Worst Best Picture: Is Terms of Endearment Better or Worse Than Crash?


Alex Russell

In “Worst Best Picture” we search every single Best Picture Oscar winner of all time from 1927 to present to uncover the worst of them all. Conventional wisdom says that 2005’s winner Crash is the worst winner in history. We won’t stop until we’ve tested every last one. Read the the first, our review of Crash, here. All posts should be considered to have a blanket “spoiler alert” on them. Today’s installment is the 1983 winner Terms of Endearment. Is it better than Crash?

The Motion Picture Association of America debuted the PG-13 rating in the summer of 1984. In the decade before that, movies were all rated G, PG, R, or (very, very rarely) X. Whatever you think of the MPAA and the rating system, watching a movie prior to 1984 shows the need for PG-13. Terms of Endearment, a PG-rated movie, has two direct orgasm jokes in the first 15 minutes. It’s the first of what I can only call a lot of same. It’s a movie about personal interactions. Some interactions get blue.

Terms of Endearment won the Oscar for Best Picture in 1983. Of the four other nominees, history best remembers The Right Stuff and The Big Chill. After looking at everything that was nominated across the board, history’s list also needs to include WarGames, Flashdance, and Return of the Jedi. All-in-all it’s not a bad year for film, but it definitely feels absolutely and completely 1980s.

The tone is set early: Albert Brooks dies. The legendary comic plays (off screen) Emma’s (Debra Winger) father and Aurora’s (Shirley MacLaine) wife. His funeral scene is accompanied by the “opening theme” of absurd jaunty music. Tone is a big part of any movie and music is a big part of tone. It’s astounding how much this element doesn’t hold up. The movie was nominated for Best Original Score, but I can’t remember the last time music was this distracting — oh wait, it was Crash.

The music reinforces the “period piece” nature that every movie takes on after a few decades. The central narrative of Terms of Endearment is the story of Emma and Aurora. Aurora is the straight-laced mother who can’t let go of her daughter and Emma is the caged daughter who doesn’t really want to be free. She marries a man named Flap (Jeff Daniels, who looks young) right out of high school and carries out a marriage her mother Doesn’t Approve Of, moves to Iowa, and has three children.

There are a lot of places this plot could go from there. The average movie would force the mother to learn that she was too hard on the daughter and force the daughter to realize that running away from control only hurt her worse. Terms of Endearment, a movie from more than three decades ago, is ahead of even today as it subverts that hacky expectation.

Flap and Emma play house for a bit, but they can’t change the fact that they got married right out of high school. When people get married right out of high school it goes one way or the other: this one goes the other. This isn’t surprising, though the fact that no one ever questions that Jeff Daniels is playing a guy named Flap definitely is. Was Flap a name in 1983? We don’t have all the facts in, but we’re monitoring this story closely.

Shirley MacLaine beat out her fictional daughter Debra Winger for the Best Actress Oscar, but hot damn Debra Winger is perfect in this movie. Emma leaps into her mother’s arms after coming home for a weekend and she moves with a fluidity and liveliness that perfectly sells her character. When she’s playing a 20-something trying to act like a real adult, the movement tells it all. Emma is a kid, forever, and she’s always going to be Aurora’s kid.

The two stay on the phone through the whole movie, which is another 80s-shock device. In the time before cell phones, it is clearly supposed to be weird that Emma and Aurora are on the phone moments after sex or early in the morning. Aurora’s last words to Emma on her way to Iowa are about the phone bill. It helps sell the seriousness of the mother-daughter relationship. These little touches do more than any overwrought dialogue ever could.

The other side of mother-daughter is Aurora. She starts the film as someone who is visibly upset that people won’t let her say she’s 50 at her birthday party (she’s 52, her doctor reminds everyone). The hacky thing to do here is to transition her into a wild woman by the end of the movie. She begins an odd relationship with her ex-astronaut neighbor Garrett (Jack Nicholson at his absolute most Jack) that includes doing donuts in a convertible on the beach (reluctantly) and having sex for the first time in a decade (also reluctantly).

This is the very first non-Crash edition of this, so I’m still setting overall rules. All of these should be considered to have a spoiler warning on them. These are supposedly classics, all of them, and you should have either seen them or accepted that they may be spoiled for you when you read this.

The third act of Terms of Endearment is intense. Her doctor uncovers something troubling and suggests that Emma needs treatment immediately. She does well enough to go to New York City with her childhood friend at first, but then she rapidly goes down the proverbial tubes. Emma has cancer and Emma is dying.

This movie won Best Picture because it manages to be funny even though it’s the story of a woman whose mother never lets her go. It’s the story of a woman who dies after having an imperfect life that she never really has control over. She makes some final decisions (which has an odd feeling of “we should be so lucky in this world”) and then dies.

It’s a powerful movie before Emma ever gets cancer. It deals with individual loss of love. It deals with loneliness around others. It deals with the ways we all choose to just get the hell by when we end up somewhere (or someone) we just can’t get away from.

The cancer third act feels like another movie; it’s another episode of a show that you already like with people you already know. Acts one and two are funny and real in equal doses, but act three is a full-on reality haymaker that never gets maudlin. They deal with Emma’s dying and death with grace. It feels like a real person is dying, and the greatest trick of Terms of Endearment is that it stops being just a really great story at just the right moment.

The Best Part: While the obvious nod should go to Emma’s goodbyes to her friends and family in the hospital, I want to give this to a scene where she visits her mother during the depths of her despair about her marriage. She leaps into waiting arms and then discusses her extramarital activities with her mother in bed over coffee. The movie establishes the relationship between the characters so well that this scene feels sweet rather than weird, and that’s an accomplishment.

The Worst Part: The “theme” plays over and over in this movie and it is never appropriate. As Emma is just about to be hospitalized forever, some Super Nintendo-type funky jazz plays. It’s distracting at best.

Is It Better or Worse than CrashMuch, much, much better. This movie may as well have been the reason I started doing this. There’s no better thing to say about Terms of Endearment than that the distance between it and Crash is not measurable by the tools we have in today’s world. It is a theoretical distance, measurable only in the abstract.

Worst Best Picture Archives: Crash

 Image credit: IMDB



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