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Terms of Endearment (1983) on IMDb

Plot Overview

Nervous first time Texas mom Aurora Greenway (Shirley MacLaine) is so concerned her infant daughter has “crib death” she flops down on top of her in the crib to see if she's breathing. She's relieved when the kid wakes up wailing (“That's better.”)

Hop ahead a few years and her well off husband passes away (“He was a good man.”) Hop ahead a few more years and she and her daughter Emma (Jennifer Josey) have formed a close bond, but they fight a lot. “That's because you're never satisfied with me,” says Emma. Aurora is what we would call a "heli­copter mom," always hovering.

When Emma (Debra Winger) comes of age, she marries for love Flap Horton (Jeff Daniels) just the kind of man with limited prospects her mom is sure to disapprove of. He's an academic whose arrival at the peak of his profession, tenure, guarantees him “perpetual poverty.” He's more ambitious in the bed­room than in the class­room, resulting in a succession of three more mouths to feed. Aurora turns down a request from Emma for a necessary loan.

The classroom provides him another opportunity for his ambition, and after Emma tumbles to his dalliance (“I'm onto you”), she in retaliation has her own guilt-ridden affair with the loan manager of her bank who was willing to accommodate her in more ways than one. Mean­while, the only sexual experience her mom Aurora has over the years is its denial. At age 52 she's strong and healthy, while well-serviced Emma in her early twenties, and with her extra­cur­ric­ular activity besides, contracts an aggressive cancer. Emma suffers in acute pain while her mom lands an out-of-this-world lover man.


Retired astronaut Garrett Breedlove (Jack Nicholson) tells Aurora he's just capitalizing on his assets to attract young women. Every­one plays his assets, so why hot he? Loan officer Sam Burns (John Lithgow) used an impromptu cash “loan” to open the door to get to know Emma better. Emma used her healthy body for the affair with him whose laid-up wife was denying him. Flap's singular asset was that the only job available to him was a 1,000 mile drive from Emma's helicopter mom. Aurora's asset was her inherited capital that positioned her to acquire custody of her grand­kids. Emma's best friend Patsy Clark (Lisa Hart Carroll) had assets of New York contacts who set the example to Emma of modern working women. Every­one used his assets in this movie.

The New York women, however, were cast in an unfavorable light. Sam criticized a local girl for being “a very rude young woman … you must be from New York.” Patsy called her New York friends “jerks”: “Two had abortions, three are divorced, and one hadn't talked to her mother in three years.” Yet for all that the film doesn't make any moral judgments, aside, that is, from the inclusion of the Cole Porter song, “Any­thing Goes” (sung by Ethel Merman.)

Instead TOE—it does feature the Head of a college English Dept.—addresses the terms New Yorkers will use that are different from the ones endemic to America's heart­land. Emma was unable to pronounce the name “Lizbeth” but kept saying either “Elizabeth” or making it two words, “Liz Beth.”

If we want to see what goes down now, consider Emma's criticism of her stick-in-the-mud mom for her restrained celebration of her daughter's marriage: “It was a g.d. Mardi Gras. You're just too g.d. dumb to under­stand that kind of happiness.” This happiness is accepted even in the Bible telling a man to, (Eccl. 9:9) “Live joy­fully with the wife whom thou lovest all the days of thy life.” In the time period of this movie, as evoked by the back­ground music, this “Mardi Gras” marriage could appropriately be called a "gay marriage," and one would have to be dumb indeed not to under­stand that as a happy one.

In more recent times New York (and New England state and D.C.) instigated the marriage of homos to each other. The heartland of America didn't go along with that so much, for whom a "gay marriage" would still mean a happy one. The courts, particularly the Supreme Court, forced upon the heart­land acceptance of same-sex marriage as a legal requirement. The term "gay marriage," how­ever, could not be used by the Court, because it has too many other meanings so would be too vague for legal definitions. There­fore the dyad gay marriage would still denote happiness to the westerner/midwesterner not the homosexual union as would be used by the rude or misguided New Yorkers as portrayed in this movie.

Production Values

Terms of Endearment” (1983) was written and directed by James L. Brooks. It was adapted from the novel Terms of Endearment by Larry McMurtry. It stars Shirley MacLaine, Debra Winger, and Jack Nicholson. Also starring are Danny DeVito as moon-eyed admirer Vernon Dahlart and John Lithgow as bashful Sam Burns. The acting is generally good. Nicholson provides a masculine balance to the chick-heavy script, though he's not strictly essential to the plot. Jeff Daniels is the foil off of which the main ladies play, but he does okay with it. Winger is adequate. MacLaine excels.

The movie is rated R. It was shot in Panavision/Metrocolor. Cameraman Don Reddy (and Dick Mingalone in New York) made the film look authentic Americana. Sets, makeup, costumes and art direction all appear home grown. Only the muffled sound seems an artifice. The character­i­zations, casting, and mix of comedy and sentiment are remarkable. The screen­play and directing by James L. Brooks is choice.

Review Conclusion w/ Christian Recommendation

“Terms of Endearment” is an emotional tour de force. It showcases progressive influences in American mores without being judgmental. Every­body is made to look important despite their flaws. It's a rewarding film-going experience to see this one. It deserved the various Oscars it garnished.

Movie Ratings

Action Factor: Weak action scenes. Suitability For Children: Not Suitable for Children of Any Age. Special effects: Average special effects. Video Occasion: Fit For a Friday Evening. Suspense: Predictable. Overall product rating: Five stars out of five.