I recently attended a screening on the big screen (why is it always better than my home screen?) of Terms of Endearment. You remember Terms of Endearment, where Shirley MacClaine’s character falls for bad-boy astronaut, Garrett Breedlove (played by Jack Nicholson), who wants to retain his comfortable, obligation-free life with younger girls and zero responsibility, but is inexplicably drawn to her? He falls for her, and it’s clear by the end that he has found a more fulfilling life. The last scene has him walking her grandson over to his house to see the pool and his astronaut paraphernalia. The story also centers around the relationship between MacClaine and her daughter. Shirley’s daughter is played by Debra Winger. It’s one of her finest performances to be sure, but really all the press talked about was how she and Shirley didn’t get along during filming. In fact, they are still talking about it. In every interview that touches on this classic film, either one of them is questioned it. Anyway, Winger’s character dies of cancer, and in 1983, when Terms of Endearment was released, there were very few films about cancer. But that part of the story is for another time.
Today I want to address Jack and his character’s trajectory thirty-five years later.
The entire time I was watching the film, I kept thinking, I’ve seen Nicholson play this role before. Actually, he played virtually the same role twenty years later as Harry Sanborn in Nancy Meyers’ Something’s Gotta Give. It’s a role we’ve seen a million times: a successful—hugely successful—playboy who has that “something about him,” no matter how badly he behaves toward women. Harry Sanborn, from Something's Gotta Give, and Garrett Breedlove, from Terms of Endearment, are the same guy. Sanborn is the titan of numerous companies, strutting around with women who all just stepped off the runway, and dating Marin, the daughter of Erica Barry (played by Diane Keaton). The opening scene has him fielding a call about yet another woman, and looking sideways to see if Marin notices. She does, but doesn’t care. Harry ends up sleeping with the mother, Keaton, and then walking away, and Erica—who is hugely successful herself as today’s version of playwright Wendy Wasserstein, eventually changes his bad boy ways. I’ve seen Something's Gotta Give zillions of times (I use the word zillions so I don’t embarrass myself with the actual number publicly. You would all think I don’t have a life.) Terms of Endearment's Garrett Breedlove is a washed-up, but still sort of cool astronaut, whose womanizing mirrors Harry’s. And they both have redeeming features that make us like them, though only Nicholson can make it work. Anyone else would look like a cad.
Here is the thing. Thirty-five years have passed since Terms of Endearment blessed the screen. The Nicholson character — after all that we have been through in changing the perception of self through film — is the same cad that comes back thirty-five years later as Harry. And Debra Winger’s ridiculous husband, played by Jeff Daniels, treats her as if she is stupid until when she is dying. She absolves him of all guilt and we see her strength and kindness.
But here is where great strides have been made. The women in these movies have evolved into better versions of the female characters from all those years ago. The Shirley MacClaine character, Aurora, is very strong. But not strong like Nancy Myers’ Erica Berry, because back then, there was no Erica Berry who the public would consume with glee just as they did with Aurora. Something's Gotta Give's Erica isn’t going to settle for a part-time Harry, like Shirley did with Garrett. Erica’s sister is a Columbia professor and as cool as one could be. Erica’s daughter, unlike Debra Winger’s character, Emma, is a successful person in the arts, looks fabulous, and couldn’t possibly find anything to see of herself in Debra Winger’s “let-yourself-go” character, who never has anything to say about anything much.
The female character has changed over the decades. We can strut our stuff and viewers will come to see us. They will see a mirror of themselves and a window into that which they aspire to be, and celebrate. In Terms of Endearment, Shirley MacClaine’s Aurora was this side of nuts, and no threat to anyone. But let me tell you about the best scene in the movie: Emma needs pain medication and Aurora creates a scene near the nurses’ station that puts my motherhood to shame. It was a demonstration of her mama-bear instinct. It was part of the culture then, and I hope it never leaves us.
Terms of Endearment was written and directed by James L. Brooks, and Something’s Gotta Give was written and directed by Nancy Myers, so that might account for the ridiculous female characters in Terms of Endearment, but I contend that the film is more a product of the times. (Fun Fact: Brooks was only given $6.5 million to make the film, and he worked for years to get an additional million that he thought he needed. It took him seven years in total. Patient man!)
Watch both movies back to back. See how far we’ve come. Ladies, we are all that and more, and no longer have to hide it behind personality disorders like that of Shirley’s Aurora; may she rest in peace.
-- Justine Hollister (AKA Christine Merser)