‘Terms of Endearment’: The Best Mother-Daughter Movie Ever Made

As a man, I will never quite understand the mother-daughter dynamic — was not meant to — though I do have great respect for it. My wife could spend the entire day with her Mom, and then still find time to talk to her at night for a few minutes, whereas my Dad and I, who are close, are good talking for a few minutes each week. My daughters were unbelievably close to their mother, and losing her gutted them in a way I had not ever seen before. My oldest was twenty when her mom passed, my youngest twelve, and the pain they endured was etched on their faces for years after it happened. It is a relationship borne out of something deeper than love, a connection that is never severed, and despite experiencing some horrible things in their lives, they forever remained close.

Again we, as men, are not meant to understand it; we can just appreciate it on the sidelines.

Terms of Endearment (1983) might be the greatest film about the mother-daughter relationship ever made, a sometimes dramatic, sometimes funny, always deeply moving film about twenty-five years in the relationship of a mother, Aurora Greenway (Shirley MacLaine) and her daughter, Emma (Debra Winger). The first moments of the film display how suffocating Aurora can be, coming home one night to find Emma blissfully sleeping and all but climbing in the crib, waking her to make sure she is not dead. When the child cries, terrified, Aurora goes to bed happily.

They grow up with a combative relationship. Aurora refusing to come to her own daughters wedding, refusing to give a gift, yet that evening, the wedding night it is her mother she is talking with on the phone, all seemingly forgiven. They need one another, plain and simple and that need is greater than anything that might come up in their lives that could drive them apart. When Emma moves away, Aurora has a romantic liaison with a crafty retired astronaut Garrett (Jack Nicholson) living next door, and with the randy old fellow in her bed, she places a call to Emma and lets her know the sex was fan-fucking-tastic!!

Aurora’s prediction that her daughter’s marriage will fail comes to pass when Emma catches Flap (Jeff Daniels) cheating on him constantly, and then in a shocking development she is diagnosed with cancer of the lymph nodes. Her decline is fast, the disease aggressive, and Aurora moves to be with her, monitoring her at the hospital each day, much to the chagrin of the doctors and nurses caring for Emma.

Emma makes Flap aware that he should not be raising their kids, that her mother should do that, and he resigns himself to it, saying he likely deserves that. One of their last conversations together is so filled with fondness, the gentle love they have for one another, with Flap finally realizing all he had to do was love her, she wanted nothing else. Her greatest fear had nothing to do with him, it was about disappointing her mother.

Though she and her astronaut lover had broken up before Emma took sick, he comes to her, knowing he can console her, knowing she loves him and to a degree, as much as he can he loves her. Seeing him at the top of the hotel stairs, she walks to him, not quite believing what she is seeing and embraces him. They sit on the steps, and she teases him, “Who would have expected you to be a nice guy?” before the sobs over take her and she explodes in grief, falling against him for support. It is a beautiful, heartbreaking moment, perfectly acted and directed, one of love and friendship, of one knowing what the other needs more than she knows it herself.

And Emma dies as we know she will. Not a grand movie death, but a realistic leaving of the body, very much like my wife passed. Emma looks at Flap, sound asleep, and then looks for a long time at her mother, before finally slipping into eternity. We can see her eyes glaze over and disconnect, and she is gone.

Terms of Endearment (1983) was a major critical success when released in the fall of 1983, and would win Best Picture Awards from the New York Film Critics Circle, the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, and earn eleven Academy Award nominations. Shirley MacLaine won several of the same awards for Best Actress, Nicholson swept the supporting actor category for his wonderfully comic performance, and first time director James L. Brooks was awarded the DGA Award for Best Director.

On Oscar night the film won five awards, including Best Film, Director, Actress, Supporting Actor and Screenplay; Brooks taking home three awards personally for his work.

Coming from a huge television career, the producer and creator of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Taxi and Cheers, Brooks was no slouch in working with actors, and the performances within Terms of Endearment (1983) are all superb, even the small supporting roles, there is simply not a false note in the entire picture.

Shirley MacLaine brought such a ferocity to stormy Aurora, a passion for life and for those she loved, audiences found they could not take their eyes off the veteran actress when she was onscreen. She had a turbulent relationship with Winger, known to be difficult to work with, but what emerged on the screen was utter perfection.

Winger was equally good, and nominated for Best Actress as well, making Emma a mother earth type, not needing material possessions, happy with her children and being in love and most of all loved. That small smile she gives before passing could be the realization that she was above all, loved.

And Nicholson, the rascally former astronaut who Aurora witnesses making a fool of himself with much younger women is sublime. He cannot help who he is, but at his core, as an astronaut he is a man of courage and only a courageous man would wander near Aurora after breaking up with her, and during a time of crisis, yet he does and it is exactly what she needs. At the end of the film, after Emma has been buried, people assemble at Aurora’s home, and there is Garrett, escorting Emma’s little girl through the yard and making friends with her oldest son, angry and sullen at his mother’s death.

The film was an enormous box office success, something rare for a critically acclaimed film, and remains a much-loved and discussed film. Brooks has made two Best Picture nominees since, Broadcast News (1987) and As Good As It Gets (1997), but to some surprise has never again been an Oscar nominee for Best Director, despite attention from the DGA. It is almost as though a jealously took hold of the DGA and they simply refuse to honor him again.

Honor him or not, he made this film, and it is forever one of the finest to emerge from the eighties, and gives great insights into the mother-daughter relationship — it is borne of a fierce love that has no boundaries, that cannot be broken. We men want to protect our daughters forever, but women who have always been smarter know we cannot, so they connect with them and prepare as best they can for life — the hits, the misses, the highs, the lows.