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Critic Pete Hammond on the Tempestuous Perfection of Terms of Endearment

Why some movies stay in the heart while others quickly fade has always been a mystery.

The fact is, the movie business, at least the one currently practiced by the major studios, is a very different animal now turning out “product,” the same types of films designed to fill release slots year after year. Real movies featuring memorable characters who can make you laugh and make you cry — sometimes in the same scene — are fleeting. Getting a film through the studio system that is designed for thinking adults in no minor feat.

It’s hard to say when the studios stopped caring about grownups having conversations with each other, but it’s been almost 25 years exactly since James L. Brooks’ multi-Oscar winning comedy/drama, Terms Of Endearment . It’s just about the last time I can remember a movie with so many distinct human elements, one that wasn’t afraid to wear its heart on its sleeve, to be funny one minute, melodramatic the next, to generate huge laughs and big tears.

Based on Larry McMurtry’s sprawling novel, it tells the story of the tempestuous relationship between headstrong Aurora Greenway (Shirley MacLaine at the height of her powers) and her daughter Emma, (Debra Winger in performance that still lingers.) It continues through Emma’s less than ideal marriage to Flap, a broke English teacher (Jeff Daniels) with an eye for his female students, as well as her attempts to get even by hooking up with a meek banker (John Lithgow). Disapproving mom, Aurora, goes through her own romantic entanglements, primarily with a drunken ex-astronaut named Garrett Breedlove (Jack Nicholson) proving opposites somehow miraculously attract.

Finally it takes us into the rawest forms of family tragedy, when Emma, a young mother of two, discovers she is dying of cancer. The event that brings Aurora and her daughter together in ways they never could have suspected possible.

With the exception of a fluke like Sex and the City, major studio releases don’t dare delve into the personal lives of anyone over 30, or so it seems. We rarely get to see healthy 50-plus somethings engaging in romantic relationships with anyone resembling their own age. So imagine the shock of seeing MacLaine and Nicholson rolling around in bed together in Terms? Yet here it is, forever on celluloid two wonderful actors, well past the desired 18-49 demo , doing it and looking like they were having a great time. Their road trip to the Gulf of Mexico remains one of cinema’s classic comic sequences and it deservedly won Nicholson and MacClaine Oscars in 1984. It only took Nicholson another 20 years to discover in Something’s Gotta Give that there really can be box office magic in climbing under the sheets with a woman close to his own age (Diane Keaton).

Kudos and box office success aside, ironically, the production of Terms, almost shut down. The shoot was reportedly so chaotic that MacLaine even stormed off the set and got to the airport before being coaxed back. Certainly whatever friction there was between the actresses playing mother and daughter somehow managed to find its way onto the screen as MacLaine and Winger (an Oscar nominee for Best Actress) made one of the most believable and complicated pairings in movie history.

As Emma lay suffering in her hospital bed, Aurora’s passionate, hysterical meltdown at the ineffective nursing staff still remains shattering stuff. MacLaine was not afraid to go for it and the effect was to tell volumes about the love she had for her daughter, no matter what had gone on between them. It’s the measure of a movie’s greatness that the shifts in tone from light to dark and back again could seem so effortless, and so right.

They used to make movies like this regularly. Not so much anymore. Now we call them classics, an intersection of the right script, director and actors that stands the test of time, rare movies like this one that make us laugh, cry, care and come to ‘terms’ with our own lives.

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