Thursday, April 25, 2013
Favorite Films: "Terms of Endearment"
What everyone remembers, 30 years later, is the big "plot twist" about two-thirds of the way through 1983's Terms of Endearment. View the movie again through new eyes -- like I got to do at a recent screening hosted by the American Film Institute -- and the plot doesn't seem so twisty.
Terms of Endearment is bookended by two funerals. One of them, anyone who's seen the movie (or even heard of it, likely) knows all about, but the other one is easy to forget even though it really is at the heart of the story: the husband of Aurora Greenway (Shirley MacLaine) and the father of Emma Greenway (Debra Winger) has just died. He's virtually never mentioned again, but his death is what drives mother and daughter so close together they practically fuse into one.
You might recall these two women as being strong. They are certainly vivid characters, and they certainly have forceful personalities. But they can't function without each other. Even when Aurora does a hateful thing and refuses to attend her daughter's wedding, both of them understand that it's about showing love and respect for each other.
"I always think of us as fighting," Aurora says to her daughter, who answers, cuttingly, "That's because you're never satisfied with me." Neither can ever be satisfied with each other because they are mirrors of each other, one appearing before the other and reflecting back every shortcoming. Their dissatisfaction springs from their deep, unyielding love.
These may be two of the best, most honest female characters ever written for the big screen, which can't be a big surprise since Terms of Endearment was the directorial debut of its screenwriter James L. Brooks, who also wrote and directed TV's best female character, Mary Richards in The Mary Tyler Moore Show. In Terms of Endearment, he takes characters from a novel that was also written by a man (Larry McMurtry) and reveals two of the most complex, thoughtful women in film history.
Complex, indeed -- keep in mind that one of the film's central plot points pivots around Emma's decision to have an affair with a mild-mannered banker (John Lithgow), partly out of boredom, partly out of suspicion that her frequent-failure husband Flap (Jeff Daniels) is carrying on himself. She tells this to Aurora, who's having her own dalliance with the wacko astronaut who lives next door (Jack Nicholson). And they both talk about it. They don't judge each other, and the film doesn't dwell on these conversations, but they are both fully aware that they are flawed as humans.
Aurora is proper and frequently stern. Emma is looser and a bit rebellious, but cut very clearly from the same cloth. When these women don't approve of behavior, they make themselves known -- and it is what endears them to the men who can't help but fall for them. There are a lot of affairs and flings happening in Terms of Endearment, but the central relationships remain rock-solid. The film follows people who genuinely love each other -- Aurora and the astronaut, Emma and Flap, Aurora and Emma -- even though they very often can't stand each other.
For much of the film, we're carried along by the loosest of stories: Aurora doesn't approve of Emma's husband, she marries him anyway, mother and daughter rack up astronomical pre-cell-phone long-distance bills, and then ...
Aurora falls in love, quite unexpectedly and against her better judgment. Flap gets a job and moves the growing family. And something else happens. It happens as naturally and effortlessly as the rest of the film, and quite matter-of-factly: By the time we realize what's going on, the plot has moved far ahead of us. It simply accepts that this development is part of the lives we are watching.
And that, ultimately, is the supreme beauty of Terms of Endearment: It is an effortless movie. Everything works, the dialogue, the straightforward (but carefully crafted) style, the exquisite acting by everyone involved. There's not a single unbelievable moment. There's not a single easy laugh -- or easy tear. They're earned, legitimately and richly.
Watching Terms of Endearment, I was struck by how funny it is, not just in the early, more carefree moments, but all the way through to the end. It's a movie that understands how we use humor to shield us and to embolden us, to mask our feelings and to convey our feelings. It doesn't try to be funny, it just finds humor in even the darkest situation -- humor that springs from the recognition of these characters as mild variations on people we all know, very likely ourselves.