|Director: James L. Brooks
|Screenplay: James L. Brooks (based on the novel by Larry McMurtry)
|Stars: Shirley MacLaine (Aurora Greenway), Debra Winger (Emma Horton), Jack Nicholson (Garrett Breedlove), Jeff Daniels (Flap Horton), John Lithgow (Sam Burns), Danny DeVito (Vernon Dahlart), Lisa Hart Carroll (Patsy Clark), Betty King (Rosie)
|MPAA Rating: PG
|Year of Release: 1983
In the introduction to the paperback edition of his 1975 novel Terms of Endearment, author Larry McMurtry noted that he wrote the novel after having spent a couple of years rereading several 19th-century novelists, including Balzac, Leo Tolstoy, and George Eliot. As McMurtry put it, “All three, of course, had taken a very searching look at the fibers and textures of life; I doubt I aspired to such profound achievement, but I did hope to search at least a little less superficially among the flea market of details which constitute human existence.”
McMurtry is, in many ways, being modest, as it is the tiny details and nuances of funny, sometimes painful, but always recognizable human behavior that make his novels so readable and memorable. James L. Brooks, who had 20 years experience writing and producing in television, adapted Terms of Endearment in 1983 and, despite it being his feature directorial debut, it swept that year’s Academy Awards. While some aspects of the film version of Terms have not aged all that well, it still plays with sincerity and emotional resonance because Brooks stayed true to McMurtry’s search through “the flea market of details which constitute human existence.”
Terms of Endearment tells the story of the relationship between Aurora Greenway (Shirley MacLaine), whom McMurtry described as “a widow of a certain age, lively, imperious, demanding, unwilling to give up,” and her daughter, Emma (Debra Winger), who is completely unlike her mother, yet inextricably bound to her. Their relationship is not always easy, but it is always deeply real. Aurora, a character who is as fascinating as she is confounding, is painfully honest with her daughter, such as the early scene in which she declares on Emma’s wedding night that she is marrying the wrong man.
Of course, Aurora is right. Emma’s husband, Flap (Jeff Daniels), is an amiable, but utterly uncompelling English professor who ultimately fails Emma at all the wrong moments. In her own ways, Emma fails Flap, as well. McMurtry is no overt moralist, and one of the strengths of his novels is his understanding and acceptance of human flaws and how they play out in various relationships. Brooks stays true to this humanistic view, allowing Aurora, Emma, and the other characters to fall into all of life’s traps, yet always come out, ready to move on to the next stage.
Brooks has been insistent on calling Terms of Endearment a comedy, even though its sense of the dramatic outweighs the laughs it generates. One of the film’s most enduring qualities is Brooks’s ability to blend the comedic and the dramatic, which he developed and honed over two decades working in television, particularly his work writing and producing the groundbreaking The Mary Tyler Moore Show, which he co-created along with a number of spin-off series. We see this perhaps nowhere better than in Aurora’s relationship with Garrett Breedlove (Jack Nicholson), a swaggering, playboy former astronaut who lives next door to her (and who Brooks created entirely for the film). Her relationship with Garrett is so unlikely that it rings true. There is something about the characters and the way MacLaine and Nicholson play them that makes us believe that these opposites would ultimately attract; they fill in each other’s gaps.
The actors deserve a great deal of credit because the honesty of their performances makes the material work. Both Shirley MacLaine and Jack Nicholson won Oscars for their roles, and Debra Winger was nominated for hers. MacLaine etches an unforgettable screen character in Aurora, a woman whose complexities and eccentricities match her (sometimes forced) dignity and willpower. Nicholson's performance is a bit of a showpiece, but he brings a deeper humanity to what could have been a shallow, one-note character. And, even though Winger did not win an Oscar, her performance is the real lynchpin, the part that truly holds the film together. It is too easy to overlook what she does because she plays the plain daughter to MacLaine's showy mother, but she is arguably the most important character because she embodies the kind of innate decency to which all the other characters must aspire.
Staying true to the book’s narrative arc, the final quarter of Terms of Endearment takes a turn for the tragic, which could have been simply maudlin and weepy, but instead deepens the resonance of the various character relationships. Death-bed sequences are most often dramatically excruciating because they are so obvious and easy; when all else fails, drag out the tragic death of a major character. But, somehow Brooks manages to maintain a protracted hospital sequence that gives us all the cliches about a major character dying of cancer without ever feeling false. I don’t think it’s because these final scenes in and of themselves are particularly great, but because the characters have been so well-defined and have grown so close to us over the previous two hours that we are willing to accept this plot development because we want to see how they characters persevere through it.
|Terms of Endearment 4K UHD + Blu-ray
|English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surroundEnglish DTS-HD Master Audio 1.0 monaural (Blu-ray only)French DTS-HD Master Audio 1.0 monaural
| Audio commentary by director James L. Brooks, co-producer Penney Finkelman Cox, and production designer Polly Platt “Filmmaker Focus” with James L. BrooksTheatrical trailer
|Paramount Home Entertainment
|November 14, 2023
| Visually, Terms of Endearment is not significantly more creative than a run-of-the-mill made-for-TV movie (James L. Brooks’s roots in television sitcoms really show through here). However, the newly remastered 4K UHD/Dolby Vision presentation, released as part of the ongoing “Paramount Presents” line, makes the film look as good as it’s ever going to. The new image is the result of a digital transfer of the original 35mm camera negative that was approved by director James L. Brooks. The last time I watched the film was on DVD 20 years ago, and a quick comparison showed that the new disc offers a substantially improved image, with greater visual clarity, brightness, and texture. The film was shot with a somewhat soft focus (especially in the opening scenes), so the image is not particularly sharp, not should it be. Detail levels are great throughout, even with the softness, and colors look well saturated and natural throughout. The image retains a strong sense of celluloid texture without looking noisy. The disc includes a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1-channel; surround soundtrack. There is also a restored original monaural soundtrack for purists, but oddly that is only included on the Blu-ray, not on the 4K UHD. The 5.1-channel mix doesn’t expand much beyond the monaural soundtrack except for when music is present, and it is at this point that it truly shines. Michael Gore’s catchy theme music (once in your head, it is hard to get it out) sounds fantastic throughout, as the surround channels give it a deep, rich expansiveness that underscores its thematic importance throughout the film. Dialogue is clear throughout, and the overall soundtrack comes across clear and crisp. The audio commentary by Brooks, co-producer Penney Finkelman Cox, and production designer Polly Platt that originally appeared on Paramount’s DVD is included here. It is lively, if somewhat uneven, as it is obvious that the recording session was the first time they had sat down and watched the film in some time (there are moments when they simply sit in silence waiting for the next joke they know is coming). They do share some good memories about the production, including some funny stories about their 80-year-old script supervisor who was once William Faulkner’s mistress and the Jack Nicholson playing his drunk scenes in true Method fashion: drunk. Brooks repeatedly emphasizes his innocence and inexperience as a director, sometimes to the point of overkill. However, he, Cox, and Platt give a genuine sense of having had a good time making a movie that they are still proud of. There is also a new “Filmmaker Focus” interview with Brooks where he recounts some additional stories involving the film’s production, including getting director’s notes from Nicholson (which he appreciated).
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