Terms of Endearment

“Retro Retro”

Sitting in the theatre where TERMS OF ENDEARMENT was being previewed, and listening to the sniffles and sobs of the audience that only a few minutes before had been laughing, I flashed back to PENNY SERENADE in 1941, the picture in which Irene Dunne and Gary Grant as a young married couple stood by helplessly as their little adopted daughter died. And I watched as, once again, the survivors overcame their pettiness and selfishness and showed the strength they had in them; they demonstrated their American middle-class (white) moral fiber. This is a real-life-tragedy movie that leaves you no choice but to find it irresistible. It's exactly the kind of bogus picture that will have people saying, "I saw myself in those characters." Of course they'll see themselves in TERMS OF ENDEARMENT. James L. Brooks, who directed it, guides the actors with both eyes on the audience.

He works this way in perfect sincerity. Brooks was one of the two collaborators who thought up "The Mary Tyler Moore Show," and he and three other fellows put "Taxi" together; as a writer-producer on those series (and others), he developed a sixth sense for what makes TV-watchers laugh. An enthusiastic reviewer said of the characters in TERMS OF ENDEARMENT, "You would be happy to spend several more hours in their company." That's exactly how you feel about the best half-hour series shows. They're entertaining in a random, eccentric way; you have no idea what will happen next. The acting has a comic-strip frame around it; it's stylized and comfy. The actors are out to please you and keep you coming back for more. And you want to like them. The characters they play represent our own notions of who or what we would be if (if we were snobs or buffoons, or whatever). Sometimes watching a character is like watching our alter ego going at a problem. Often the cleverest characters set themselves up for the line that demolishes them. (Of course, they're not really demolished: they continue to have lives after the commercial.)

In TERMS OF ENDEARMENT, which Brooks adapted from the 1975 Larry McMurtry novel, he keeps the audience giggling over the same kind of ramshackle comedy. Shirley MacLaine is all tics as Aurora Greenway, a snappish, compulsively neat widow tending her house and garden in the prosperous River Oaks section of Houston—a Southwestern Scarsdale. Aurora is a little dotty: in our first view of her, she's climbing into her sleeping infant's crib to make sure the baby hasn't died. Everything about her—her pert little expressions, her pinched-tight mouth and narrowed eyes, her standoffishness, and even the pair of devoted suitors who hang around for years—is quaint. This isn't meant as a putdown of Shirley MacLaine's performance; I don't know how else the role could be played. Aurora doesn't exist except as a pixie horror to string gags on. She's a cartoon: a rich skinflint with a blond dye job and pastel frills. Surely she's not meant to be believable? She's a TV-museum piece, like the characters in "Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman" or "Soap"; she's warped. And so is the pie-eyed lecher who's her next-door neighbor—a former astronaut named Garrett Breedlove, played by Jack Nicholson. (It's only in the world of TV comedy that characters have next-door neighbors.) Spanning thirty years in the lives of the cantankerous Aurora and her straightforward daughter, Emma—played from adolescence on by Debra Winger—the movie is one droll payoff after another, with Nicholson kept on the sidelines until Emma, married and with a child (and another on the way), moves to Iowa with her husband, and, after a time, Aurora and Garrett Breedlove have an affair.

It's a screwball, sitcom affair, but Brooks pulls some sleight of hand and "real feelings" come out of it. Aurora falls in love with Garrett the guzzler, but—in the psychiatric hand-me-down vernacular—he isn't ready to make a commitment. Aurora is, though, and the emotion she feels for him helps her become human; when tragic illness strikes her family, she shows her mettle. I think I hated TERMS OF ENDEARMENT the most when the grief-stricken Aurora embraces her longtime servant, Rosie (Betty R. King), who shares her misery. Greer Garson in her Mrs. Miniver drag was only a shade more noble. When Aurora and Rosie hug each other—sisters under the skin—the audience is alerted that Aurora is really a good person, and from then on she becomes useful and considerate. As the Second World War movies taught us, the function of adversity is to build character.

All this retro-forties virtue piled on the cartoon underpinnings of TV comedy shows might seem utterly nuts if it weren't for Debra Winger. The movie is a Freudian story of role reversals between mother and daughter, told in a slaphappy style. Most of the time, Aurora is a vaudeville joke—she's the mother who's always phoning her daughter at the wrong moment. She refuses to attend her daughter's wedding, but phones her bright and very early the next morning. I didn't feel much love or any other connection between MacLaine's brittle Aurora and Winger's fluid Emma. They don't have the uncanny similarities—the vocal tricks, the syntax, the fleeting expressions—of real mothers and daughters. I'm not sure what Brooks meant to show us, but what comes across is Aurora as a parody of an anti-life monster and Emma as a natural woman—a life force. The two actresses might be playing in two different movies. Debra Winger—as she did in URBAN COWBOY and AN OFFICER AND A GENTLEMAN—gives you the feeling that she's completely realized on the screen. There's a capacity for delight that is always near the surface of her characters (and she never loses track of what turns them on). The adolescent Emma (in braces) has a husky, raucous voice and a lowdown snorting laugh; this is not a standard ingénue. Winger heats up her traditional-woman role and makes it modern by her abandon. She floods the character. When Emma's two little sons give her a bad time and she fights with them, she's direct and all-out; she's totally involved in this power struggle with her kids, and they know it. While Aurora overgrooms even her back-yard garden, and the flowering bushes look cramped and forced (they're as contorted as the little statues stuck among them), Emma lives in the disorder of three children, dilapidated houses, not enough money, and a college-English-teacher husband (Jeff Daniels) who's having an affair with a graduate student. The predictions that Aurora makes when she tries to talk Emma out of marrying the handsome lunkhead—he's like a big, floppy stuffed animal—turn out to be accurate, but what Aurora doesn't foresee is that Emma will be fulfilled in the marriage and the kids. Emma thrives on the semi-controlled chaos of family life; she accepts messes—life is messes. All this is in Debra Winger's performance; she's incredibly vivid, and she has fresh details in her scenes—details like spotting a zit on her husband's shoulder while she's lying in bed next to him, talking to her mother on the phone. But Emma has been made too heartbreakingly wonderful. She's an earth mother, of course, with some sort of supernal understanding of Aurora, and when she has her third child she gives birth to her mother—her little girl is a tiny ringer for Aurora. The way that Emma is presented she's a glorified ordinary woman—a slob angel.

Brooks does some cramping and forcing of his own when he cross-cuts between Aurora's first date with the astronaut and Emma's extramarital romance with a timid bank officer (John Lithgow, as a jumbo-size shrinking violet). The two relationships may be vaguely parallel, but they take place in different time frames, and the film cuts back and forth between actions that are a few minutes apart and actions that are days or weeks apart. This is the clumsiest patch of the movie, al- though there are other sequences that don't come off—such as a trip to New York that Emma takes. And there are characters who don't come off—such as those perennial suitors, who seem to follow Aurora around just so she can be bossy with them, and Patsy, Emma's friend from her school days, who suggests the New York trip. (Patsy seems to be waiting around for her running gag to be given to her, and she never gets it.) But most of the time Brooks' TV-trained intuitions are more than adequate to what he's doing here—extending half-hour gag comedy to feature length by the use of superlative actors who can entertain us even when the material is arch and hopped-up.

The movie gains its only suspense from keeping Jack Nicholson waiting in the wings for almost half its running time. After eleven years of living next door, Garrett asks Aurora out to lunch; four more years pass before she accepts. By that time, you're so primed that his every kidding leer rocks the theatre. When he comes on to her in the Nicholson lewd, seductive manner and tells her that she brings out the devil in him, it may sound like the wittiest, most obscene thing you've ever heard. The years have given Nicholson an impressive, broader face, and his comedy has never been more alert, more polished. He isn't getting laughs because of his lines; he's getting them because of his insinuating delivery. He has one inspired nuance: when Aurora accepts his invitation to lunch, this flabby old astronaut glances up at the heavens as if to ask, "Why did you make me so sexy?" Whatever Nicholson does—lick his lips, roll back his eyes, stoop slightly, or just turn his head—he keeps the audience up. There's a charge of fun in his acting; he lets you see the bad boy inside him. When Garrett stands, stripped to his trunks, in Aurora's bedroom, it isn't just the flab hanging out that makes him funny—it's that he stands like a dirty-minded little kid who hasn't yet learned to suck in his gut, and an old sex warrior who can't be bothered.

There's nothing visually engaging in the movie except the actors. I liked the way Shirley MacLaine flung herself about in a hospital scene: Aurora has a tantrum because the nurses have failed to bring a suffering patient a scheduled painkiller, and you feel the emotions that Aurora has had to suppress suddenly exploding at the only target she can find. (This tour-de-force scene was the one time Aurora's rambunctiousness seemed to have any subtext.) I liked the desolate look on Lithgow's yearning face when Emma says goodbye to him. There are enjoyable bits all through this movie; a staggering amount of contrivance has gone into it, and when all else fails, Nicholson's sparse hair sticks out at the sides of his head, or something else is surprising and screwy. Brooks does perhaps his best directing with the two small boys (Troy Bishop and Huckleberry Fox) who play Emma's sons—Tommy, at about ten, and Teddy, at about six. The boys don't like a lot of what goes on between their parents, and they show it. On the other hand. Brooks is shameless about exploiting the children's emotions to jerk tears from the audience. The picture isn't boring; it's just fraudulent.

In this debut film. Brooks appears to be a genuinely clever fellow with an inspirational psychology. Aurora, who has tried to keep life out, finally welcomes it. And, of course, Garrett Breedlove, the potbellied satyr, has to become a responsible guy. Brooks was probably attracted to the McMurtry novel because McMurtry's people are eccentric in a way that's supposed to make them lovable and forgivable, and Brooks, who added the character of Garrett, has made him in the same mold. Garrett is like those wastrel British aristocrats in the pukka-sahib pictures: when the crisis comes, his fundamental decency rises to the surface; he straightens up and does the right thing. He and Aurora are good Americans.

TERMS OF ENDEARMENT is being compared to two high-prestige, award-winning pictures ORDINARY PEOPLE and KRAMER VS. KRAMER— and though TERMS is both tackier and livelier than they are, the comparison is apt: it, too, is pious. And the piousness is integral to the whole conception. If TERMS had stayed a comedy, it might have been innocuous, but it had to be ratified by importance, and it uses cancer like a seal of approval. Cancer gives the movie its message: ''Don't take people for granted; you never know when you're going to lose them." At the end, the picture says, "You can go home now—you've laughed, you've cried." What's infuriating about it is its calculated humanity.

[December 12, 1983]