Terms of Endearment (1983, James L. Brooks)
Less than a decade after James L. Brooks’ debut film as director hit theaters, one of his many groundbreaking television shows would air an episode in which a young girl, Lisa Simpson, developed a crush on her iconoclastic substitute teacher — a plot that’s been used innumerable times in all sorts of media, but here a stirring revelation as a result of its absolute empathy with its characters. Writer Jon Vitti deserves much of the credit, of course, but Brooks, who worked on The Simpsons full-time for its first three years, contributed so much that the writers would later declare it to include more of his work than any other episode of the series. Its climax can induce a lump in the throat within the viewer who’s seen it dozens if not hundreds of times in syndication and on DVD. What’s fascinating is that The Simpsons, which early on was one of the most seriously and effectively character-oriented shows ever made in the U.S., is remembered as having always been a zany comedy. To zoom in, Fox plugged this episode, “Lisa’s Substitute,” completely on the basis of its B-story wherein Bart, Lisa’s brother, runs for class president; Vitti would recount receiving more comments and compliments about this episode than any other, and would express amusement at the fact that not one of these untold numbers of people ever mentioned the Bart-oriented subplot.
I bring this up because I’m in a position here of defending a film that’s now endured a backlash which has lasted as long as I’ve been alive. Brooks had been just shy of household-name status for fifteen years by 1983; he created the near-revolutionary TV shows Room 222, Mary Tyler Moore and its spinoffs, and Taxi in the ’60s and ’70s and wrote the Burt Reynolds vehicle Starting Over, directed by Alan J. Pakula. As seemingly always happens when a first-time director is showered with Academy Awards, Terms has acquired baggage that must weigh it down for any prospective viewer, despite the goodwill Brooks has since attained for (at least a couple of) his subsequent films and his involvement in the hip-beloved Simpsons. But just as with “Lisa’s Substitute,” the film’s reputation as a consistent tearjerker is nearly a complete fib. Brooks envisioned and produced the film as a comedy, the cancer-related histrionics of which are limited to the final half hour and are incredibly rich and effective as a result of one’s nearly two hours of established empathy toward and bearing of witness with the characters. The director would remember his grand experiment being the attempt to make the first utterance of the dreaded C-word to be a gigantic laugh for the audience — he had to settle for the second utterance, but he succeeded all the same.
Brooks chose to adapt Larry McMurtry’s novel about the evolving relationship between a mother and daughter over three decades — I’m at a disadvantage because I have not read the book and thus can’t declare with absolute certainty how much of what I’m praising is McMurtry rather than Brooks, but I do feel comfortable stating that Brooks’ rendering of this Texas-centered story as a universal salve for the aching fear and regret of everyday life is incredibly salient just as much as a result of his use of actors — who are uniformly brilliant — and resourceful locations as of the script itself. But oh, what a script.
Debra Winger and Shirley MacLaine are the anchors from whom the story branches off, as young Emma and curmudgeonly mom Aurora respectively, but the cohesive yet episodic narrative relies equally upon the comings and goings of the men in their lives. Contrary, again, to its reputation, it is hardly a film that targets or is exclusively sympathetic to women; Emma and Aurora are both fuckups, as normal people generally are, and the excitement of Aurora’s eventual lover, astronaut Garrett Breedlove (Jack Nicholson, truly unforgettable), the sycophantic drooling of her neighbor Vernon (Danny DeVito), the crumbling suaveness of Emma’s husband Flap (Jeff Daniels), the sweetness and desperation of her secret squeeze Sam (John Lithgow) are all just as multilayered and believable. Nicholson threatens to steal the film, and there’s no escaping the imbalance caused by the bravura and outwardly hilarious nature of his relationship with Aurora, so Brooks wisely contains its running time — which may be one reason that it’s so conveniently forgotten in modern conceptions of the film, but conversely provides its expert rhythm, its breathing room.
Because of course, Emma’s story is really the film’s story — her unresolved love-hate feelings toward her mother are ostensibly the focus, but what about the maturity she accidentally finds (and we along with her) when she discovers a demonized Flap flirting with his college-aged mistress with a baby in tow — then finds herself tempted by the sad-eyed Sam shortly thereafter? The film is profoundly felt, its realism striking and unusual for its time or any time in Hollywood studio output, but there is inevitably a magical-thinking drift to the way its loose ends are tied in the hospital room. After the urgency of a life, grabbing everything to hold as long as possible, coping already with the limited outlook and limited time of everyday folk (expressed in, I hasten to mention, a far less condescending manner than Michael Cimino’s inexplicably beloved The Deer Hunter), we do indeed reach the point in which something maudlin and easy seems inevitable. But on the contrary, everything that happens afterward is remarkable, at least if you see the oft-repeated sequences of the film’s third act in context rather than out of it. You could otherwise easily miss that MacLaine’s storming of the hospital lobby and terrorizing of nurses is not a big Oscar moment but a reflection of the way that her relationship with Breedlove has changed her — it’s actually a comic moment. Brooks intended for those to continue to the very end, and he nearly succeeds, which is a broad measure of his genius and a profoundly beautiful outlook on life: against cynicism and dread and death, the laughter must continue.
He does pull back at several crucial moments, those being a testament to the depth of Winger and MacLaine’s performances and characters. In the latter case, there is the kind of devastating scene in which she slaps the oldest of her three grandchildren in the hospital parking lot after he insults his mother. There is her reaction to her daughter’s final moments. But more importantly, there is the resolution between Emma and Flap which quietly opens the door for the depiction of unconventional relationships in Hollywood; their last exchange is so real it’s a bit difficult to watch, as much as their early dirty-talking scene (the first time I recall hearing a woman in a film mention that she was wet). The same goes for her last conversation with her sons, a sort of open dare to all audience members not to break down. But that’s because it’s so beautifully written and we recognize ourselves in Emma’s own awareness of her son’s rebellion. When she insists that she understands why his adolescence orders his blank apathy toward her and begs him not to hate himself over it later, it’s almost too much to bear for this former snotty teenager. But it’s painfully, undeniably a true and honest moment, and not an exploitative one. Brooks’ mastery is to make us feel everything. We feel the excitement of Emma’s trip to New York City, even in the breezy amount of screen time it occupies, and we feel her disappointment at the changes in the behavior of those around her when they learn of her diagnosis.
Mixed in with all this is — and it’s not in my agenda to credit either Brooks or McMurtry with this exclusively — one of the most eminently quotable films ever made. They’re even great out of context: “Don’t worship me until I’ve earned it.” “Not much chance of that unless you curtsy on my face real soon.” “You are not special enough to overcome a bad marriage.” “I don’t want to talk to you right now, I’m happy.” “Imagine you having a date with someone where it wasn’t necessarily a felony.” And when the doctor says “I always tell people to hope for the best and prepare for the worst,” Aurora’s reply: “And they let you get away with that?” Is there anything in this film, though, as powerful as that moment when Mr. Bergstrom hands Lisa that note — you know the one — and speeds away on a train? There is, in fact. Jack Nicholson and Shirley MacLaine are in bed. He is talking about what it’s like to be in space. She says something in response and your face feels flushed. You feel like even Billy Wilder might have smiled and said “ahhh!” after hearing it. It’s heartfelt and right and I won’t spoil it here. Forget the uncoolness and the Oscar hate and watch the fucking movie, goddammit.