#23 — Terms of Endearment (James L. Brooks, 1983)
There are a lot of reasons to admire the feature directorial debut of James L. Brooks–it’s one of those rare films that invites marveling over the way that everything comes together perfectly–but the purest accomplishment of Terms of Endearment is found in the writing. Film is widely acknowledged to be a director’s medium, but it’s equally commonplace to hear those who deeply understand what makes a great movie advocate for the importance of the script’s quality first and foremost. The best films of James L. Brooks stand as proof of that. Brooks is solid director when it comes to staging his visuals and often approaches wizardry when it comes to getting the most out of his actors. But, more than anything, it’s his mastery of great movie dialogue, which is near the level of a pure master like Billy Wilder. His characters speak in ways that are smart, funny, natural and revelatory. Consider Aurora Greenway’s compliment to her daughter: “You know, one of the nicest qualities about you has always been that you recognized your weaknesses.” One line, and yet it expresses so much about the character, while also offering insight on how her daughter’s psychology must have developed. The dialogue has purpose; it fulfills a multitude of storytelling needs.
With Terms of Endearment, Brooks had the benefit of starting with the foundation of the original novel by Larry McMurtry about the fractious relationship between a mother and daughter in Texas, and the film bears the author’s skill at skipping across the years, illuminating the most telling moments in shared lives. Brooks keys into that and builds scenes with the empathetic feel for the emotional potency they need to convey. Entire passages of a relationship are distilling down to single moments without ever making the material feel like it’s being pushed into melodrama, even when the plot turns in ways that are, by definition, emotionally grueling. Honesty seems to be the cornerstone principle of Brooks’s approach to the story.
The commitment to honesty is shared and emphasized by his actors. The relationship between mother and daughter is vitally important to get right. and Shirley MacLaine and Debra Winger build their characters beautifully, capturing the mixture of love and antagonism with particular skill. That was undoubtedly aided by the tricky relationship the actresses reportedly developed on the set (when MacLaine won the Oscar for the role, she praised Winger’s “turbulent brilliance”), but the depth of feeling in their scenes together bespeaks a commitment to craft that extends beyond merely channeling professional friction. The whole relationship between the women is evident in every exchange, every scrap, every hug. They give a sense of full lives lived, inside and outside of their relationship together, and the way their shaky bond informs it all. And then, of course, there’s Jack Nicholson, playing a character not present in the original novel. It may not be the actor’s very best performance, but it may be the most striking demonstration of the sort of ingenious, quickfire energy Nicholson can bring to a role. His take on retired astronaut Garrett Breedlove is a wickedly entertaining portrait of aging narcissism and the hints of personal uncertainty that underlie it.
Terms of Endearment is a sharp, moving example of the kind of movie that a humanist director like Brooks wants to make: one about people instead of concepts. Lacking the sort of enticing hook that entices increasingly distracted audiences, it’s the sort of film that already had shaky support then and has been all-but-eliminated from the moviemaking palette now. Brooks, with admirable skill, shows exactly why films like this are valuable. By considering the ways that people move through their lives–boldly and recklessly, deftly and artlessly–it gets everyone closer to a keener understanding of self and each other. That’s what a movie like Terms of Endearment can do.