Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Nothing But the Best: "Terms of Endearment" (1983)

Scene from Terms of Endearment
Welcome to the series Nothing But the Best in which I chronicle all of the Academy Award Best Picture winners as they celebrate their anniversaries. Instead of going in chronological order, this series will be presented on each film's anniversary and will feature personal opinions as well as facts regarding its legacy and behind the scenes information. The goal is to create an in depth essay for each film while looking not only how the medium progressed, but how the film is integral to pop culture. In some cases, it will be easy. Others not so much. Without further ado, let's start the show.

Background Information

Terms of Endearment
Release Date: December 9, 1983
Director: James L. Brooks
Written By: Larry McMurtry (Book), James L. Brooks (Screenplay)
Starring: Shirley MacLaine, Debra Winger, Jack Nicholson
Genre: Comedy, Drama
Running Time: 132 minutes

Oscar Wins: 5
-Best Picture
-Best Director
-Best Actress (Shirley MacLaine)
-Best Supporting Actor (Jack Nicholson)
-Best Adapted Screenplay

Oscar Nominations: 6
-Best Actress (Debra Winger)
-Best Supporting Actor (John Lithgow)
-Best Art Direction - Set Direction
-Best Sound
-Best Editing
-Best Original Score

Other Best Picture Nominees

-The Big Chill
-The Dresser
-The Right Stuff
-Tender Mercies

And the winner is...

There are few genres that are as specifically maligned as that of the romantic comedy. Of course, that is judging by a more contemporary standard, by which the genre has a series of tropes and gimmicks used for the sake of story telling. However, in 1983, director James L. Brooks made Terms of Endearment and not only changed the romantic comedy, he improved upon it by mixing sincerity with humane humor. While the film still feels like an oddball Best Picture winner, known more for its third act's dour cancer plot than the remaining film, it definitely is a winner that ushered in one of the finest directors to not only understand comedy, but where the jokes came from within characters. Even if Brooks went on to do better, there's no denying the impact that this film made upon its release.

Actress Jennifer Jones and husband Norton Simon initially owned the rights to the story by Larry McMurtry. She intended to use it as a comeback film with Sissy Spacek playing her daughter. On the other hand, James L. Brooks believed that the characters shouldn't be tailored for specific performers. He would eventually buy the rights from them after persuading Paramount to do so. In the process of casting a mother-daughter pairing, real life relative Vivien Leigh and Jamie Lee Curtis were considered. The roles eventually went to Shirley MacLaine and Debra Winger. Jack Nicholson stepped in after Burt Reynolds backed out. Likewise, Jonathan Lithgow was only added to the cast when more names dropped out. By some catharsis, they all received Oscar nominations.

While not necessarily a problem, there were a few complaints regarding actors on set. Shirley MacLaine complained that Jack Nicholson was a wild actor who acted wildly. In the end, she decided that it influenced her performance for the better, claiming that it brought out something deeper for her character. Nicholson, while never seen in space, talked to astronauts in order to better get a grasp of his character - of whom was actually not in the book and written into the film. Meanwhile, Debra Winger was known to behave erratically while on set. This was largely due to her recovery from a cocaine addiction. At one point, this resulted in a shoving match between Winger and MacLaine. Winger would also claim later that she didn't like working with MacLaine and that James L. Brooks liked tension on set.

The film ended up being a surprise hit at the box office. It opened $3.4 million on opening weekend, placing second overall. Its following week saw it earn $3.1 million and receive the top spot, where it remained for four weekends. It was in second by its 10th and would place in the top spot for the sixth time. The final total equaled around $108 million. This strange, fluctuating trend likely benefited from the film opening in limited release before expanding while also receiving a boost from the Oscar nominations. Thankfully, the critics were also ecstatic about the film, praising its heart and humor for being so well defined. Even notorious curmudgeon Bette Davis would later praise it in an interview with Barbara Walters. Considering that Brooks had crafted his skills as a producer on TV shows, it makes sense that he was so assured when going into his debut film. However, the success rate of TV producers-turned-movie directors is very low.

The Oscars had the familiar acclaim. The film received 11 Oscar nominations, including two Best Actress nominations between Winger and MacLaine. During his acceptance speech for Best Adapted Screenplay, Brooks thanked Jennifer Jones for giving him the screenplay. Likewise, when MacLaine won for Best Actress, she turned to Winger and claimed that half of the statue was for her. To that point, Brooks was the fourth person to win Best Picture for their debut film (there have been six total). The film also won Nicholson his second Oscar, following his Best Actor statue for One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. As of 2015, he has won three (the other being Best Actor for Brooks' As Good As It Gets).

The film's legacy has been felt rather significantly, even if the film's iconography isn't the strongest. For starters, it helped to launch Brooks' film career. He would continue to churn out beloved films such as Broadcast News and As Good As It Gets where he continued to mix humanity and heart in ways that were edgy yet wholesome - most of which featured Nicholson in some capacity. He is believed to be one of the best of this type of humor. Among those he influenced was Judd Apatow, who has claimed that Terms of Endearment was a film that he took to heart. While his work tends to be dirtier, he shares the sentimentality with Brooks and has often been considered an heir to his style.

Among the unintentional legacies of Terms of Endearment is that of the wrap-up party. In completion of his first film, Brooks received the gift of a book featuring comics called "Life is Hell." This series was created by artist Matt Groening, of whom Brooks took an affection to. Together, he managed to get Groening a part doing animated shorts on The Tracey Ullman Show. Following the animated shorts' success, they received their own spin-off TV series known as The Simpsons; of which Brooks would co-produce with Groening and Sam Simon. To date, it is one of the most successful and influential animated series in history. While it shares the Brooks sentimentality, there's very little other than coincidence that ties its legacy to Terms of Endearment.

Whether or not Terms of Endearment holds the impact that it has at its release feels irrelevant. It's a film that not only shifted the romantic comedy into something more humane, it showed the possibility of making something that felt human and real. The chemistry was authentic and the story was purely sentimental. It's a film that pushed for more grounded realism in drama and relied more on its characters and their dreams than anything that can be seen as extraordinary. It's a simple story, and one that's as sweet and complicated as life itself. Even if audiences likely won't respond to it the way that they would, say, The Godfather, it doesn't dampen its value any less. It's still a unique and enjoyable film worthy of its stature.

No comments:

Post a Comment