The Best Picture Winners: Terms of Endearment (1983)

| December 28, 2017

Oscar’s 90th birthday is just around the corner and to celebrate, every other day from now through March 4th, I will be taking a look at each and every film selected for his top award – the good, the bad and the sometimes not-so deserving.

Historically, I have not been entirely kind to Terms of Endearment.  In at least one previous essay, I declared that I was turned off by the cast of pretty unlikable characters.  I’ve seen the movie several times over the years but it wasn’t until recently that I have come to appreciate its great merits.  Maybe it was me.  Maybe it was my age.  Maybe it was my experience of being inundated with a mass of badly written half-assed family dramas over the years that finally shook something loose to make me see that there really is something special here.

What has bubbled up at last from Terms of Endearment that I hadn’t previously noticed was how much of a balancing act this story really is.  It doesn’t drown itself in deep soapy significance nor does it break its leg trying to ‘sitcom’ itself for fear that its audience won’t have to experience anything unpleasant.  This is a story that moves with the patterns of real life, of the ways in which the inevitable tragedies in our lives are inevitably and mercifully tempered by humor.

What is even more of a relief is that this is, for once, a movie about women without the male gaze and without pandering.  It doesn’t even really site the typical female movie tropes.  Instead, the script, which was adapted by James L. Brooks from the book by Larry McMurtry, allows Aurora and Emma to be individuals who have flaws and inadequacies because they are human and not because they are women.  It sees the  hot and cold 30-year relationship between stubborn widow Aurora Greenaway (Shirley MacLaine) and her capricious daughter Emma (Debra Winger) with great deal of detail and clarity.

Again, watching these two I realize that my previous objections had a lot to do with the fact that they tended to be unlikable.  Returning to the film I realize that this is an asset.  I hate movies that allow their characters to be earth-bound saints whose only failings are seen in terms of a rules and regulations of a  television sitcom.  This script is far from that drollery.  Aurora and Emma are flawed, they misbehave, they act inappropriately with each other and with others around them.  Plus – and this may be the greatest achievement of this story – it doesn’t pin all of their problems on the Y-chromosomes in their immediate surroundings.  Yes, men are both a pain and an inevitability but they too are see for their assets and the inequities.  In other words, as people.

I’m glad I came back to this movie.  I’m glad that I was able to find the greatness in this story.  As a critic, I am apparently supposed to nail down one opinion and leave it at that.  I’m not suppose to admit that I was wrong.  Is that against the code?

About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.