Sunday 14 September 2008

Terms of Endearment (1983)

I grew up in the eighties and I watched a lot of movies. However I missed out on most of the biggest films at the time, because I was either too young or I had drifted off into the fascinating worlds of genre cinema; and I missed out of them later because I always had something better to watch. Now I'm exploring the history of film, I'm finding that eighties classics are something of a gap for me and they're one of the hardest for me to watch. Maybe the decades previous have a distance to them that the eighties doesn't: I don't have an excuse for not knowing these films. There's something more though: I have no idea what most are going to be like or often even about, and I have a fear that they're going to be exactly what I think they are and the word that springs quickest to mind is 'weighty'.

This one thankfully is not. I knew precisely nothing about it but thought it was going to be some soppy overwrought chick flick drama. There's definitely some of that here but it's much lighter than I expected on the surface, without ever skimping on the depth beneath. It certainly doesn't hit you between the eyes with weight. What's also very surprising is that while there's almost no plot to think of, there's so much depth of character that the story tells itself in dialogue and characterisation. This makes it the sort of film that would fail notably if the actors weren't up to it.

Luckily the script is top notch and the actors are up to every word of it. The strange thing is that it doesn't seem strange that it was written by James L Brooks. I know Brooks like most today: as the co-creator, writer and producer of The Simpsons, but in 1983 he was best known for another TV show: The Mary Tyler Moore Show. I'm sure he surprised a lot of people when he went home with three Oscars for this film, making him still the only man to win for Best Picture, Best Director and Best Screenplay on his debut movie. He's reliant on many others for this success though: not least Larry McMurtry who wrote the source novel. This does play like an adaptation of a novel. There's a very solid cast though and two of them went home with well deserved Oscars too.

Terms of Endearment is about a mother and daughter and how their lives and experience shape them and each other. Aurora Greenway is a dream of a part, which Shirley MacLaine brings vividly to life. She's a strong Texas woman on the outside, set in her mind and unafraid to speak her mind any damn time she pleases. She's also a well to do widow, very proper and decent with a family Renoir and a well manicured garden. However she grows a lot during this film, finding that there are many parts to who she can be. As she remarks at one point, through a relationship with a retired astronaut she's been turned from moth to flame. Her Oscar was well deserved.

Her daughter is Emma Horton, played superbly by Debra Winger. In many ways she's her mother's child: very fiery and strong willed. However in many ways she's something completely different: free spirited and quite happy to wander around looking far less than pristine. She doesn't care what anyone else thinks about anything. Neither does her mother, but she wouldn't let you believe it and that's the difference. Winger is simply alive in this role (possibly because she was fighting a cocaine addiction while filming): her eyes keep gleaming and it's difficult not to believe that she's a real person rather an actress playing a character. She even gets Jeff Daniels, who plays her husband, to step up to the plate as an actor. I'm not a big Daniels fan because he so often seems to just sit there and let the film happen around him but he has scenes I can respect here.

The other Oscar winning actor was Jack Nicholson. He plays Garrett Breedlove, the former astronaut who moves in next door to Aurora and over a long period of time gradually becomes her lover. He's completely and flamboyantly different to her and they are hardly a conventional couple but each brings out the other magnificently. Breedlove is a fast driving fast living sort with an talent for the obnoxious and initially they rub each other up the wrong way entirely. Surprisingly, as he's such an integral part of this film he isn't in the original book.

The defining moment for his character comes early on when he's dropped off from an event at home by a couple of young ladies who don't fall into his bed at a glimpse of the Nicholson grin and drive away. They tell him how much they went to his event to see a hero but Breedlove is blissfully unconcerned that they didn't find one. What they find is something that always impresses me about Nicholson: while he can turn on the charm like the best of them, and frequently does, he is completely unafraid to look bad. Here we get plenty of the Nicholson with the bald spot, the receding hairline, the pot belly, the flyaway hair. We seem him drunk, wounded and idiotic, sometimes all three at once. Not many Hollywood stars can play real asses on screen without being real asses for the whole of the film. Nicholson is the biggest exception to me.

I mentioned that the film unfolds mostly through dialogue. Part of this is because much of that dialogue is between Aurora and Emma and they talk over the phone as Emma moves with her husband from Texas to Iowa at the beginning of the film. Part of it is because it's the middleground where Aurora and Garrett interact, the dialogue being an outward expression of how different they are. This is a very quotable film, with some memorable gems. 'Don't worship me until I've earned it.' 'He can't even do the simple things like fail locally.' 'That's the first time I stopped hugging first. I like that.' 'Imagine you having a date somewhere where it wasn't necessarily a felony.' 'How are you? It's not my fault, but I'm sorry.' 'Not much danger in that unless you curtsy on my face any time soon.' I could go on.

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