Classics Worth Re-Catching: Terms Of Endearment (1983)

May 19, 2016
With the mother-daughter comedy drama, The Meddler, in cinemas this week, here’s an absolutely essential tale of intergenerational love and conflict.

Terms Of Endearment practically invented the genre of the comedy-drama, the movie that could make you laugh and cry in equal measures. Skillfully adapted from Larry McMurtry’s (Lonesome Dove, The Last Picture Show) novel by director James L. Brooks – who had a long and esteemed career in television – Terms is the beautifully judged, often painfully real story of a bickering mother and daughter, played to perfection by Debra Winger and Shirley MacLaine. Jack Nicholson is at his devilish best as MacLaine’s rowdy, skirt-chasing, ex-astronaut neighbour, and Jeff Daniels gives a brilliant performance as Winger’s weak, compromised husband.

As well as being a smash hit and bringing home five Oscars, the film also kicked up dust with rumours that co-stars Winger and MacLaine hated each other. “When I took my first rehearsal with these women in New York, they didn’t talk to each other, and we didn’t get to the script,” James L. Brooks says on the film’s DVD audio commentary. “The second rehearsal was the same way. I was going to give up on getting to the script, and just watch this strange dynamic developing between them. Debra messed with Shirley big time and somehow it all worked. I remember sitting with Debra and showing her a lot of Shirley’s old movies which she had not seen, and these were movies that if Debra had been around, these were all the great women’s roles. So I started with just getting her to look at these pictures so she would properly respect Shirley. They each had, in very different ways, great brains. And I’m a big fan of great brains. Debra’s crazy-smart in a way, and Shirley’s just had an amazing career.”

MacLaine revealed in an interview with People magazine that when she walked into director James L. Brooks’ apartment for their first meeting wearing her old school movie star fur coats, “there was Debra [Winger] dressed in combat boots and a miniskirt. I thought, ‘Oh my goodness.’” Thus started the legendary on-set feud between the two who, despite portraying mother and daughter, showed that there was no love lost. Rumour had it that Winger lifted her skirt and passed gas in MacLaine’s direction; there were also reports that the two slugged each other, semi-confirmed by Winger when she was promoting the film, Rachel Getting Married, in 2008. “There might have been a scuffle,” she stated to CBS News Sunday Morning. “I don’t remember. I mean, we were wild, you know?”

Wildness and animus aside, the warring Shirley MacLaine and Debra Winger still succeeded in creating one of the best on-screen mother and daughter combinations in the history of contemporary cinema.

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