Aurora Greenway (Shirley MacLaine), is a Cinemascope-sized gargoyle of a Houston mother, who skips her daughter Emma’s wedding because she hates the bridegroom and feels her presence would be tantamount to hypocrisy.
But she doesn’t feel the slightest pang of guilt interrupting Emma (Debra Winger) by telephone at the precise times she knows the newlyweds are in bed.
Aurora is a mother trying to stay young, and Emma is a daughter trying to grow up. Mum drowns herself in mascara, platform heels and ruffles to trap a boyfriend, then flies into a rage at the thought of becoming a grandmother.
Daughter marries a good-natured mediocre schoolteacher named Flap (Jeff Daniels), with a dazzling all-American smile, moves to Iowa and then Nebraska while he moves up the campus ladder, and bears three kids.
Back at home, Mum has an affair with the seedy, horny, potbellied astronaut next door (this is Houston so there’s an astronaut on every block) while out in Des Moines, Emma commits adultery with a sad-sack banker whose wife can’t have sex because of a back problem.
Years pass and life is a series of mother/daughter combats, after which each side retreats to form new strategies.
Things turn cloudy and tragic toward the end, when one of the characters gets cancer, and the passion both mother and daughter have felt for each other throughout their lives does not desert them when the bad times come. They have learned, through patience and compassion, how to cope.
The fact that MacLaine and Winger were barely on speaking terms during filming is not discernible in the finished product.
Terms of Endearment is heartbreaking, just like life, but it never loses its sense of humour, which is life’s greatest lesson. It’s about how people give each other strength in the strangest ways, when it is least expected.
There is really no wonder the actors turned out to be that year’s Oscar nominees. Debra Winger’s smoky, open-faced honesty gives Emma a simplicity mixed with wisdom that is admirable.
Jack Nicholson gives his best performance since Five Easy Pieces (1970) – and won the Oscar – as the bloated, benignly macho space cadet who is spaced out in more ways than one.
Horny and insulting one minute, disarmingly sweet the next, he builds a three-dimensional monument to the middle-age spread that is both brave and hilarious.
It is Shirley MacLaine though (also an Oscar winner) who literally lights a match to the screen. First, with her terrible printed chiffon Neiman-Marcus dresses and her ghastly shopping mail hairdos, she’s a frivolous flirt of a neurotic female.
By the end, the roots are showing in her hair and the real age is showing in the lines of her face and she no longer gives a damn. Watching her break down and say “I love you” to Nicholson in the Lincoln airport is a gut-wrenching experience.
Terms of Endearment is, quite simply, one of the few perfect and unforgettable motion pictures of the 1980s.
Lisa Hart Carroll
Younger Tommy Horton
James L Brooks