40 Years Later, Viewing Habits Have Changed the Tone of James L. Brooks’ ‘Terms of Endearment’

Forty years ago, writer James L. Brooks made one of the most impressive directorial debuts in film history when he brought Larry McMurtry‘s novel “Terms of Endearment” to the screen. Although he had forged a successful career in television, creating classic sitcoms like “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” and “Taxi” and writing the fine Burt Reynolds-Jill Clayburgh romance “Starting Over,” nothing on Brooks’ résumé prepared audiences for the delicate tonal balance of “Terms,” a comedy about the relationship between a mother (Shirley MacLaine) and daughter (Debra Winger) that culminates in the daughter being diagnosed with a terminal illness.

Cancer might not seem like the raw material for wall-to-wall laughs, but that’s exactly what “Terms” provides — and even when the movie goes dark in its final act, Brooks never wanted to lose sight of that initial intention. “It was essential to me in every way you can use the word and for every reason you could use the word that it be a comedy,” Brooks told IndieWire’s Filmmaker Toolkit podcast. “That was, from the first moment to the last, the challenge, [because] there’s a lot of pain that happens in the movie.”

More from IndieWire

That said, Brooks acknowledged that the film is a different experience for people watching at home than at the time of its release, when it was a box office smash that played to packed theaters. “As an audience picture, it clocked its laughs,” he said. “Now when people see it at home, it plays much more as a drama because you don’t have that collective audience. It’s a different movie, but not the movie I intended.” For Brooks, the key to finding the tone was a delicate editorial process involving extensive test screenings. “The tone always comes in post-production, where you humble yourself before that task of finding the correct tone. I think it’s everything.”

Perhaps the most important element that fell into place during post-production was composer Michael Gore’s music, which is as inextricable from the movie’s artistic and commercial success as John Williams’ “Jaws” score is from Steven Spielberg’s film. Right from the beginning, Gore’s themes provide an additional dimension and energy to “Terms,” not just underlining the action on screen but generating entirely new emotional responses in the audience. “To get that pulse and drive the movie forward was a miracle,” Brooks said. “There can’t be a more extreme example of a score being vital to a movie.”

TERMS OF ENDEARMENT, from left: Shirley MacLaine, Jack Nicholson, 1983. ph: © Paramount / courtesy Everett Collection
“Terms of Endearment”©Paramount/Courtesy Everett Collection

Another essential element to the film’s effectiveness is the casting of Jack Nicholson as Shirley MacLaine’s astronaut love interest, a piece of casting that almost didn’t happen. “I couldn’t get the money to make it, and if Burt Reynolds would do it — he was the biggest box office star in the world at that time — I’d get the money,” Brooks said. Reynolds said yes but backed out right before shooting began. “His PR agent called me and said, ‘Burt’s decided to do something else, but he wants you to know he loves you.'” Brooks’ only other choice for the role was Nicholson, who he doubted he could even get to read the script; thankfully, Nicholson was friends with Debra Winger, and she convinced him to read the material and meet with Brooks.

That meeting was crucial for Brooks, who would not only direct Nicholson to an Oscar-winning performance in “Terms” but also go on to make several more pictures with him, including “Broadcast News” and “As Good As It Gets.” In addition to Nicholson, “Terms” scored Academy Awards for Shirley MacLaine and Brooks, who took home three Oscars for writing, producing, and directing the film. It’s the kind of success directors dream of, a personal artistic triumph that’s also critically and commercially successful, and according to Brooks, there was a certain degree of luck involved. “You need some breaks,” he said, adding that his own naïveté was a benefit as well. “I think I had innocence going for me. You only get it once, and it’s a great help.”

“Terms of Endearment” is newly available in a 40th-anniversary edition 4K Blu-ray from Paramount.

Best of IndieWire

Sign up for Indiewire's Newsletter. For the latest news, follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.