Tuesday, May 3, 2022

A Love Letter to “Terms of Endearment”

Longtime fans of Shirley MacLaine know she’s had something of a charmed career. As a young Broadway dancer in a hit musical called The Pajana Game, she understudied star Carol Haney, who was known to have an iron constitution and a strong will. The word was that she never missed performances. But then she injured her leg . . . and when Shirley took over, there was a Hollywood talent scout in the audience. Her very first film, in 1955, was the female lead in a rare Alfred Hitchcock comedy, The Trouble with Harry. Three years later, she was cast in the year’s biggest blockbuster, Around the World in 80 Days, in the unlikely role of an Indian princess rescued from her husband’s funeral pyre. (In those days, there was not much of a move toward ethnic authenticity in casting.)

 From the first she tended to be cast as kooks, innocents, and mid-century versions of manic pixie dreamgirls. (This was perhaps not surprising, given her off-center spiritual views, which include firm beliefs in reincarnation, space aliens, and other unconventional lifeforms.) Billy Wilder took full advantage of her winsome presence in The Apartment, and later cast her again with Jack Lemmon in the frothy Irma la Douce. There she played a good-hearted prostitute, a character somewhat akin to a later signature role, that of Charity Hope Valentine in the film version of Neil Simon’s musical, Sweet Charity. (In Sweet Charity, she’s officially a taxi-dancer, but it’s based on Fellini’s earthier The Nights of Cabiria, and in both cases she’s a girl whom guys really shouldn’t bring home to Mama.)

 All that was in the Sixties. It took until 1983 to reveal to audiences MacLaine’s full dramatic range. As wealthy Houston matriarch Aurora Greenway in Terms of Endearment (adapted by James L. Brooks from a Larry McMurtry novel), she’s hardly just an adorable pushover. Sharp-tongued and self-possessed, she rules her small domain with an iron fist. Of course this is crazy-making for her free-spirited daughter, Emma (Debra Winger): Aurora even ducks out of her only child’s wedding at the very last moment because she doesn’t care for the bridegroom. There’s a lot of love (and a lot of sex) in this story. Emma can barely keep her hands off her new husband (Jeff Daniels), a college professor with a roving eye. Though the widowed Aurora haughtily staves off suitors of her own, she finally discovers her own wild side in an unlikely affair with a retired astronaut played by Jack Nicholson. But the real love story in Terms of Endearment is that between mother and daughter: though they fight incessantly, these two can’t get enough of one another, even when circumstances force them to live thousands of miles apart. Until their lives turn a tragic corner, they don’t fully realize the truth: that theirs is a love that can endure anything . . . just about.

 Terms of Endearment marked Brooks’ debut as a film director, after years of writing for movies and TV. And what a debut it was! The hugely popular film was nominated for 11 Oscars, and won 5, including 3 for Brooks (Best Picture, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay), and acting honors for MacLaine and Nicholson. (Winger was nominated too.) Though this was a year of power-house ensemble performances in such films as The Big Chill and The Right Stuff, no one seemed to second-guess the Academy on its choices.  Terms of Endearment packs a wallop partly because all its characters, however badly they behave at times, are ultimately redeemable, proving themselves worthy of our love. 


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