In its sentimental tone and traditional view of women, “Terms of Endearment” resembles many old-fashioned, well-made movies of Hollywood’s yesteryear. However, most audiences enjoyed the honest, loving relationship between a possessive mother (Shirley MacLaine) and her daughter, Emma (Debra Winger).
Especially amusing are romantic and sexual interludes between MacLaine’s middleaged widow and her boozy exastronaut neighbor (Jack Nicholson, who won Supporting Actor Oscar). The film’s candid view of middle-age sexuality, expressed in the way that Nicholson courted MacLaine, was both refreshing and encouraging. Released at a time when most mainstream Hollywood movies were either action-adventure or teenage fare may explain the acclaim accorded by the Academy and the film’s huge commercial appeal.
Aurora Greenway (MacLaine) lives with her daughter Emma (Winger). In Emma’s childhood, Aurora proves to be an overbearing mother, climbing into Emma’s crib to make sure she is breathing; she is only reassured when Emma begins to cry.
After the death of Aurora’s husband Rudyard (Broks), Aurora and Emma develop an intimate love-hate mother-daughter relationship. The story follows both women through the years as each seeks happiness and love.
Emma gets married upon graduation from high school in Houston to Flap Horton (Jeff Daniels)–the disapproving Aurora refuses to attend the wedding. Emma’s best friend Patsy Clark (Lisa Hart Caroll) attends college and becomes successful and rich in NYC.
Flap becomes a college professor in Des Moines, Iowa, which separates the family from Emma’s mom. While pregnant with third child, Emma asks for money, but Aurora suggests an abortion. Emma’s marriage to Flap becomes strained due to his cheating, encouraging her to embark on an illicit affair with an older married banker, Sam Burns (John Lithgow).
Celibate Aurora is attracted to her next-door neighbor of 15 years, the womanizing, alcoholic retired astronaut Garrett Breedlove (Jack Nicholson). Aurora and Garrett eventually go on a date, make love, and develop a relationship.
Emma returns to her mother’s home in Houston after discovering her husband is having an affair with his student, Janice (Kate Charleson). Emma’s presence with three children makes Garrett, single for a long time, uncomfortable. After Flap calls, Emma returns home to Iowa, trying to reconcile. For his part, unwilling to commit, Garrett breaks up with Aurora.
Emma ends her relationship with Sam when Flap accepts a teaching position in Kearney, Nebraska, but upon relocation, she discovers that Janice is attending the same college where Flap now works. Emma confronts Janice before taking daughter Melanie to the doctor for flu shots. Emma’s doctor notices lumps under Emma’s armpit, and after a biopsy, diagnosed her with cancer.
Patsy invites Emma to New York City for her first vacation without children. However, after arriving, Emma feels out-of-place and returns home. The treatment and drugs are not effective. Flap and Aurora remain by Emma’s bedside in the hospital. Although devastated and exhausted, Aurora is still very supportive and loving towards Emma. Garrett arrives in Lincoln, Nebraska and surprisingly declares his love for Aurora.
In the hospital cafeteria, Aurora asks Flap to let her raise her grandchildren. Patsy, who has no children of her own, wants to adopt Melanie, but Flap and Emma do not want to separate their kids. Flap, feeling a failure as father and husband, lets them live with Aurora.
Emma’s eldest son Tommy (Troy Bishop) is resentful toward his mother due to class inferiority and feelings of being unloved. Emma reassures her two sons, and, after an altercation with Aurora, who slaps him for criticizing his mother, Tommy weeps in his grandmother’s arms.
After the funeral, Emma’s friends gather for a memorial service. Garrett shows affection toward Emma’s children, helping Tommy cope during the wake. The film end with Aurora and Melanie together.
Emma Horton (Debra Winger)
Aurora Greenway (Shirley MacLaine)
Garrett Breedlove (Jack Nicholson)
Vernon Dahlart (Danny DeVito)
Flap Horton (Jeff Daniels)
Sam Burns (John Lithgow)
Rosie (Betty King)
Patsy Clark (Lisa Hart Carroll)
Toddy (Huckleberry Fox)
Melanie (Megan Morris)
Running time: 130 Minutes