TERMS OF ENDEARMENT supplied a much needed shot in the arm for 1983’s lackluster holiday box office season. The film opened to ecstatic reviews, five Oscars for Actress (Shirley MacLaine), Supporting Actor (Jack Nicholson), two for James L. Brooks’ direction and script, and Best Picture.
MacLaine and Debra Winger’s powerhouse performances as a controlling mother and her daughter dying of cancer anchor the film. But kudos are also due to the rest of the magnificent leads (including Nicholson, John Lithgow, and Jeff Daniels) and Brooks’ sensitive direction and literate, funny script, which greatly improved on Larry McMurtry’s novel. With such heavy subject matter, even with the humor, the picture surprisingly ended up in the number two slot for the year, behind the unstoppable RETURN OF THE JEDI.
Michael Gore’s Oscar-nominated score is simple, melodic, and never gets in the way of the dialogue. Sparsely scored mainly for piano with moments for flute, guitar, and strings, the music consistently contributes to the poignancy of the story.
In a film where characters and dialogue rule, the themes are few. A descending piano line accompanies Aurora’s (MacLaine) surprise and comfort at finding love “relatively late in life” with her next-door neighbor (Nicholson). But the memorable main theme represents Emma’s (Winger) resiliency. Gore uses the theme less and less as her illness takes hold but brings it back in the final scene as a reminder that life must go on, trying to fill the gaping hole that Emma’s death has left us with.
Many film score fans consider Gore’s nominated score, like his Oscar-winning FAME, slight at best and give it little to no respect. But the music perfectly captures the emotion of this memorable film and subtly enhances the drama, without overwhelming the precarious relationships of the characters.
If you’re looking for a cathartic release “in these tough economic times,” TERMS OF ENDEARMENT provides that release in laughter, tears, and memorable film music.