjerker, with an ending similar to Dark Victory (1939) and Love Story (1970). Its tagline was: "Have you come to Terms yet?" The feel-good, box-office hit from writer/director/producer James L. Brooks (his first directorial effort) was based on the novel of the same name by Larry McMurtry.

The film, with three X's signifying kisses below its title, was a major Academy Award winner in 1983, with eleven nominations and five Oscars - and Brooks was a triple Oscar winner! It won Best Picture, Best Actress (Shirley MacLaine - her first and sole win), Best Supporting Actor (Jack Nicholson), Best Director, and Best Screenplay. (Co-stars Winger and Lithgow competed against MacLaine and Nicholson.) The other nominations included Best Actress (Debra Winger), Best Supporting Actor (John Lithgow), Best Art Direction, Best Sound, Best Film Editing, and Best Original Score. Nicholson's role of Garrett Breedlove was specifically written by Brooks for Burt Reynolds, who elected instead to star in the racing flop Stroker Ace (1983) - Reynolds' fifth film with director/former stuntman Hal Needham. (The role was also turned down by Harrison Ford and Paul Newman). Winger's role of Emma was originally written for Sissy Spacek.

The sit-com style film is about the thirty-year mother-daughter relationship between two women: stubborn brunette Emma (Debra Winger) and her devoted, possessive, blonde, widowed mother Aurora Greenway (Shirley MacLaine). A sub-par sequel, titled The Evening Star (1996) found Shirley MacLaine reprising her role fifteen years later, as a grand-mother to her daughter Emma's three children, and Jack Nicholson with only a short cameo appearance.

The Story

Before the opening credits, the film portrays Aurora as a worried, newbie mother who checks on her baby every five minutes in the middle of the night and imagines the worst. In the baby's bedroom, she stares at the crib of her infant daughter and imagines crib death: "Rudyard, she's not breathing." She shakes her baby out of its quiet and peaceful sleep, causing the infant to wail - and Aurora to claim: "That's better."

Later, as a young adult, Emma rebels against Aurora's attentions, and against her advice marries literature student Flap Horton (Jeff Daniels). As the independent-minded, individualistic Emma is getting in the car with her family to move from Houston, Texas to Des Moines, Iowa, away from her managing mother, she tells her:

Mama, that's the first time I stopped hugging first. I like that.

As they suffer from unpaid bills (in a wrenching supermarket scene, young Teddy (Huckleberry Fox) hands back a Clark candy bar to the checkout clerk with a simple: "I don't need it"), young mother Emma also discovers that her feckless husband, a college literature professor, is unfaithful and sleeping with one of his graduate students, and she retaliates with her own brief affair with a timid Iowa bank officer Sam Burns (John Lithgow).

Meanwhile, middle-aged Aurora dodges the womanizing flirtations of her next-door neighbor, a boozy, beer-bellied, over-the-hill, former astronaut Garrett Breedlove (Jack Nicholson), even though she has turned 50 and is now free to date. They have a nervous December-December love affair - on their first, much-delayed luncheon date, he boldly tells the proper, well-mannered and stiff Bostonian woman wearing a frilly pink dress:

Breedlove: You're just going to have to trust me about this, this one thing. You need a lot of drinks.
Aurora: To break the ice?
Breedlove: To kill the bug that you have up your ass.

In an unforgettable scene after lunch, Aurora and Breedlove ride in his silver Corvette as he drunkenly steers with his feet, sitting on the open roof and yelling: "Breedlove at the helm! Just keep pumping that throttle!" Soon after he cries: "Fly me to the moon," he is projected from the car into the water of the Gulf of Mexico. She splashes out in the knee-deep water to apologize and ask "How are you?" Characteristically, he jokes:

If you wanted to get me on my back, you just had to ask me.

Although they kiss, she fights back when his hand reaches for her breast inside her blouse, and accuses him of ruining their time together by getting drunk. When they arrive back home and she invites him in, he replies: "I'd rather stick needles in my eyes." Their barbed conversation continues:

Aurora: I just didn't want you to think I was like one of your other girls.
Breedlove: Not much danger in that unless you curtsy on my face real soon.
Aurora: Garrett! What is it that makes you so insistent on shocking and insulting me? I mean, I really hate that way of talking. You must know that. Why do you do it?
Breedlove: I'll tell ya, Auror-eye, I don't know what it is about you, but you do bring out the devil in me.

Although she considers Breedlove "arrogant, self-centered, and yes, a somewhat entertaining man," she phones him up and invites him to her bedroom one evening soon after to look at a Renoir painting as a pretext for sex (after fifteen years of celibacy): "I'm inviting you to come over and look at my Renoir." He quickly interprets her meaning: "You're inviting me to bed." And she responds: "Yes, it happens to be in my bedroom." Again, he cajoles and cackles: "Is the Renoir under the covers?" The self-indulgent, horny playboy deliberately stalls and carries on a double-entendre conversation:

Breedlove: Do I wanna come to your bedroom? Let me think, uh.
Aurora: Do you?
Breedlove: Just, just give me a minute...It's a tough one...Yeah, OK, I guess so, sure, why not?
Aurora: I'll see you in a bit. Now, if I don't answer the bell, that means that the back door's open.
Breedlove: The back door's open! (She changes into a thin nightgown and surveys her body in a mirror as he arrives in his swimming trunks) Hi - I was doing laps when you called. Lucky for us, I only did eight.
Aurora: (pointing to the Renoir) This is it! This is the Renoir.
Breedlove: I like the painting. I like everything in here...

Even though she calls herself a "grandmother," they clench and kiss voraciously. They stand on opposite sides of her bed for a final confrontation - and the strong-willed Aurora wins:

Breedlove: I like the lights on.
Aurora: Then go home and turn them on.

The lights go off.

In the heartbreaking, unexpected, tragic, cathartic and touching finale, Emma is hospitalized and dying of cancer. She is slowly reconciled with her mother during her terminal illness. In a stunning hospital scene, Aurora runs completely around the hospital desk while yelling at two hospital nurses to give her ailing daughter a pain-killing shot:

It's after ten. I don't see why she has to have this pain...It's time for her shot. Do you understand? Do something! All she has to do is hold on until ten, and it's past ten. She's in pain. My daughter's in pain. Give her the shot. Do you understand me? Give my daughter the shot! (She gets the desired reaction, and then composes herself) Thank you very much.

Emma says a final goodbye to her two young sons Teddy and bratty Tommy (Troy Bishop) in her Lincoln General Hospital room just before her death. After she has makeup applied to her face to cover her pale pallor, she speaks to them, but is unable to break through to her distant, over-critical oldest son Tommy:

Emma: You both of you have beautiful eyes and your hair is too long. I mean, I don't care how long it gets in the back, but keep your bangs cut, OK, it's too long.
Tommy: That's a matter of opinion.
Emma: Just keep it short, all right?
Tommy: Are you getting well?
Emma: (She shakes her head no) Look, I'm sorry about this but I can't help it, and I can't talk to you for too long or I'll get real upset. I want you to make a lot of friends. And I want you to be real nice to the girls 'cause they're gonna be real important to you, I swear.
Tommy: I'm not afraid of girls. What makes you think that?
Emma: Well, you may be later on.
Tommy: I doubt it.
Teddy: Why don't you shut up?! Shut up!
Tommy: You shut up!
Emma: Ted, give me a kiss, come on. (She kisses Teddy) (To Tommy) Tommy, you be sweet. Be sweet. And stop tryin' to pretend like you hate me. I mean, it's silly.
Tommy: I like you.
Emma: OK then, will you listen especially close?
Tommy: What?
Emma: Listen real hard?
Tommy: I said 'what'?!
Emma: I know you like me. I know it. For the last year or two, you've been pretending like you hate me. I love you very much. I love you as much as I love anybody, as much as I love myself. And in a few years when I haven't been around to be on your tail about something or irritating you, you could...remember that time that I bought you the baseball glove when you thought we were too broke. You know? Or when I read you those stories? Or when I let you goof off instead of mowing the lawn? Lots of things like that. And you're gonna realize that you love me. And maybe you're gonna feel badly, because you never told me. But don't - I know that you love me. So don't ever do that to yourself, all right?
Tommy: OK.
Emma: OK?
Tommy: I said, 'OK.'

After a hug from Teddy and a reluctant kiss from Tommy, she asks Teddy as he leaves the room: "I was so scared. And I think it went pretty well, don't you?"

Soon after, she expires with one final glance at Aurora as Flap sleeps unawares. Aurora blames herself: "I'm so stupid, so stupid. Somehow, I thought, somehow I thought when she finally went that - that it would be a relief. Oh, my sweet little darling. Oh dear, there's nothing harder."

After the funeral, Garrett supportively pays special attention to Emma's long-neglected son:

Garrett: I understand you're a swimmer. Me too.
Tommy: But you're an astronaut, right?
Garrett: I'm an astronaut and a swimmer. Good-lookin' suit there. Wanna see my pool?
Tommy: Well, I don't know if the time is right and all -.
Garrett: Oh, I think it is. Come on, I'll show you the internationally-infamous Breedlove crawl. Just a little stroke I picked up out in space.