Saturday, May 9, 2015

Birthday Take: James L. Brooks in "Terms of Endearment" (1983)

Left to right: Jack Nicholson, Debra Winger and Shirley MacLaine
Welcome to The Birthday Take, a column dedicated to celebrating Oscar nominees and winners' birthdays by paying tribute to the work that got them noticed. This isn't meant to be an exhaustive retrospective, but more of a highlight of one nominated work that makes them noteworthy. The column will run whenever there is a birthday and will hopefully give a dense exploration of the finest performances and techniques applied to film. So please join me as we blow out the candles and dig into the delicious substance.

The Facts

Recipient: James L. Brooks
Born: May 9, 1940 (75 years old)
Nomination: Best Picture - Terms of Endearment (won)

The Take

There are a lot of things that James L. Brooks is known for. The most likely of which is his TV work as a writer and producer on such iconic series as Taxi and The Simpsons. His input helped to add a sentimentality to the average sitcom and helped to make edgier programming more accessible. While there is a stable of names that helped to shape contemporary TV, Brooks is likely one of the few that excels above the rest, if just for helping to shape the longest running animated series in history. However, the one more unprecedented thing is that he was a film director who made some of the most human and tangible films of the type. In 1983, he made his debut Terms of Endearment and managed to make a lasting impact not only with a Best Picture win, but also with romantic dramas.

While it would be easy to assess Brooks' first film to his later work, there's something that still feels offbeat about it. Where he would become more assured in tone as time went on, he made a film that focused on a mother-daughter relationship that spanned several years and covered a series of important moments of growth. The one gut punch that likely gave the film its inevitable hold on Best Picture was its third act in which cancer becomes involved and becomes more of a meditating look back on a complicated life. While the ending has long been spoiled, it remains a powerful moment that reflects the sentimentality that Brooks was best at. Even in an era where big epics and social commentary films were winning the top prize, Terms of Endearment proved to be an underdog worth rooting for.

It also helped that he had some great actors in his stable, which included longtime collaborator Jack Nicholson. The two would continue to work together on almost every single one of Brooks' directorial efforts. While it also helped that the rebellious actor was at the height of his talent, it was also interesting to note that his role had a very bland and unmemorable read on the page. He was an astronaut who we never see in space. It is simply implied. For the most part, the film takes place in a central, earthly location and chooses to focus on family drama in ways that few other films did. We have seen films like Love Story pull the punch of a third act sickness reveal. However, because of the supporting characters adding depth to Debra Winger's character, it unveils something more complicated and interesting.

This isn't to say that Terms of Endearment is the most complicated story to win an Oscar. In fact, it leans more towards a simpler one. However, it also makes for a more powerful film that has managed to be a strange outlier for the Oscars as they have progressed. However, Brooks influence can still be felt, as he influenced Judd Apatow's work by showing that there could be heart in between moments of loud or vulgar humor. Yes, Brooks would continue to improve his work with Broadcast News and As Good As It Gets, but it's more impressive to see how mature this film is as a debut. It captures humanity in a way that fellow first time director Best Picture winner Robert Redford did with Ordinary People a few years prior. He may not be the most visually stunning, but he is an actors director that remains underrated in a lot of capacities.

Which is why it is odd that his last film was the disastrous How Do You Know. There's a lot of behind the scenes turmoil that unfolded while making the film that likely botched its production. However, it was also just a lot of familiar Brooks tropes being played out in the least interesting ways imaginable. It could be that the budget or the story wasn't finely tuned. However, it reminds audiences of better days when he managed to focus more on characters that mattered instead of costs. While there's hope that Brooks will come back with something bigger and better eventually, he definitely has an impressive career thanks largely to his TV work. However, his film work is just as, if not more, impressive and interesting to dissect as a personal view of him as an artist.

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