As a teenager, I believed John Locke’s Tabula Rasa theory.
To a child’s brain, believing we are born as blank slates is appealing. It makes it sound like there is an explanation for the way we are, that we can change the way we are, and that the sins of humanity are solvable.
That’s mostly untrue, though. We are who we are. We can change a few things about our behavior with great effort. But, to a large extent, we were born this way. And we are going to die this way.
One great thing about this realization is that we can stop blaming our parents for our problems. Parents have two jobs: to be present and to love us. If our parents did that, then they probably did fine. Most of the issues we have are just accidents of nature.
“Terms of Endearment” begins with infant Emma Greenway asleep in her crib. Emma’s mom Aurora declares loudly that the baby has stopped breathing. Aurora awakens the slumbering baby to see if she is alive. The baby certainly is alive and she begins crying. Aurora is relieved.
Aurora Greenway (Shirley MacLaine) is a self-absorbed drama queen. You might think that her daughter would grow up to be confused and anxiety-ridden.
But you’d be wrong. Emma Greenway (Debra Winger) was born without a neurotic bone in her body, and there is nothing her nutty mom can do to change that.
In a movie filled with talented screen legends, it’s Debra Winger who steals the show. Emma is completely realistic and relatable and yet I’ve never seen a character like her before.
Emma is enthusiastic and emotional. She’s always happy, but she isn’t blind to the problems in her life. Emma has no use for a psychiatrist, because she knows who she is and says what she wants.
The brilliance of “Terms of Endearment” is that it makes us believe in and then fall in love with Emma Greenway. [major spoiler alert] So when Emma is diagnosed with terminal cancer, it doesn’t feel like a manipulative plot device; it feels like an opportunity to explore how a happy woman handles sickness and death.
Shirley MacLaine is funny and infuriating as Emma’s mom Aurora. Writer/director James L. Brooks rightly won an Oscar for the way he juggles the two amazing leading ladies and their unrelated plots.
Aurora is closed-hearted but desperate for attention. She surrounds herself with men who worship her but she keeps them at arm’s length.
Aurora is finally challenged by her brash, womanizing next-door neighbor (Jack Nicholson).
“Terms of Endearment” is as honest and insightful as dramas get. Sometimes people choose the right person who treats them well; sometimes people choose the wrong person who treats them shabbily. Usually, it’s someone in between those extremes and it’s hard to know how much you’ve messed up.
Life is full of joy, laughter, and love – and horrific things happen to us along the way. I was impressed with how the film handles Emma’s vacation to New York City in between cancer treatments. It is her bucket-list adventure, but she isn’t able to have any fun and leaves early. Grim, but realistic.
Near her death, Emma reconciles with her imperfect, unfaithful husband (Jeff Daniels), but she chooses not to confess her own infidelity. She takes that secret to her grave. People are complicated, and the movie never simplifies them.
We certainly aren’t blank slates who our parents programmed like computers. We are mysterious creations of DNA and/or God. We should just be grateful if we are among the fortunate people who still have parents who love us.
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