James L. Brooks produced, wrote, and directed Terms of Endearment based on the popular novel by Larry McMurtry. He also won the Academy Awards for Best Picture, Best Direction, and Best Adapted Screenplay. It was Brooks’ first foray as a director, and he got five actors to give five of the great performances of the last half century.
Shirley MacLaine plays Aurora Greenaway, a widow raising her daughter, Emma (Debra Winger), on her own in suburban Texas. Among Aurora’s suitors is Jack Nicholson, a retired U.S. astronaut named Garrett Breedlove. Emma marries struggling English professor Flap Horton (Jeff Daniels in his first film performance), who has a wandering eye. Rounding out the five great performances is Emma’s lover, John Lithgow, as Sam Burns.
Aurora has a tendency to be strict, stern, and selfish, but her and Emma’s love for each other is unbreakable and life-long. This must have been on the must-see list for lots of moms and daughters. Emma is perpetually the little girl around her mom, but a strong adult with everybody else. It is amazing to watch her discussions when both her mom and Flap are involved because Emma flips back and forth in her roles as daughter and wife seamlessly.
As for the male leads, Garrett is the man whose best years are behind him and he knows it. He comes off as very charming, which is a necessity for him to catch the eye of Aurora. Flap is oafish and smart but can only get assistant professorships in towns Emma would prefer not to live. Sam is there to answer Emma’s calls for a strong man in her life. Though both of them are married at the time of their romance, a few lines of dialogue here and there really make you root for Emma and Sam.
Terms of Endearment is a comedic drama. Laughing and crying come in equal measure. Brooks argues in the Filmmaker Focus that he believed when it came out that it was purely a comedy, but you would be hard-pressed to find someone who would agree with him. It is a stunningly smart film from the opening scene to the last and deserves to be a part of your collection. Highly recommended.