Terms of Endearment
A TV veteran responsible for such hit series as The Mary Tyler Moore Show (1970-77) and Taxi (1978-83), Brooks had never directed a film before. As he explained in an interview in Film Comment, "The book was sent to me as a vehicle for a specific actress. I read the book and I had a great emotional reaction to it, but I didn't want to do it without preconditions, without saying it had to be the right person." The actress was Jennifer Jones, who earned an Oscar for her performance in The Song of Bernadette (1943), a fine performer by Brooks' own admission, but not who he envisioned for the lead role of Aurora, the sassy and controlling mother. He succeeded in convincing Paramount to pick up the project while effectively ending Jones' involvement in the picture and eventually got the green light from Michael Eisner, who wrote the following note: "Terms of Endearment. Go picture at 7 million. Deliver Xmas of '82."
Brooks quickly cast Shirley MacLaine as Aurora, because Brooks said, "She was the only one who ever saw it as a comedy." The other roles would not be assigned so easily: Sissy Spacek was originally set to play her daughter Emma, and Brooks, who also wrote the screenplay, added a pivotal character to the action - Garrett Breedlove, the ex-astronaut neighbor of Aurora, a role he created specifically for Burt Reynolds. However, Reynolds turned the role down due to a prior film commitment - bad move, it was Stroker Ace (1983). Paul Newman was also offered the role before Nicholson. Spacek was replaced by Debra Winger, a rising star with An Officer and a Gentleman (1982) and Urban Cowboy (1980) to her credit (her role in Urban Cowboy was, coincidentally, slated to be Spacek's as well).
Jack Nicholson jumped at the chance to play Breedlove, declaring in Rolling Stone interview, "...I've always wanted to play older...One of the things that motivated me with that character is that everyone was starting to make a total cliche out of middle age crisis, they were dissatisfied, they hated their job. I just went against the grain of the cliche. I just wanted to say, 'Wait a minute. I happen to be this age and I'm not in any midlife crisis. I'm not an object of scorn or pity by anybody ten years younger than me.' There's got to be other people like me, so I'd like to represent that in this movie." Nicholson would later say he based his character in part on astronaut Russell Schweikert (a former high school friend) and his own brother-in-law, a test pilot. Rounding out the cast were Jeff Daniels, John Lithgow--on a 3-day break from filming Footloose (1984), and Danny DeVito, the latter playing a hapless suitor of Aurora.
During shooting, rumors abounded that Winger and MacLaine were not getting along: MacLaine later said of her once temperamental co-star, "She marches to the beat of a different drummer than the rest of us." Brooks, in the Film Comment interview, was more diplomatic, stating, "No, they didn't go out, they didn't talk into the night, they didn't pal around together. But each of them understood better than anybody else alive what the other was going through. The bonds were so deep and singular they could take any kind of behavior and not be damaged. So everybody would say "Look how they hate each other" and you'd find them turning to each other and playing a scene brilliantly. It's like estranged family members in a way. Whenever the situation demands, the estrangement is gone and the familial qualities are there."
In a Los Angeles Times article, Winger said, "For three months I walked around with pregnancy pads. Every two weeks I added weights. I slept with the pads. My back was killing me. I never gave in." The actress's demand for realism, however, didn't mesh with MacLaine's approach. "Debra insisted that I, and her parents, call her by the character's name, Emma," recalled MacLaine. "I understood the torture she was going through, but I just don't work that way. " MacLaine's own preparations for her role were equally unconventional, though. "My real role model was Martha Mitchell," the actress told reporters. "She was in my mind all the time. I always felt she was hovering while I was working."
When MacLaine was filming the sequel to Terms in 1996, the less successful The Evening Star, the producers wanted to use a picture of Debra Winger. In an interview with E! Online MacLaine recalls, "The producer called Debra and asked if we could use it and Debra said, "Sure, just make sure Shirley doesn't use it as a dartboard."
MacLaine's relationship with Nicholson was more positive; in the same interview, she described it as: "We're like old smoothies working together. You know the old smoothies they used to show whenever you went to the Ice Follies. They would have this elderly man and woman--who at that time were 40--and they had a little bit too much weight around the waist and were moving a little slower. But they danced so elegantly and so in synch with each other that the audience just laid back and sort of sighed. That's the way it is working with Jack. We both know what the other is going to do. And we don't socialize or anything. It's an amazing chemistry--a wonderful, wonderful feeling."
Regardless of the production ups and downs, Terms of Endearment proved to be a massive box office hit, prompting many rave reviews like this one from the New York Daily News: "...A juicy, utterly captivating movie that not only features wonderfully human characters, but actually dares to deal with the joys and frustrations of maintaining a mother-and-daughter relationship at a time when the average Hollywood movie is concerned mostly with overwrought computers." Not-so-positive reviews included such gems as "Terms of Endearment is as manipulative as anything Spielberg ever did. Sentimentality drips from every scene. . . Lots of laughs, just as many tears, and a general feeling of having one's strings pulled." This oft-heard verdict of emotional manipulation invoked Brooks to respond, "Okay, so what's manipulative? This woman gets ill. That's a manipulation? No, because we don't ask anybody to feel the things you usually ask an audience to feel by virtue of that. We don't ask them to feel sorry for anybody. We don't jerk tears. And it's not sugar-coated either. I think we serve truth, and I think we serve comedy. Truth first, comedy second. If you talk to five people about this picture, they end up talking about themselves; that's how unmanipulated they are, there's room for them to put their own lives and their own history in it. I don't respect the thought process that comes up with an easy word like manipulation. There are shots to take at this picture. Not that one, though."
The Academy apparently agreed: Brooks picked up the Oscar for Best Screenplay, Best Director, and Best Picture - not bad for his first try! In his acceptance speeches he thanked, among others, Jennifer Jones, Paramount, and Debra Winger, declaring that she "worked on this picture in countless ways for about a year with about as much as a person can give to a picture." Winger was the only primary player not recognized with an award for her efforts. Nicholson picked up the Best Supporting statuette, memorializing the event with the enigmatically playful, "All you rock people down at the Roxy and up in the Rockies, rock on!" Beating out Winger for Best Actress, MacLaine accepted her Oscar with an emotional, "I'm gonna cry, because this show has been as long as my career. I have wondered for twenty-six years what this would feel like." It was rumored that on her way up to the podium, she stopped by Winger and whispered, "Half of this belongs to you," to which Winger retorted, "I'll take half." Upon finishing her speech, MacLaine turned to go, and then turned back for a parting shot: "I deserve this!"
Producer/Director: James L. Brooks
Screenplay: James L. Brooks, Larry McMurtry
Art Direction: Harold Michelson
Cinematography: Andrzej Bartkowiak
Editing: Richard Marks, Sidney Wolinsky
Music: Michael Gore
Cast: Debra Winger (Emma Greenway), Shirley MacLaine (Aurora Greenway), Jack Nicholson (Garrett Breedlove), Jeff Daniels (Flap), John Lithgow (Sam), Danny De Vito (Vernon Dahlart).
C-132m. Letterboxed. Closed captioning.
by Eleanor Quin