Terms of Endearment
Based on Larry McMurtry’s novel and directed by James L. Brooks, an overbearing mother tries to influence her daughter and her family and has an affair with her neighbor. The daughter has three children and learns of her husband’s affair before discovering she has cancer.
Aurora Greenway (Shirley MacLaine) checks on a baby at night and wakes her to make sure she is not dead.
Aurora returns home after the funeral of her husband. She wakes up little Emma and asks if she wants to talk. Emma lets her mother get in bed with her.
Years later Emma Horton (Debra Winger) is sitting on the front lawn while men are unloading furniture. Patsy Clark (Lisa Hart Carroll) joins her and covers Emma’s legs with her dress. The maid Rosie (Betty King) comes out of the house and leaves. Emma asks if she is going to wait for the astronaut to show up.
In the backyard Edward Johnson (Norman Bennett) tells Aurora that she should face up to the fact that she has biological needs. Emma comes there, and Aurora says he wants to take them to Tahiti. Aurora tells her to be home by eleven, and Emma leaves with Patsy.
In a bedroom Patsy puts marijuana into a cigarette and lights it for Emma who is singing along with Ethel Merman’s “Anything Goes.” Emma lies down and says they are going to be best friends. They hear knocking, and Emma says she will meet Aurora in her room.
Aurora asks Emma what is going on. Aurora asks if she would want her to be silent about something that might be for her good, and Emma says yes, laughs, and runs out; but she comes back, and they sit down. Aurora says she has been trying decide all night what to give her as a wedding gift. Emma says she needs dishes and other things. Aurora says her marrying Flap Horton will be a disaster. She says Flap is limited and has no imagination. Emma says she is marrying him to get out of there. She says Aurora does not have to show up for the wedding, and Aurora agrees because the hypocrisy was bothering her. Emma says her own mother is not coming to her wedding as she walks out of the room.
Outside an old house Flap Horton (Jeff Daniels) complains to Emma that her mother boycotted her wedding, and they kiss. The phone rings, and Flap picks it up and puts it down. Emma sneezes, and Flap says he loves the way she looks and that she is nice. They kiss, and Emma falls on the bed. Flap kisses her and covers her face with her wedding dress. She laughs and asks where he learned to do that.
Later Emma is in a robe, and they are cuddling on the bed. Emma answers the phone and tells her mother that she does not want to talk to her now because she is happy. She wants her to apologize to her husband, or she won’t talk to her. Emma gives the phone to Flap who says he does not enjoy her predicament. He does not want an apology, but he would like her to respect their marriage and not call so early in the morning. Emma says he is great and hangs up the phone.
Aurora looks out the window and sees two women saying goodbye to the astronaut Garrett Breedlove (Jack Nicholson). He dumps bottles by his garbage can, and one woman comes back to join him.
Emma tells Flap that she bought him something, and he says she bought him a tie because of her mother. She says buying it made her happy. She wishes he could understand her kind of happiness. He says he is nervous going to see her mother.
At Aurora’s house Edward asks who Vernon Dahlart (Danny DeVito) is and introduces himself to him. Vernon says he met Aurora two weeks ago at church, and he thinks she is God’s gift to him.
At dinner Vernon tells Aurora he has been thinking about her, and she gives him advice. Emma announces that she is unofficially pregnant. Aurora says she does not understand. Emma says if she is not happy for her, she is going to get mad. Aurora screams, asking why she should be happy about becoming a grandmother. She complains that Flap insults her when he drinks.
Aurora is in the front yard and sees Garrett return home drunk with two women in a car. He falls, and a woman says he is bleeding. He invites her to come in, and she says he is much older than the men she likes. She expected a hero, not a man with a big belly who would hit on her. He tells Doris not to come in and asks Lee Anne to come in. She starts the car and backs out of the driveway.
Emma sees her little son in the backyard and tells him to show her his belly. The phone rings, and Aurora says that if it is Vernon to tell him she is resting. Emma answers and tells Flap she is not happy. She asks if they can talk about it later because her mother is staring at her. She hangs up, and Aurora asks what the secret is. Emma says the only college that will make Flap a professor is in Des Moines.
Flap and Emma are moving out of the old house, and Aurora’s maid Rosie hugs Emma. Flap hugs Patsy and kisses Aurora on the check. Emma is pregnant again and hugs Aurora goodbye. Emma says that is the first time she stopped hugging first and says she likes that. Aurora tells little Tommy to take care of his mother. Emma says she will send their address. Aurora says the phone bill will be enormous, and Emma says she will miss her. Flap asks if they can go and drives the car away.
The station wagon is loaded on top and pulling a trailer. Flap and Emma talk to Tommy who says Texas is the best. They cross the Texas border.
Aurora stands in a small gazebo in her backyard and hears her neighbor shouting. She asks him to hold it down to respect her feelings. He says he can’t hear her. She walks over to the fence, and he appears and talks to her. She admits it is hard not to yell when he hits the cold water. He knows her name and asks if she wants a shot. He says they are going to have a NASA dinner at the White House, and he thought of asking her because he does not know anyone old enough. He says they cancelled the dinner but asks if she would have come. He asks her to go out to dinner, and she says no. He asks about lunch, and she says he is toying with her. She says she would go to a nice restaurant. He walks to the front yard where the fence ends. He talks about how he felt when he was being launched into space. She says there is something wrong with him and walks away.
Flap sees an old white house, and Emma likes it. She parks in the driveway and takes Tommy into the house. Flap follows.
In the house Emma is in a maternity dress and says they can sleep on the mattress. They lie down on it. He talks about making love in Iowa and how she squeaks. She repeats what he says before he comes. She kisses him but says they can’t hear Tommy and gets up. She hears a record of Judy Garland singing “For Me and My Gal” and comes back to Flap.
Flap says he has papers to grade, and she says they have not been together for a week. She does not want him to make her feel silly, and she will not make him feel guilty. He carries books and leaves the house. He comes back into the house, and she is very glad. They go upstairs. Tommy puts on his coat and goes out on the porch and sees much snow.
Emma answers the phone and tells Aurora that she has to get the boys off. Aurora asks what is wrong, and Emma asks her to loan her some money. Aurora says she hates to part with money. Emma says she may be pregnant again, and Aurora says, “Oh no!” She suggests an abortion and says she is the only person who tells her the truth. She asks what miracle is going to rescue her. Emma asks her to let her sell the Renoir, and Aurora says no. Aurora says she will give her the money. The two boys talk as Flap comes home. He comes in and says he knows his topic. He asks what is wrong, and she asks where he was all night. He says he fell asleep in the library. She asks him to tell her, and he says he is not doing anything. She says she is on to him because he is trying to look innocent. He says she has to believe him. He says that in her first few months she always gets paranoid. She says he is trying to make her crazy and has thrown out his principles. She says he can redeem himself by admitting what he did last night. The phone rings, and he answers it. He asks Aurora how she is.
While the two boys sit outside, they can hear Flap and Emma arguing about his getting tenure and her feeling poor and about the phone.
Emma finds the boys sitting on a lawn in front of a church. Tom says he did not want people to think he lived there. He says she is driving daddy away. She tells him to hurry.
At a market Emma has to pay $44, and Tommy says she does not have enough money. She starts giving things back and bribes her sons by taking candy bars. The younger boy gives her his candy bar. Sam Burns (John Lithgow) says he turned her down on her loan for a second mortgage on the house, and he offers to make up the difference. She thanks him and says she will pay him back. He tells the cashier she is rude, and she disagrees. He says she must be from New York.
In the parking lot Emma tells Tommy to wait over by the car until he does so. Sam says they are nice boys and says he had a lovely time. She says she will give him the money back, and he says she could come into the bank.
Edward toasts Aurora on her birthday and kisses her. She kisses Vernon, and her doctor asks if she is lying about her age. Rosie advises the doctor not to ask that and says he has been recently widowed. Aurora goes outside, and Vernon opens a window and asks if she is okay as the other two men watch. She goes next door and rings the bell. Garrett says the door is open and is in a robe. Aurora says a few years ago he invited her to lunch, and she wonders if the invitation is still good. He says yes, and she asks when. He says tomorrow, and she says all right and goes home.
The next day Aurora and Garrett leave her house and go in his sport scar with the top off. He asks if the wind will bother her, and she says grown women are prepared for such emergencies. On the road she asks if he could put the top up, but he says it is home in the garage. He parks the car, and they go into a restaurant. She goes into the woman’s room to fix her hair by taking off a disheveled hair piece.
Garrett helps seat her at a table. She says she is starving, and he offers her an oyster. She says no thank you. She says he is rude noticing other women when he is with her. He suggests they get drunk and says she needs a lot of drinks to loosen up her ass. She orders Wild Turkey bourbon. He leans toward her and asks if she is fun. She tells him not to think about that now. She warns him about impatient boys, and he laughs.
Sam meets Emma, and they lunch at a restaurant and hold hands. He asks if she is scared of being seen together, and she says contemplating sin does not mean anything. He says he is going to inspect a new house that is empty. She says she has to pick up her kids at five. He says he has not made love to a woman in three years because his wife has a bad back. She suggests other positions, but he says she would not do that. He says he asked many times.
They drive on a country road, and Sam asks Emma if she prefers Texas to Iowa. She says there is an absence of wildness here. He says they are farmers and don’t admit they have anything.
On a beach Garrett is sitting on the roof of his car steering it with his feet. Aurora has her foot on the gas but says she will stop. The car stops in the water, and she goes to him as he is in the water. He kisses her, and he gets his hand caught in her bra. She tells him to get it out, and they struggle to do so. She asks why he had to get drunk, and he goes back to the car.
Sam and Emma get out of the car, and he asks if she is thinking of her husband. She says she wants to do it, and he kisses her and picks her up.
Garrett stops his car in front of his driveway because a car is blocking the driveway. He shouts they are breaking the law. He asks her to curtsy on his face soon, and she complains about that way of talking. She asks why he does it, and he says she brings out the devil in him.
In a bathroom Emma talks on the phone to Sam who is in the laundry room. A boy tells Emma he has to go, and she lets him in. Sam says he knows they committed adultery, but he is so grateful. She is glad she told him and tells the boy to flush. Sam asks if everything is okay. An operator says Emma has an emergency phone call, and Sam gets off the phone. Aurora tells Emma that the astronaut is impossible because he is a spoiled child. She thinks he won’t have anything more to do with her. Emma asks if it is because she won’t go to bed with him. Aurora asks, “On the first date?”
Garrett is swimming in his pool at night. Aurora has a towel on her head and calls him. He gets out, dries off, and answers the phone. She invites him to come over to look at her Renoir. He says she is inviting him to go to bed, and she admits it is in her bedroom. He says he has to think about it and says he guesses so. She tells him the back door will be open. She combs her hair and is wearing a nightgown. She hears the doorbell and waits for him to come in the back door. He finds her in the bedroom, and she points to the small painting. He says he likes it and everything in there. He tells her to relax, and she gets huffy before kissing him passionately. She says she will be a minute and goes out. She turns off the bathroom light. A lamp is on, but he says he likes the lights on. She tells him to go home and turn them on. He takes off his shirt, and she gets under the covers. He smiles and turns off the lamp.
The two boys find Flap and Emma in bed and tell them that the baby is sick. She gets up and asks if he is coming. Emma takes care of the baby and says she will be all right, and they can go to bed.
In the bathroom Emma and the baby are in much steam, and Flap says he was offered a job as head of the English department for the same money in Nebraska. She says she does not want to move.
The boys leave for school, and Emma calls Aurora and says Flap may take them to Nebraska. Aurora says she is in bed with the astronaut. Emma is happy and tells her to call her when she can.
Garrett and Aurora are walking in a park, and he says he likes to see other girls. She says he is saving a fortune on her. He invites her to see his house.
In his kitchen Aurora says he uses his astronaut pictures to impress girls. He says people use what they have. He says he is one of 106 astronauts in the world, and she apologizes.
At night Garrett and Aurora are in bed, and he tells her about one of his space voyages. That was his moment, and she says this is her moment. She tells him not to get nervous.
Emma comes home and finds no one there.
Emma walks on the campus and sees Flap with a young woman whom he says has a crush on him. Emma shouts that he is an “ass-hole,” and she runs away. He runs after her while carrying the baby. He says her timing was perfect because she caught them before he did anything. She says she is taking the car and going to Houston. She says he should be glad he is going because there she would make hell for him.
Emma arrives in the car and gets out and hugs Rosie and Aurora who introduces her to Garrett. He says her mother has been looking forward to this. He backs up, and Aurora says she will be over later to get to bed early. Aurora squeezes her two grandsons and picks up the baby.
In the house Emma tells Aurora that she looks great. Aurora says it is like Emma that she took up with a married and unavailable Iowan. They talk while lying on Aurora’s bed. Aurora laughs in embarrassment about the astronaut. She has found sex to be fantastic late in life, and they both laugh. She says the affair will kill her, and Emma asks why. Aurora says she never thought she would come to need him.
The kids play in a park while Emma talks with Patsy who says she misses Los Angeles. Patsy says she liked dating Jews after her divorce. Patsy answers the phone and talks to Flap. She hands the phone to Emma who says she is fine. Emma says she saw them together. She starts crying and says he has become spiteful. She hangs up and says he accepted the job in Nebraska.
Emma brings the children to Flap who says he has been packing all week.
Garrett finds Aurora in her backyard gazebo and asks if her family is still around. She says they left. He says she may know what he is going to say. He says she is some kind of woman, but he is the wrong kind of man for her. She says he will miss her. He says he is feeling an obligation, and he feels he has to watch what he is doing. He says he is going to miss her and that she is lucky; but she feels humiliated. He gets up and walks away.
At night Sam and Emma are holding hands outside a restaurant. He asks her for a picture, and she gives him one with Flap and her son while she was pregnant. He kisses her, and she drives off.
On a college campus in Nebraska in an office Emma brings the baby in a stroller. She notices the young woman and goes after her. Outside she shouts not to make her run after her because she has a toddler. Janice (Kate Charleson) comes over, and Emma asks if she is the reason they came to Nebraska. She says that Flap should tell her that, but she validates Emma’s emotions. Emma tells her to tell Flap that his wife and baby went to get their flu shots.
Little Melanie gets a shot and then Emma gets one. The doctor says she has a lump in her armpit, two of them. He says they should come out and be checked.
Aurora on the phone tells Emma it is a cyst.
Emma asks Flap her name, and he says it is Janice. She tells him what she said. He wants to know what the doctor said. She is mad and calls, “Dinner!”
Emma is in a hospital bed, and a doctor tells her that she has a malignancy.
Aurora tells Rosie that she is going to take Emma to a hospital in Lincoln, Nebraska.
Aurora questions the doctor’s standard remarks. She and Patsy visit Emma in the hospital, and Patsy invites her to visit her in New York. Emma says she feels fine, and she reads letters from her sons. Aurora urges her to go to New York for a vacation.
Flap asks Emma if she feels funny about leaving the kids. She says she is entrusting them to their father.
Patsy and Emma are in a car at night in New York. In a restaurant Patsy introduces Emma to three women. Emma shows them pictures of her kids and says she never worked.
Outside Emma finds Patsy and the three women talking seriously. Patsy suggests the others take the first cab, and they go. Emma notes she told them and says she does not mind. She says two of them told her that they had abortions, and she objects to other topics of conversation. She says her tumor is not so tragic, and they can talk about the cancer.
At a party a woman comes up to Emma and says she heard she has a cancer. She is a nutritionist and would like to help.
Aurora talks to Flap on the phone, and she asks him not to sound frightened around Emma. He says he does not sound frightened and hangs up.
Emma calls and says she is coming home a few days early.
Aurora visits Emma in her hospital room as two men put up two of her valuable paintings.
Aurora plays on the floor with Melanie.
The doctor tells Emma that the drugs they tried are not helping much. He suggests that she make some decisions now. Emma cries and says she has to figure out what to do with her kids. The doctor goes out.
Aurora tells a nurse at a station that it is time for her daughter to get her pain shot. They do not act immediately, and Aurora gets very upset and shouts that they must give her daughter the shots. Finally one nurse moves on it, and Aurora calms down.
By a large pool Aurora talks to her grandsons. Garrett calls her name, and they hug each other. She says who would have expected him to be so nice. They sit on stairs, and he says it is good to see her. She cries on his shoulder.
At the airport Garrett tells Aurora that he will call her. She thanks him for coming and says it meant a lot to Emma and her. Aurora says she loves him. He clasps her butt, and she does the same to him. She comes back and asks if he has any reaction to what she said. He says he was close to a clean getaway. He gives her his stock answer that he loves her too. He kisses her and walks away.
Aurora tells Emma what happened at the airport. Emma says she does not care because she is sick. Aurora says she does not want to fight any more. Emma asks when they fought. Aurora says she thought they did, but Emma says it was because she was never satisfied with her.
In the hospital cafeteria Aurora sees Flap at another table. He picks up his tray and his books and comes over to her table. He asks if she saw her today, and she says yes. He says he has not talked to the kids yet. They know something bad has happened. Aurora says that Patsy wants to raise Melanie and maybe the boys. Aurora thinks they should be with her. He asks what she is thinking. She says he is working and having affairs, and raising children takes time and energy. She says he is weak and asks him not to change that now. He says she has no right to decide how or where his children live, and he gets up.
In her room Emma tells Flap they have to talk about it. He asks if she knows how much it will mean for him to lose her. He says it affects his identity as the man who is failing Emma. They decide not to talk about that. She lies on the bed, and he sits on the bed. She notices that he is wearing the tie she gave him and is glad. He says he found it in the last box. She is glad they are talking, and he smiles. She asks if he really wants to raise them. He does not want to give up his kids. She says it is a lot of work. He asks where she wants them. She does not want them to end up with Janice. He says she is not so bad. She does not think they should be with him. He admits he would probably screw it up, and he will miss them. He suggests they let Patsy take them because he could do research during summers in New York. She says Patsy really only wants Melanie. She says Aurora should have them, and he can see them whenever he wants. He says she could make that difficult, and Emma says she won’t. He agrees that they should be with her mother, and they embrace. She asks him to bring the boys by tomorrow.
The boys are sitting in a large chair waiting. In her room Patsy is crying and helping Emma with her make-up. She asks Patsy to send the boys in. Emma kisses Patsy who says she is her touchstone. Emma asks for the boys, and Patsy goes out. Emma looks in a mirror and puts away her purse. The boys Tommy and Teddy (Huckleberry Fox) come in, and Emma tells Tommy to keep his hair short. She says she cannot talk to them too long, or she will get upset. She says Tommy may be afraid of girls, and he denies it. She says he may later on. Teddy tells him to shut up. She tells Tommy not to act like he hates her, and he says he likes her. She knows he likes her, but lately he has been pretending that he hates her. She says he will remember things later that she did for him. He will realize that he loves her, and he may feel badly because he didn’t tell her. She tells him not to do that to himself. He says okay. Teddy has been crying and agrees with her that it went really well.
Outside the hospital Aurora walks holding Melanie and Teddy while she tells Tommy that he can talk to his father who is smart. She says there are Cub scouts in Houston. Tommy says his mother never bothered to check out the Cub scouts. Aurora slaps him, and he runs off. She catches him and tells him to listen to her. She slaps him again and tells him to stop struggling. She says she can’t have him criticizing his mother around her. They embrace.
In the hospital room Aurora is sitting by Emma while Flap is asleep in a chair. Aurora smiles and sees Emma die. A nurse comes in and checks her pulse. She wakes up Mr. Horton and tells him that she is gone. Aurora tries to control her emotions and says she is so stupid. She says she thought it would be a relief and cries. Flap embraces her, and Aurora hugs him.
After the funeral a few people are in Aurora’s backyard. Flap invites Tommy to sit with him and tells him everything will be all right. Aurora tells Patsy that Garrett even likes little Melanie. Garrett shakes hands with Vernon. Patsy sits next to Flap and puts her arm around him. Garrett tells Tommy that he heard he is a swimmer. Aurora tells Melanie to sit closer to her. Garrett invites Tommy to see his pool. Melanie is sitting in Aurora’s lap and laughs.
This emotional drama portrays a modern family that adjusts to the problems of relationships and experiences new ones. The more personal life in Texas and the Midwest is contrasted to the less emotional sophistication of New York. Good sex is found to be an important aspect of personal happiness.