On November 23, 1983, “Terms of Endearment” was released in U.S. movie theaters. The film was No. 1 at the box office for six weekends, grossing over $108 million in U.S. ticket sales. Based on the 1975 novel by Larry McMurtry, the film chronicles the 30-year relationship between a mother and her rebellious daughter. Directed, written and produced James L. Brooks, the film starred Shirley MacLaine, Debra Winger, Jack Nicholson, Danny DeVito, Jeff Daniels, and John Lithgow. The film is ultimately a celebration of the inherently complex yet rewarding relationship between mothers and daughters. Audiences and critics alike were moved by the film that went on to win five Academy Awards, including Best Actress for Shirley MacLaine, and four Golden Globes.
Set in a middle-class Texas town, “Terms of Endearment” centers around an overbearing widowed mother Aurora Greenway (MacLaine) and her daughter Emma (Winger) and their respective lovers over 30 years. Exploring the joys and pains of an extremely close mother-daughter relationship, their relatable dynamic made audiences laugh and cry. The film starts off with a young Aurora insisting that she wake up her infant daughter (Emma) to make sure that she hasn’t become the next victim of crib death. As Aurora’s husband attempts to calm down his overprotective wife, it is apparent that Aurora will never be capable of fully separating from her daughter. This opening nursery room scene sets the dynamic of the mother-daughter relationship. Emma is often frustrated by her overbearing mother, while her mother is irritated by her daughter’s free spirited approach to life.
In one iconic scene, Aurora boycotts Emma’s wedding, telling her daughter, “Remember you’re not special enough to overcome a bad marriage.” Aurora believes that Emma is marrying a subpar man, Flip (Daniels), and her intuition ultimately proves to be correct when he cheats on her. Even though Aurora misses her own daughter’s wedding, they end up making up over the phone. This seamless shift from conflict to reconciliation resonated with many women who shared a similar familial relationship. In an interview, MacLaine perfectly summed up why the movie was a hit, “Because everybody has a mother.”
As Aurora gets courted by her cad of a next-door neighbor, Garrett Breedlove (Nicholson), she starts to loosen up. The portrayal of this romantic relationship of a middle aged couple broke new ground in film, while also entertaining audiences. Coming off the recent success of her roles in “An Officer and a Gentleman” and “Urban Cowboy,” Winger was critically-acclaimed for her portrayal of Emma who navigates through a rocky marriage and an impending fatal illness.
“Terms of Endearment” is often remembered for the hilarious comedic moments and snappy one-liners as well as the devastating ending. However, what ultimately makes the film a timeless classic is its realistic portrayal of the unbreakable bond between a mother and her daughter.