The Best Picture Project — Terms of Endearment (1983)

Terms of Endearment, 1983 film.jpgDirected by James L. Brooks

Screenplay by James L. Brooks from the book by Larry McMurtry

Starring Shirley MacLaine, Debra Winger, Jeff Daniels and Jack Nicholson

In a way, James L Brooks is the most unappreciated man in movies, which is a funny thing to say about a guy that has three Oscars.  But when you think about it, every movie he’s made of consequence since his first — and for films of consequence since his first, there’s only two — has been singled out for attention by the Academy for everybody else associated with it, particularly those who are in it.  But Jim Brooks?  Not so much.

Broadcast News?  Three acting nominations, a Picture and Screenplay nom for Brooks, but zero wins all around.  And when you think of the movie, you don’t think of it as a Brooks film — you think of it as a Holly Hunter vehicle.  Or the last of the truly great William Hurt performances.

What about As Good As It Gets?  Three acting noms, and two wins.  A Picture and Screenplay nom for Brooks, but no wins.  And when you think of the movie, you don’t think of it as a bravura Brooks film, you think of it as Jack Nicholson winning his third Oscar — who managed to get his second for Terms of Endearment.

And in a way, this has got to be a massive letdown given that first thing out of the box he makes Terms of Endearment and they dump three Academy Awards on him.  Since then?  Zero.

Part of me wants to say that he’s simply a victim of his own success, that having such success so quickly has soured the entire industry one him to the point that while they’ll acknowledge he’s made a movie, and won Academy Awards in the past, there is no way in hell they’re going to give him any more of them.  I mean, what are they?  Crazy?

Of course, the other part of me, the true cynic — not that the thoughts above aren’t cynical, because they are, but these cynical thoughts are truly cynical — wants to say the reason he can’t get close to an award anymore has less to do with jealousy that it has to do with the difficulty of trapping lightning in a bottle.  Doing it once is near impossible, but doing it twice is like begging for a miracle.

Cynical or not, the thing I think is the real reason he’s not gotten over again has nothing to do with jealousy or the luck of having fallen ass backwards into a good movie.  Instead, it’s because his film, while good, could not have won all those Oscars in any other year.  That in order for James L. Brooks to win three Oscars, he had to make this movie at that time and if he didn’t, he would have left empty handed.  And that because he’s made all his other films at different times than this one, it’s not going to happen.

To my mind, there are really three types of Best Picture winners:

  1. The film that could win in any year, see e.g. The Godfather, Gone With The Wind, Schindler’s List, etc.
  2. Films that should never have won in any year, see e.g. The Greatest Show on Earth, Around the World in 80 Days, Crash, etc.
  3. Films that would only win in the year they did win, see e.g. Terms of Endearment.

Clearly, as I listed it there, Terms of Endearment seems to me the kind of movie that could only have won in the year it did win.  That in any other year it might’ve gotten nominated for the big one, but it’s chances of winning were slim to none.  Move it to 1982 or 1984, and it get’s shellacked — hell, it might not even rate a directing nomination.    But by coming out in 1983, it found the odds ever stacked in it’s favor.

Consider: in 1983, only three films placed in both the Best Picture/Best Director race:

  1. Terms of Endearment
  2. The Dresser
  3. Tender Mercies

Of these three, what do you have?  One is largely forgotten — The Dresser.  And the others are probably better-remembered not as a cinematic achievement, but for being the films that finally gave two longtime Hollywood stars their only taste of Oscar glory — Shirley MacLaine for Terms of Endearment and Robert Duvall for Tender Mercies.  In some ways, 1983 was the year the old hands finally got their due.  But really, if you think about, the entirety of the 80’s — and the beginning of the 90’s — were when all the old hands finally got their due.  Consider that in addition to those two, Henry Fonda, Paul Newman, Al Pacino, Geraldine Page, John Gielgud, Michael Caine, Sean Connery and Jack Palance all won Oscars for roles that were probably far from their best and which they might never won for if they already had an Oscar behind them.  In a sense, the decade of the 80’s should really be known as the ‘Competitive Honorary Oscars Era’, because that’s basically what it became.

But really, while I say that Terms of Endearment is the type of film that could have only won in the year it did, I should amend that to say that Terms of Endearment is the type of film that could have only won in the year it did and only because of who was in it.  After all, whenever you think about the film, you don’t think about how masterful James L. Brooks is at writing, producing and directing — certainly not at directing, given he really has no discernible ‘style’ or ‘vision’.  No, you think about how Shirley MacLaine finally found herself with the type of role that they’d have to give her an Oscar for, that after all her previous films and nominations, this was the one that would put her over the edge.  So strong is the need to give her the award, and so intertwined are MacLaine and it, that giving the film Best Picture feels like giving her a second Best Actress Oscar.

The sad thing is, and probably more telling thing, is that while the film was lauded by the Academy — the movie and her performance — it got no love elsewhere.  The BAFTA’s barely registered the movie and when they did — nominating MacLaine at the 1985 awards — she lost to Maggie Smith for a movie I’ve never even heard of.  The point to all this is that getting no attention/respect elsewhere is all the more proof of the magic it managed to conjure up in that one little slice of time it had.

But, of course, all of this is preamble to the film itself, and the two essential questions:

  1. What’s it about?
  2. Was it any good?

What’s It About?

It’s a cancer movie.  A weepy, cancer movie.  About a mother and a daughter.  And cancer.  And because it’s a weepy cancer movie about a mother and daughter, you know somebody has to die at the end.  And she does — the daughter.  After two hours or so of enduring an overbearing mother, brat kids and a cheating husband, Debra Winger dies.  She’s the healthiest looking cancer patient ever depicted on screen, but she dies.  Cue tears.


Was It Any Good?

That’s hard to say, because movies like this don’t speak to me at all.  Maybe it’s because I’m a man.  Maybe I’m hard-hearted.  Maybe it’s because I’m getting older and the older you get the less interested you are in the subject of mortality because you know your’s is creeping ever-closer.  Or maybe it’s because I just didn’t care about the characters — and I really didn’t.  When Winger dies, I was relieved, because I knew that soon the film would be over.

Still, while I didn’t like it, I can see how others might.  The delusional.  The suckers.


So What Is Good?

Wargames.jpgMy pick for Best Picture of 1983 — if I had a retroactive vote, would be Wargames.  Some might argue for Return of the Jedi, but that’s only because they’re stupid.  Sure, Jedi is a good movie, but not Best.

As I said, for me, it’s Wargames.  Admittedly, even as I pick it for Best Picture, I know it’s dated as all hell — but what 1983 movie isn’t these days?  And I know the fashion and the technology is laughable — again, it was 1983.  But if you buy into it’s out-of-datedness the story is exciting and moving and funny and given the hacking nature of it, it’s still very relevant to today’s world.  If you can overlook the silly dial-up connections and the dead technology, it does quite well.

Never Cry Wolf Poster.jpgAs a dark horse, a film that most people haven’t seen and even fewer have heard of, there is – Never Cry Wolf.  I’m not going to spend a lot of time talking about it, but if you haven’t seen it, I encourage you to seek it out.  It might not knock your socks off, but you’ll be pleasantly surprised.

For other entries in the Best Picture Project, please go here.

To be a pal and buy my books, jump over here and have a look.  I promise, buying always makes you feel good.

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